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Japan Is the Middle East’s Most Credible Player

Tokyo’s long-standing, quiet diplomacy has built trust Washington lacks.

By , a global strategy advisor and a nonresident scholar at the Middle East Institute, and , a nonresident James Kelly fellow at the Pacific Forum in Hawaii.
The Iranian and Japanese foreign ministers shake hands.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif (left) and his Japanese counterpart, Fumio Kishida, shake hands in Tokyo on Dec. 7, 2016. Kazuhiro Nogi/AFP via Getty Images

Last month, Japanese Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi visited Egypt, Palestine, Israel, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq, Iran, and Qatar as part of a regional tour focused on Middle Eastern security and COVID-19 recovery. The visit coincided with the United States’ exit from Afghanistan as well as the ensuing uncertainty surrounding Washington’s decades-long commitments to the Arabian Gulf and broader involvement in regional geopolitics.

Back in Tokyo, meanwhile, just a year after assuming power, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga is joining the deep ranks of Japan’s revolving-door prime ministers. But although Suga’s term in office was brief and troubled, his administration continued laying the important strategic groundwork of his predecessor, Shinzo Abe, whose eight-year tenure witnessed Japan’s transformation into a prominent steward of the liberal international order. Given Japan’s current depressed economy and setbacks to its COVID-19 recovery following the Tokyo Olympics, Suga’s potential successors will have their work cut out.

But as a highly networked middle power engaged on key areas of concern to the Middle East, Tokyo has an opportunity to open a multilateral strategic dialogue with the region that focuses on the critical issues of the next decades—namely, digital transformation and technological competition. Such a dialogue would help the Middle East adapt to Washington’s post-Afghanistan realignment, mitigate the risk of further regional destabilization, and balance the region’s competing interests between the United States and China.

Last month, Japanese Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi visited Egypt, Palestine, Israel, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq, Iran, and Qatar as part of a regional tour focused on Middle Eastern security and COVID-19 recovery. The visit coincided with the United States’ exit from Afghanistan as well as the ensuing uncertainty surrounding Washington’s decades-long commitments to the Arabian Gulf and broader involvement in regional geopolitics.

Back in Tokyo, meanwhile, just a year after assuming power, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga is joining the deep ranks of Japan’s revolving-door prime ministers. But although Suga’s term in office was brief and troubled, his administration continued laying the important strategic groundwork of his predecessor, Shinzo Abe, whose eight-year tenure witnessed Japan’s transformation into a prominent steward of the liberal international order. Given Japan’s current depressed economy and setbacks to its COVID-19 recovery following the Tokyo Olympics, Suga’s potential successors will have their work cut out.

But as a highly networked middle power engaged on key areas of concern to the Middle East, Tokyo has an opportunity to open a multilateral strategic dialogue with the region that focuses on the critical issues of the next decades—namely, digital transformation and technological competition. Such a dialogue would help the Middle East adapt to Washington’s post-Afghanistan realignment, mitigate the risk of further regional destabilization, and balance the region’s competing interests between the United States and China.

Former Japanese Foreign Affairs and Defense Minister Taro Kono, a front-runner to succeed Suga, had an important role in Japanese efforts to mediate U.S.-Iranian tensions after the killing of Iranian Gen. Qasem Soleimani. Abe’s longtime foreign minister, Fumio Kishida, another potential successor, is also a dab Middle East-hand. Most recently, as chair of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s Policy Research Council, Kishida played a significant behind-the-scenes part in Tokyo’s efforts to protect the Iran nuclear deal during former U.S. President Donald Trump’s years. Even Abe’s preferred replacement to Suga, former Japanese Internal Affairs Minister Sanae Takaichi, who has less foreign-policy experience, could be expected to faithfully represent Abe’s security doctrine of “proactive pacifism” in the Middle East.

Japan carries an important advantage as a bridge-builder and convener in the Middle East. Despite having close ties to NATO and having been a logistical cornerstone of other U.S.-led wars like in Korea and Vietnam, Japan played a limited role in the occupation of both Iraq and Afghanistan. Japan is thus one of the few U.S. allies to have emerged from the recent decades of intervention in the region with its reputation there still intact. Japan’s popularity can be accredited in no small measure to its enduring post-war foreign-policy consensus of “buck-passing” pacifism—only recently discarded in favor of a more proactive security role in the world, which substantiated Tokyo’s bona fides as an “honest broker” and differentiated it from other U.S. allies in the Middle East.

On Tokyo’s side, the Middle East has been a consequential region for Japan and its trading partners in Asia due to its long-standing energy dependency on the Arabian Gulf and provision of reserve oil supplies to surrounding countries. Since the Carter administration, Washington has committed to the free flow of oil from the Persian Gulf to the West and its allies—foremost among them: Tokyo. Japan’s top oil suppliers remain Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, and Qatar.

