27.01.2020 Author: Vladimir Terehov

Shinzō Abe’s scheduled tour of Greater Middle East


From 11 to 15 January of this year, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe was on a scheduled tour of a number of Greater Middle Eastern (GME) nations, a region of growing importance in Japan’s foreign policy course. This is evidenced by, for instance, the increasing frequency of visits by high-level government officials from Japan to the GME and vice versa.

In fact, the reasons for Japan’s growing interest in the aforementioned region have been discussed in the New Eastern Outlook on more than one occasion. And it is quite understandable why the interest is mutual. After all, Japan is one of the key buyers of the main products (i.e. fossil fuels) exported by most Greater Middle Eastern nations, and it is an investor in their extraction and processing projects. In addition, politics is starting to play quite an important role in this equation.

Essentially, Japan is in the process of returning (after the 1945 calamity) to the global chess game as one of its key players. It is also important to highlight yet again that, at present, Japan still remains an economic giant as it leaves behind its role of “political dwarf”, which (in accordance with the so-called Yoshida Doctrine (named after Shigeru Yoshida, Japan’s Prime Minister on the cusp of 1940s and 1950s)) allowed the nation to feel snug and secure under the wing of its “Big Brother” during 5 to 6 post-war decades.

A noteworthy article, published by The Mainichi Shimbun on the “power of words” as a “key to future diplomacy independent of US”, says that “Japan’s position in international politics has improved by leaps and bounds” during the 30-year Heisei era (from 1987 to 2019). And the way it continues to evolve will be one of government’s crucial tasks in the course of the Reiwa era, which began in May 2019.

According to the author of the aforementioned article, the fact that Tokyo chose to more or less openly condone the assassination of General Qasem Soleimani was indicative of Japan’s increasingly independent stance on foreign policy. In addition, it is worthy of note that a unit comprising two Japanese patrol aircraft and a Navy destroyer, to be sent to the GME, will operate in the Arabian Sea autonomously, i.e. independently from the U.S.-led coalition.

We could also add that the aforementioned means of Japanese involvement in the region was, in all likelihood, one of the topics discussed during negotiations between Shinzō Abe and President of Iran Hassan Rouhani at the end of December, during the first (in 40 years) official visit of a high-level Iranian government official to Tokyo. Earlier on, Japanese media outlets reported that any increase in scope and reach of operations (including those in the Strait of Hormuz) of the naval unit would only be possible if Iran’s leadership agreed to such a move.

All of these developments are not indicative (at least, not in an obvious manner) of the end to the alliance between the USA and Japan in the nearest future. However, such an outcome is a possibility and, most likely, at Washington’s initiative. After all, the alliances the United States formed during the Cold War are becoming a burden to this nation, contradicting the America First ideology.

For Japan, the United States will remain a useful ally (for some time). Therefore, it will have to take U.S. interests into consideration, for instance, in its dealings with the leaders of GME nations. During talks with them, Shinzō Abe plays the role of a mediator between Washington and the “problem” countries of the region. Incidentally, the meeting between Hassan Rouhani and the Japanese Prime Minister was approved by the United States beforehand. And the agenda for the talks was probably agreed with Washington too.

In this regard, the concluding statement in an article on Shinzō Abe’s tour of the GME (published by Chinese newspaper Global Times) is quite noteworthy “Japan has walked a fine line in balancing its alliance with Washington and its relations and interests with Iran”.

Still, it seems obvious that issues important, first and foremost, for Japan are becoming increasingly prominent during Shinzō Abe’s official talks with leaders of other nations (including those which are “problematic” for Washington).

The willingness of GME nations to develop political ties with Tokyo stems from, among other things, the need to increase their room for maneuver within the tense environment being created by the leading world players. Since GME countries (just as most of the world’s nations) are the ones being pulled in opposite directions, they feel more comfortable when the number of competing players doing so increases.

Finally, we would like to note that Shinzō Abe’s long-planned tour of several GME nations was almost cancelled because of a sudden rise in tensions in the region as a result of well-known actions by Japan’s key ally at the beginning of January.

The heightened confrontation between Iran and the United States and possible means of reducing the sudden rise in tensions were important topics of discussion during the negotiations between Shinzō Abe and the leaders of the countries he visited, i.e. the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA), the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Oman. After all, this problem affects Tokyo’s key interests in the region since, as mentioned before, Japan imports most of the energy resources it requires from the GME. Total supplies from the KSA and UAE alone account for 65% of the aforementioned imports.

During his conversation with Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia Mohammad Bin Salman Al Saud, Shinzō Abe expressed his concern about “the grave impact that a [author’s note: potential] military conflict in the region would have on the rest of the world”. The Japanese Prime Minister also urged “all parties involved to exercise restraint” amid heightened tensions. In turn, his counterpart expressed his full support for Tokyo’s decision to send a destroyer and patrol planes to the Arabian Sea.

The main topic of negotiations in the UAE was the increase of “Abu Dhabi’s leased crude oil storage capacity” in Japan (from 1 million kiloliters to 1.3 kl), which will “expand the Middle East supplier’s access to the East Asian market”.

At present, “Japan’s total petroleum reserves” will suffice for approximately 230 days of normal domestic consumption (in the event that the nation cannot receive any more fuel from abroad). “Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi’s crude stocks” account for 1% of these overall oil reserves. In exchange for the increased storage capacity, the UAE is to ensure that supplying crude oil to Japan will be a priority in the event of any unforeseen circumstances.

The visit to Oman, the last destination of Shinzō Abe’s tour of the GME, appeared (from the outside) to be a pure courtesy call and a show of respect for Oman’s new Sultan Haitham bin Tariq Al Said, who became the successor to the throne after the death of his cousin Qaboos bin Said. Still, guests at the ceremony included many leaders and representatives of other nations who Shinzō Abe may have been keen on communicating with given the opportunity.

By and large, Japanese Prime Minister’s latest tour of several Greater Middle Eastern nations is once again indicative of his increased clout in the world and of the importance for Tokyo of consolidating its position in this region.

Vladimir Terekhov, expert on issues relating to the Asia-Pacific region, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.”