By Xiao Tiefeng
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has visited Iran in June, which marks the first visit of a sitting Japanese prime minister to visit Iran in nearly 41 years. Acting as an “intermediary” in person, Abe’s visit was intended to ease the tensions between the US and Iran.
However, the visit yielded few results. This reflects Japan's aggressive search for a breakthrough point with a view to seeking greater say in the Middle East.
Japan has always regarded the Middle East as a key sector of global geopolitics and international energy market, with its Middle East Strategy continuously being committed to achieving three goals.
First, enhance its influence on the Middle East affairs. For a long time, the theory of "the one who dominates the Middle East may dominate the world" has prevailed in the Japanese strategic academic community.
In recent years, in order to build an international order in line with its national interests and values, Japan has proposed a policy of "positive pacifism" and vigorously promoted the "diplomacy of overviewing the globe" in the Middle East and Western Pacific.
Japan clearly listed six current diplomatic priorities in its Diplomatic Bluebook 2018, with "contributing to peace and stability in the Middle East" included for the first time.
Abe’s surprise visit to Iran just highlights Japan’s desire to increase its influence on key issues in the Middle East.
Second, ensure sustainable petroleum supply. Japan is desperately short of oil resources and largely relies on import from the international market.
Oil imported from the Middle East accounts for more than 80% of total imports, while 90% of oil from the Middle East has to be transported through the Strait of Hormuz.
Therefore, to avoid a fatal impact on its economy, Japan must spare no efforts to prevent the Middle East maritime traffic line from being potentially interrupted by the US-Iran war.
Third, strive to maintain its military presence in the Middle East. Since the end of the Cold War, the Japan Self-Defense Force (JSDF), in the name of peacekeeping, anti-terrorism, anti-piracy, joint exercises and training, has broken the restrictions to "go far-sea waters" and been dispatched to some countries in the Middle East.
Although Abe’s visit did not achieve his immediate goal, to a certain extent, it would facilitate Japan to keep its normal military presence in the Middle East on the grounds of national security and international needs.
Abe has repeatedly stated that the best solution to the problems in the Middle East at present stage is "to keep moderation", which is mainly manifested in its “three major balances” as follows.
Firstly, Japan is to strike a balance between dependence on the United States and maintenance of independence. Due to its gap with the US in strength, Japan is playing a subordinate role in the US-Japan alliance, and its foreign policies often show a tendency to follow the US. This is also true to Japan’s Middle East policy.
In contrast, Japan has maintained moderate flexibility and relative autonomy in pursuing its national interests. For example, Japan has repeatedly expressed its support for the Iran nuclear deal and hoped that countries including the United States and Iran will continue to abide by the relevant spirits of the deal. Japan also showed its disapproval and unsupported position on the relocation of the US Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem.
Secondly, Japan is to strike a delicate balance among Saudi Arabia, Israel and Iran. The Middle East region has always been the arena of various forces. The powerful countries in Saudi Arabia, Iran and Israel have kept struggling with each other due to the sharp contradictions in religion, ethnicity and economy.
However, Japan shows no obvious tendency to “taking sides” when promoting its Middle East Strategy. On one hand, Japan has actively promoted its strategic dialogue and energy cooperation with Saudi Arabia, published Japan-Saudi Vision 2030; but on the other it strengthens its economic and trade exchanges, scientific and technological exchanges and defense cooperation with Israel. In addition, it maintains moderate political dialogues with Iran and tries hard to explore the possibility of importing oil from Iran.
Thirdly, Japan is to strike a balance of multiple strategies such as among politics, economy, and military strategies. Politically, Japan proposed to establish a "comprehensive partnership for stability and prosperity" with the Gulf countries and held the first Japan-Arab Political Dialogue in September 2017.
Economically, Japan has increased investment in the Middle Eastern countries, and signed bilateral investment agreements with some countries, while increasing its “assistance input” to the local authorities to increase its influence on the region. In 2017, Japan’s assistance funds to the development of the Middle Eastern governments reached $1.735 billion.
From the military aspect, the Japanese Defense Ministry and JSDF have been active in the Middle East in recent years, including the expansion of its military base in Djibouti, seeking a permanent presence of the JSDF; signing a memorandum of defense exchanges and cooperation with Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates; and reaching a consensus with Egypt, Yemen, Turkey and other countries to further deepen defense cooperation.
All in all, Abe’s visit to Iran is not simply to enhance "a sense of his presence”. His visit not only implied the unwillingness of Japan being a bystander of the power game in the Middle East, but also reflected its efforts to become a participant and shaper of the Middle East order.
In the future, Japan will continue to use the Middle East as a testing ground for its foreign strategy in order to seek a status of "political power".
(The article was published on the PLA Daily on July 4，2019. It is translated from Chinese into English and edited by China Military Online.)