Media  Foreign Affairs and National Security  2023.08.10

Kishida's Middle East visit creates an opportunity for Japan

Japan may be shifting from traditional energy-securing diplomacy to a more strategic foreign policy in the region

the Japan Times on Jul 20, 2023

Middle East

In many ways, the first visit in three years by a Japanese prime minister to the Gulf Arab states was groundbreaking.

Curiously, however, only one major daily in Japan carried an editorial on Prime Minister Fumio Kishida's recent visit to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar. This came as a bit of a surprise to me, a former Middle East hand who worked at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Are the journalists ignorant? Do they still believe that Japan's policies toward the Gulf remain the same — that they only wish to secure energy?

Perhaps the answer is the latter. The editorial in a liberal daily titled, "Japan and the Middle East: Seizing Change for Autonomous Diplomacy" was just as old-fashioned as ever. At the outset, the editorial was correct in describing Kishida’s trip as "a visit that will test the conceptual ability of Japan’s diplomacy to face up to the tectonic changes under way in the Middle East." Well, whether this is a true "tectonic shift" or merely a "tactical policy change," as is often the case in the Middle East, may be a matter of debate.

Anyway, the editorial's conclusion was disappointing and said, "Since the oil crises of the 1970s, Japan has maintained good relations with all countries in the Middle East. Now is the time for Japan to make full use of this asset, as the pillar of the U.S. is shaking. Japan must pursue its autonomous diplomacy.” This is precisely the illusion that the Japanese public and private sector, as well as the press, have consistently held since the oil crisis of 1973.

Good relations with all countries in the Middle East means that relations have never been deep with any country. Even though American troops withdrew from Afghanistan in the summer of 2021, the pillar of the U.S. in the Gulf has not wavered. What the editorial means by "autonomous diplomacy" is also unclear, but if it refers to an independent diplomacy that differs from that of the West, then it is a castle in the sky without a strategy or vision. I couldn't help but laugh at how poorly written the editorial was.

This tendency can also be seen in conservative newspapers. In an article titled, "Prime Minister Kishida to Visit Middle East to Put Wedge Between China and Saudi Arabia," one daily wrote: "In March of this year, Saudi Arabia and Iran agreed to normalize diplomatic relations through China's mediation. China has also resumed negotiations on a free trade agreement (FTA) with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), a group of six Gulf states that includes Saudi Arabia, ahead of Japan. ..." In short, the problem in the Middle East, it says, is China.

The article continued: “In contrast, there has been no visit by a Japanese prime minister to Saudi Arabia since former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's visit in January 2020. ... The prime minister is hoping to strengthen ties with Saudi Arabia, which he sees as a strategic partner, through cooperation in the energy sector and other measures to drive a wedge between Saudi Arabia and China. ...” I wonder why such a tone?

Here is my take. In a nutshell, the political landscape of the Gulf region has been in flux since Abe's visit to Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Oman in 2020. The trigger was the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan at the end of August 2021. Around that time, Israel, Turkey, Iran and the Arab nations in the Middle East instinctively realized that the U.S.' priority would begin to shift toward the Indo-Pacific region.

They began taking steps to secure more advantageous positions, including making minor adjustments to their respective foreign policies and taking out new insurance policies in order to maximize their national interests on the premise that U.S. politico-military involvement will begin to decline. Examples of this are the normalization of ties between Israel, the United Arab Emirates and other Arab countries — the Abraham Accords — and the Saudi crown prince's ambitious domestic economic policy and his country's normalizing of relations with Iran, Syria and Turkey.

Two caveats are needed to better explain these observations. First, the U.S. withdrawal from the Middle East is a misconception. In fact, the U.S. forces in the Gulf are not being withdrawn but rather are being reinforced. Second, China's so-called increasing influence in the Middle East, especially in Saudi Arabia, is merely the result of measures taken by Middle Eastern countries when relations with the U.S. are strained. Like the Soviet Union during the Cold War, the Saudis and Iranians are simply using China as a diplomatic tool to counterbalance Washington.

This situation, then, is a perfect opportunity for Japan. The more fluid the international relations in the Gulf region become, the more opportunities Japan will have to play a greater political role. Looking at Kishida's visit from this perspective, it is clear that Japan has begun to carefully and deliberately make appropriate political moves.

An example of this is the agreement made between Japan and Saudi Arabia to establish a strategic dialogue at the foreign ministerial level. The creation of the strategic dialogue between the two nations’ foreign ministers will make it possible to discuss a wider range of issues, including security and economic, over the medium to long term than was previously possible.

After the summit meeting in Saudi Arabia, Kishida expressed his desire to "move away from the relationship between oil-producing and oil-consuming countries and to evolve it into a new global partnership in the era of decarbonization.” This expression symbolizes that Japan's policy vis-a-vis the Middle East is shifting from the traditional energy-securing economic diplomacy to a more strategic foreign policy with a view to playing more political roles in the region in the future.

It may take time for Japan to expand its role in the Gulf region, but now is the time to start such a new approach.