Today, however, Japanese policymakers should be prepared for any potential erosion of Washington’s willingness or ability to protect the strategically critical oil shipping lanes that traverse the more than 3,200-mile-long maritime zone stretching from the Strait of Hormuz to the Strait of Malacca. Although the U.S. Navy has kept up a rapid tempo of freedom of navigation operations in the Indo-Pacific, it may struggle to maintain that level of engagement across multiple regions. Observers may therefore look back on Motegi’s tour––and Japan’s forthcoming diplomacy in the Middle East––as an important milestone for Tokyo’s ongoing efforts to define a new global role for itself beyond the Indo-Pacific.

In recent years, regional capitals from Muscat, Oman, near the Arabian Gulf to Rabat along the Atlantic shores of Morocco have scrambled to navigate the new Cold War between Washington and Beijing. The United States remains the prime security guarantor to the Persian Gulf states as well as an important military partner to major North African economies, such as Egypt and Morocco. But China has emerged not only as the Persian Gulf region’s top oil export destination but also as the main trading partner to most nations in the Middle East. Recent events in Afghanistan, meanwhile, have renewed questions about long-term U.S. retrenchment. But it’s still doubtful China will be willing to intervene and assume greater responsibility for Middle Eastern security akin to the protective role Washington has played in the Persian Gulf since the 1980s and commensurate with Beijing’s current greater economic stake in the region.

As such, there is a pressing need for a new multilateral architecture, with outside support if necessary. During Motegi’s visit to the Middle East last month, the Japanese foreign minister urged Iran to deescalate geopolitical tensions and affirmed Tokyo’s support for regional counterterrorism efforts. The Baghdad Summit in late August represented an early effort by various regional actors and France, whose head of state was in attendance, to prepare for a post-Washington Middle East; the Biden administration has vowed to leave Iraq by the end of 2021, opening the door to yet another power vacuum in the region.

Alongside France, India has also been building strategic partnerships with Israel and the UAE as well as deepening its bilateral relations with Saudi Arabia and Greece. Given also that Japan, France, and India are each major proponents of the free and open Indo-Pacific construct, whose long-term viability depends partly on the Persian Gulf’s sustained economic growth, the three countries have a natural role to play in the Middle East’s future stability.

The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue of Japan, Australia, India, and the United States, once again active beginning in 2017, could provide a model for this proposed strategic grouping. To avoid the mistakes of its first incarnation, which ended in 2008, the “Quad 2.0” organized three working groups devoted to vaccine distribution, climate change mitigation, and critical and emerging technologies. The revived Quad’s focus on specific shared concerns rather than a comprehensive framework has been vital to its development as a credible bulwark for regional security and prosperity. This so-called mini-lateral or issue-specific approach could serve Japan well in its engagement with the Middle East. It could build on Tokyo’s prior efforts elsewhere involving 5G deployment, quality infrastructure, and cybersecurity cooperation, deftly utilizing these initiatives as stepping stones to a larger coordination mechanism. Certainly, given Japan’s positive reputation in the Middle East, a regional dialogue organized by Tokyo has the potential to broach a wider ambit of security issues than seems realistic under a U.S.-led framework narrowly centered around Iran’s nuclear program and promoting democracy and human rights.

Tokyo may be particularly suited to helping the Middle East navigate tensions over its 5G rollout. The Persian Gulf states, Egypt, and Morocco have each struggled over whether to follow Washington’s footsteps in barring Huawei or ZTE equipment from their 5G networks. Even as China remains their largest trading partner and source of foreign investment, these countries and eventually others in the region will have to grapple with the national security and privacy ramifications of Beijing’s current monopoly over the 5G network industry.

However, the Middle East’s concern regarding China’s closed network architecture creates newfound synergies with Japan, whose government and industry have been leaders in developing disaggregated, virtualized, and interoperable network solutions. A joint commitment by five major Middle Eastern mobile operators to deploy open RAN Technologies, announced in July, could provide Tokyo with just the impetus it needs to form a regional 5G working group complementing other multilateral efforts to outcompete Huawei, the Chinese firm often seen as an arm of the state. Japanese open RAN developers already engaged in the region, such as Rakuten, Nippon Telegraph and Telephone, and NEC, would play a critical role in this endeavor.

During this next phase of its Middle East engagement, Japan has a direct stake in—and is uniquely suited for—helping the region adapt to its changing geopolitical landscape. Multilateral, issue-based working groups, such as one focused on open RAN technologies, could facilitate a broader transregional strategic dialogue that harnesses the Middle East’s access to capital alongside the Indo-Pacific’s innovative potential to usher in a new era of stability and prosperity.

Mohammed Soliman is a global strategy advisor and a nonresident scholar at the Middle East Institute. Twitter: @thisissoliman

Elliot Silverberg is a nonresident James Kelly fellow at the Pacific Forum in Hawaii.

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