The Impact of the Middle East Revolutions on Japan

Friday, February 18, 2011

By Dr. Ahmad Rashid Malik

There is a hue and cry against American domination in the Middle East. After the successful outcomes of the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, at least where long-standing US-led totalitarian quasi-democratic regimes have just tottered with days of masses’ street protests, Western capitals and Japan started worrying about the Middle East situation.

Japan has tried to ‘balance’ its policy in the Middle East. It has diplomatic relations with all of the Middle Eastern countries including the Palestinian Authority and Israel. There is a Representative Office of Japan to the Palestinian National Authority in Ramallah and a full-fledged Embassy in Tel Aviv. Tokyo reciprocates by hosting the Israeli Embassy in Tokyo as well as the Palestinian General Office in Tokyo.

Now and again, Palestinian and Israeli leaders have paid visits to Japan to expand mutual cooperation. Prime Minister Junichro Koizumi paid a visit to the Palestine Authority in 2006 besides other high-level visits paid by Japanese parliamentarians and foreign ministry side to both Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert visited Tokyo in 2008 in addition to several of visits paid by Israeli deputy prime ministers, ministers, and the governor of the central bank of Israel to Japan over the years.

A Middle East ‘oil shocked Japan’ is terribly worried about the volatile political situation in the region from where it imports over 95 percent of its oil needs. It avoided openly taking sides with Israel and also pleaded the cause of the Palestinians. Japan accorded a red carpet welcome to the Chairman of the Palestinian Liberation Organization when he visited Tokyo in the 1980s, a gesture that was quite different from that of its strategic ally, the United States.

Japan also used its economic aid diplomacy to win the hearts of the Palestinian people. The idea was in line with Japan’s oil diplomacy to mitigate Islamic extremist views, if any, against Japan. Since 1993, Japan has been actively extending assistance to the Palestinians. After the United States and the European Union, Japan is the third largest aid donor to the Palestinian Authority. The question, however, will remain: will Japanese assistance to the Palestinian Authority prevents deteriorating ties between the region and Japan? Or there will be no impact from the political change that is taking place in the Middle East on Japan?

The Middle East turmoil is isolating Israelis. Japan cannot afford to be isolated from the Middle East tremors. One has to see how Japan accommodates its traditional moderate policy with the rising Islamic extremist policy in the Middle East.

Uncertainty and sharp political changes in the Middle East would greatly impinge upon Japanese economic ties with the Middle East. Somali piracy in the Gulf of Aden was ready disrupting Japanese merchant vessels’ sailing in the Red Sea. The revolutions are a new addition to Japan’s already- troubled relations with the oil-rich Middle East that has great potentials to disrupt Japan’s imports and exports to the Middle East as well to Europe through the Suez Canal.

The Middle East revolutions are bound to have an impact on Japan. Postwar Japan is closely aligned with the United States. Like the United States, Japan also seems to be disturbed about the tottering of the traditional regimes in the Middle East because of its heavy dependence on oil imports from the region. In September 2010, Japan declared further sanctions on Iran, the source of its 16 percent of its oil supply, solely under US pressure to pass sanctions against Iran for its alleged nuclear program. Perhaps the time is at hand to reverse such policies. The current wave of revolutions in the Middle East might disrupt oil supply to Japan, its exports, and investment oil and gas projects. Japan’s Foreign Ministry is thus calling for moderate policies in Egypt and Tunisia and ‘hoping’ the situation would not be exploited by Islamic extremists.

Over 200 Egyptians reside in Japan. Many of them participated in a protest rally against Hosni Mubarak in Tokyo on February 5. About 440 Japanese, including Japanese company employees, are living in Egypt and Japanese Foreign Ministry recommended that Japanese travelers should postpone travel to Egypt. It was the second-highest alert level following an evacuation order from Egypt days before.

It seems that Japan has absorbed the “Egyptian shock” quickly. On the stepping down of Mubarak, for instance, Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan stated that 'we hope Egypt will play an even more constructive role than it has in the Middle East region. I want to send a salute to the fact that people's peaceful activities seeking a change in government have led to a new development’.

Japanese Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara in his statement said that ‘we hope that Egypt will attain stability under a democratic government as soon as possible and also hope to continue to develop friendly relations’ with that country. Japan, however, would not afford to go absolute independent on Egypt and the Middle East as such without consulting the United States first. The US policy would give a cushion to Japan for its Middle East policy in the post-revolutions era.

In a recent interview with Japanese television, Rashad al-Bayumu, Ikhwanul Muslimeen (Muslim Brotherhood), second-in-command, stated clearly that if the Brotherhood comes to power it would cancel Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel. Prevented from power for so long, the Muslim Brotherhood never wants Egypt to be a model of Western policies but Islamic in its nature including the launching of Jihad against the enemies of Islam. Under these circumstances, Egypt might become an epicenter of Islamic causes than the clandestine Al-Queda. A Muslim Brotherhood-led Egypt has the potential for the rebirth of an Islamic renaissance at this age of frustration amongst Muslims all over the world, particularly since 9/11. For Japan, however, the question arises as to how it would maintain its diplomatic ties with Israel under such an atmosphere. Apparently, it seems to be a difficult situation for the policy-makers in Tokyo.

Japan’s strategic cooperation with the United States and its ties with Israel might become counterproductive, but it is premature to determine such a situation yet. The way events are abruptly unfolding in the Middle East, along with Japan’s weaker links with Islamic forces, Japanese diplomacy might not pay off its dividends soon. Japanese aid policy could not set aside the impacts of strategy and political price of the policy in the Middle East. The fire appears to be inevitable on the Japan-Middle East relations in the days ahead. A heavy load has been placed on the shoulders of the West Asia division of the Japanese Foreign Ministry and one has to see how policy-makers in Tokyo tackle the situation in their favor.

Dr Ahmad Rashid Malik is Fellow of The Japan Foundation in Tokyo.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of PanOrient News.

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