Abe’s Middle Eastern ambition

Author: Kai Schulze, HUJI

After his victory in the December 2014 elections, Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has pledged to turn Japan into ‘one of the greatest powers in the world’ by implementing the new foreign policy approach of ‘proactive pacifism’. Abe is seeking to foster Japanese international engagement, which will increasingly reach beyond the regional boundaries of the Asia-Pacific. While the significance of the Middle East has long been underestimated by both Japan’s media and academia and the current media attention focuses narrowly on the fallout of the hostage crisis in Syria, the Middle East is one of the main target regions of Abe’s new foreign policy agenda.

Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe gestures as he speaks at a press conference in Jerusalem during a recent tour of the Middle East, 20 January 2015. (Photo: AAP).

Japan is the world’s second largest importer of fossil fuels and receives as much as 83 per cent of its crude oil from the Middle East. But the region is not only of economic value for Japan. Initiated in the 1990s and facilitated during the Koizumi era (2001–06), Tokyo’s role in the Middle East is also a way to strengthen its global profile. Outside the Asia-Pacific, almost 70 per cent of Japan’s ‘activities in the international community’ take place in the Middle East. Japan has also tried to join prestigious multilateral forums in the region, including the Quartet on the Middle East and the international negotiations on the Iranian nuclear crisis.

But many of these initiatives have ended in failure. Japan’s military engagement in Iraq (2004–09) was unpopular domestically and Tokyo’s attempts to join the negotiations on the Israeli–Palestinian conflict and on the Iranian nuclear issue were rejected. Frustratingly, it was Japan’s closest ally the United States that opposed Japan’s political involvement in these forums. This severely hindered attempts to increase Japan’s reputation as a great power.

Now, Abe is seeking to make up for the humiliation Japan has suffered in gaining global influence. This is one part of his overall political goal to escape from the so-called ‘post-war regime’. In Abe’s mind, Japan’s foreign policy is constrained by ‘victor’s justice’ and a ‘masochistic’ view of its own history. Given the recent changes to Japan’s security institutions — including the creation of a national security council, the loosening of Japan’s ban on arms exports, and the constitutional reinterpretation which aims to allow Japan to exercise limited collective self-defence — Abe has laid a strong basis for success.

Abe has learned from the missteps of his predecessors. While still contributing to joint international operations in the Middle East, such as the anti-piracy mission in the Gulf of Aden off the coast of Somalia, Japan is simultaneously attempting to build new trust among other powers. The US is front and centre. Abe directly offered his assistance to the Obama administration to resolve the various international crises in the Middle East.

Yet now Japan’s prime minister does not want to rely on US approval for Tokyo’s engagement in the Middle East. Abe prefers to take direct action and is increasingly strengthening Japan’s political profile in the region. During his recent tour to the Middle East, just days before the hostage crises began, Abe promoted Japan’s efforts to contribute to the international struggle against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) by offering US$200 million. Earlier, in November 2014, Abe and King Abdullah II of Jordan agreed on a stronger Japanese engagement in the region and stronger cooperation between Tokyo and Amman.

Japan is also breaking new ground in its Middle East policy by improving ties with Israel. This relationship has for decades been negatively affected by Japan’s open support of the Palestinian Authority. But with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit to Japan in May 2014, Japan–Israel relations have clearly become warmer. Abe then returned the visit during his tour to the Middle East, making him the first Japanese Prime Minister to visit Israel in almost 10 years. Despite their symbolic value, these high-level exchanges also offer concrete mutually beneficial political outcomes. On 4 January 2015, the Israeli government presented plans to further strengthen economic ties and cooperation between Israel and Japan.

But closer ties between Tokyo and Tel Aviv do not mean the end of Japan’s support of the Palestinian Authority. On the contrary, the Abe administration is coordinating new programs to increase economic support for the Palestinian Authority, especially by organising the Conference on Cooperation among East Asian Countries for Palestinian Development. With these conferences, Tokyo is not only demonstrating its ability to act on its own initiative in the Middle East but also raising its profile as a political leader of the Asia-Pacific’s cross-regional relations.

The political stability provided by Abe’s re-election will further foster Tokyo’s attempts to craft its own ‘proactive’ diplomatic roadmap beyond the Asia-Pacific. This is likely to increase Japan’s profile as an important player in world politics. But an increased profile comes with increased risks to Japan’s security, as the recent hostage crisis shows. The US$200 million Abe pledged as assistance for the fight against ISIS, is the exact amount demanded as ransom for both hostages.

Dr. Kai Schulze is Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Louis Frieberg Center for East Asian Studies, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

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