Hostage crisis could influence Japan’s Mideast priorities

by and

Staff Writers

As shock waves over the execution of two Japanese hostages by the Islamic State group continue to reverberate, there is talk in politics and the media about using the Self-Defense Forces in the manner of U.S. special forces to rescue Japanese nationals. There are also larger questions about the effect the crisis may have on Japan’s Middle East policy.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said Monday that under current law Japanese nationals cannot be rescued by the SDF even if such missions are given the green light by the countries involved. He wants to change that.

Any mission, and especially its prior planning, would require the cooperation of not only the country concerned but probably also the intelligence agencies of the United States. Japan’s alliance partner has considerable assets in the Middle East and connections with other intelligence agencies worldwide.

Some observers predict the hostage crisis will have an early impact on behind-the-scenes activity.

“There will likely be an increase of communication at the working level between (Japan and the U.S.), especially among intelligence analysts and relevant military units. Communications between the National Security Secretariat and the National Security Council have grown more important, and will continue to grow,” said Peter Ennis, the New York-based U.S. correspondent for Weekly Toyo Keizai and a chronicler and analyst of U.S.-Japan relations.

“Japan is not a significant factor in military/security or intelligence operations in Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Jordan, Yemen or other volatile parts of the region, and is not likely to be anytime soon, the hostage crisis notwithstanding,” he said.

Japanese public opinion on the more general question of expanding the SDF’s mandate overseas may well be affected by the murder of journalist Kenji Goto and fellow hostage Haruna Yukawa.

Mikio Haruna, a journalist and visiting professor at Waseda University who specializes in diplomacy, said the public will be cautious about such legislation.

“Many Japanese will wonder why their countrymen and women would be a target for terrorists even though there’s a lack of Japanese military involvement in the region. The public would feel that, despite offering humanitarian assistance, their fellow nationals are being killed and that’s something they couldn’t put up with,” Haruna said.

As for Tokyo’s overall Middle East Policy, Haruna said the government should promote what the public endorses, namely “nonmilitary contributions to peace” in the region.

His sentiments were echoed by Motohiro Ono, a Democratic Party of Japan lawmaker and expert on Middle Eastern affairs who opposes assigning the SDF a role in rescues with this hostage crisis as the reason.

“We shouldn’t use the crisis too emotionally. We have to discuss measures to protect overseas nationals in a calm manner,” Ono said.

For his part, Shuji Hosaka, a senior research fellow and assistant director of the JIME Center, formerly the Japanese Institute of Middle Eastern Economies, at the Institute of Energy Economics, Japan, sees an opportunity in the crisis to further Tokyo’s diplomacy in the region.

“Providing humanitarian and economic support would serve as the best measures against terrorism,” Hosaka said, adding that Japan needs to better explain its nonmilitary contributions to tribal chiefs, Islamic law scholars and the media in the Middle East.

Tokyo’s interest in finding clients for its arms industry is another factor in the mix. Abe may have talked humanitarian aid during his visit to the Middle East last month, but he took to Jordan a delegation of senior business leaders from major manufacturers, banks and trading firms, not a few of whom stand to benefit from the relaxation of controls on arms exports.

Some U.S. experts doubt or are not sure if the Goto murder will greatly affect this policy. Richard Samuels, Ford International professor of political science and director of the MIT-Japan Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, notes parts of Japan’s defense industry are already very energized by new opportunities.

“It’s fascinating to see how attractive Japanese components and systems are on the world market. (Manufacturers) are being approached by foreign governments for the sale of everything from simple components and materials to P-1 and U.S.-2 aircraft to submarines,” Samuels said.

“We should expect opponents to revisit their characterization of the defense industry as ‘merchants of death.’ But, as with the nuclear power industry, which with full government support never missed a beat in efforts to export whole reactors after 3/11, I imagine that the economic argument about how exports will create jobs and enhance technology will prevail,” Samuels said.

Yet, Japan’s Middle Eastern diplomacy and security interests start at the gas pump. About 80 percent of the country’s oil comes from the region, prompting questions about whether the hostage crisis will spur Japanese trading firms and oil wholesalers to seek other markets.

Sheila Smith, senior fellow for Japan Studies at the Washington-based Council on Foreign Relations, says oil represents just one of many interests at stake in the debate. She doesn’t see the hostage incident as changing it much.

“Japan is already seeking to diversify its energy imports but will remain heavily dependent on Middle Eastern oil,” Smith said.

Tobias Harris, a Washington-based Japan expert and senior associate at Teneo Intelligence, agrees that Japan has little freedom at the moment to diversify away from Middle Eastern oil.

“If anything, the global oil price fall may make Japan more dependent on Middle Eastern oil to the extent that it disrupts production in higher-cost producing countries. If the turmoil following the U.S. invasion of Iraq or the Arab Spring weren’t enough to lead Japan to diversity, it’s hard to see how this incident would do it,” Harris said.