Trade and Globalisation


Japan's New Middle East Policy: Good News for Europe?

05 Feb 2015 - 15:34

Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who remarkably has already travelled to over 50 countries since taking office in December 2012, began 2015 with a six-day tour of the Middle East, which was meant to showcase his new Middle East policy. Abe also highlighted his security doctrine, known as proactive pacifism, with a pledge of US$ 2.5 billion in humanitarian and development assistance and US$ 200 million for non-military assistance in support of the war against the (self-proclaimed) Islamic State. This is also important for Europe, because if Tokyo and Brussels fail to leverage their relationship to promote shared policy objectives – such as the promotion of regional stability – Abe’s activism in the Middle East will in the longer term serve to undermine both Japan’s and the EU’s ability to exercise influence.

The beheadings of two Japanese citizens, Haruna Yukawa and Kenji Goto, by the Islamic State cast a dark shadow over Abe’s visit to the Middle East. Rather than forcing a rethink of Japan’s approach to this region, however, the beheadings hardened resolve within Abe’s government to push forward with an assertive security agenda. In fact, hawks within Abe’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party have now seized upon the Middle East’s instability to advance legislation aimed at further weakening restrictions on Japan’s use of military force.

What is New?

Abe’s new Middle East policy goes beyond Japan’s existing contributions to multinational security missions. It sets out a more robust and independent role for Japan on the international stage, defined in terms of Abe’s security doctrine of proactive pacifism, which aims for Japan to shoulder a greater responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security. According to Abe, this in turn necessitates a weakening of restrictions on Japan’s use of force, as imposed by Japan’s pacifist constitution.

In line with the above, Abe’s new Middle East policy emphasizes Japan’s exceptional role in the region, by drawing an implicit contrast between Japan’s policies towards the Middle East and those of Europe and the United States. In fact, when setting out the core tenets that guide Japanese policy, Abe used three Arabic terms to describe Japan’s approach: al-tasaamuh (harmony and tolerance); al-ta’aaish (coexistence and co-prosperity); and al-ta’aun (collaboration). Significantly, the main objective of this for Japan is the promotion of stability. However, Abe’s unequivocal support for the Egyptian government’s ‘efforts to bring about stability’, as delivered in his address to the Egypt–Japan Business Committee during his January 2015 visit to Egypt, contrast sharply with the more muted stance taken towards the Egypt of new President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi on the part of Europe and the United States.

Impact on Europe

As European capitals continue to grapple with questions of where to strike a balance between the promotion of stability, economic interests and human rights, a failure by the EU to coordinate with Japan its regional policies towards the Middle East will inflict harm on Europe’s ability to exercise influence in the region. This is particularly the case in relation to EU–Egypt relations and the delicate negotiations with Iran on the nuclear issue.

To be sure, there is significant evidence that Japan is proving to be a more palatable partner for those in the Middle East who harbour a deep distrust of European motivations for engagement. On the one hand, this development provides an opportunity for Japan to act as a valuable interlocutor for the EU in contexts where Europe is viewed with suspicion. On the other hand, if Japan steps in to provide assistance in contexts where the EU is attempting to leverage its own financial assistance in return for concessions on other issues, this will result in a further diminishing of the EU’s ability to exercise influence in a region where Europe is already struggling to demonstrate its relevance.

Concord or Discord?

In order to avoid a situation whereby European interests are undermined, Europe should work with Japan to establish a shared framework of principles to guide their respective Middle East policies. In the aftermath of the political turmoil fuelled by the Arab Spring, and in the context of ongoing conflicts in Libya, Yemen, Iraq and Syria, both Europe and Japan could act to complement each other’s efforts to promote regional stability.

At the same time, Europe should also understand how Japan’s presence in the Middle East is now being used by more hawkish members of Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party to weaken restrictions on the use of force that are imposed by Japan’s constitution. Although some European capitals may wish to see Japan shoulder a greater security burden in the Middle East, such as in the context of the war on the Islamic State, Europe should be cautious about empowering those in Japan who see Japan’s expanding presence in the Middle East as means to undermine restrictions on its use of force – a development that could contribute to growing tensions in Japan’s own neighbourhood.

Christopher K. Lamont is Associate Professor at the Osaka School of International Public Policy at Osaka University in Japan and Assistant Professor at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands. Hannah Pannwitz is pursuing an M.Phil. in Modern Middle Eastern Studies at Oxford University in the United Kingdom.


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