TOKYO/ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES – Foreign Minister Taro Kono found himself in a tough spot on his recent trip to the Middle East, seeking to reconcile Japan’s potential as a mediator in the region with its loyalty to Washington in the wake of the U.S. decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.
This dilemma saw Kono, who has pushed Japan’s potential to contribute in the Middle East since he took up his post in August, restrain his typical straight-talking manner while in Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates over the weekend.
“If we fall in line with Middle Eastern countries, we’ll provoke resentment from the United States,” Japan’s top ally, a government source said, explaining Tokyo’s concerns in the face of the nuclear and ballistic missile threat from North Korea.
But if Japan gives off an impression of obedience to the United States, it runs the risk of losing the trust of countries in the Middle East that have come to see Japan as a valuable neutral party.
Speaking to reporters in Abu Dhabi on Sunday, Kono voiced a measure of praise for U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision last week. “I think President Trump took quite a lot of care in writing his statement,” Kono said. “He did not touch at all on how Israel and Palestine should divide up the capital.”
Japanese officials, including Kono, have been loath to criticize Trump’s move outright, pointing out that he reiterated the U.S. commitment to a two-state solution to the conflict.
“If we stick our nose in Middle East affairs and anger Mr. Trump, we’ll gain nothing and lose everything,” a source close to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s office said.
The Abe administration has stressed the importance of a strong U.S. alliance at every turn in light of the North Korea threat. Accordingly, Japan’s raising of “concerns” about the impact of the Jerusalem decision has been milder than the expressions of dissatisfaction from Group of Seven peers like Britain and Germany.
“It’s patently obvious that when we’re thinking about our national interest, the immediate priority is strengthening Japan-U.S. cooperation to deal with North Korea,” a senior Foreign Ministry official said.
On the other hand, the more Japan accommodates the U.S. position, the more difficult it will become to maintain relations with countries in the Middle East.
Kono only briefly hinted at this fact publicly on his trip, telling reporters in Bahrain it is “extremely regrettable that the situation has worsened” due to Trump’s decision.
He exchanged views about the Jerusalem issue on Sunday in successive meetings with the UAE’s crown prince and its foreign minister, saying afterward he “got the feeling that they understand Japan’s position of being able to speak with the United States.”
While Kono hinted that Japan’s diplomatic position in the Middle East has not been directly threatened by the Jerusalem issue, eyes in the region are fixed on Tokyo’s next move.
Waleed Siam, representative of the Permanent General Mission of Palestine, told a news conference in Tokyo last week of his dismay at Trump’s decision, while suggesting Japan could take the United States’ place in a mediating role in the region.
But in Washington’s shadow, the extent to which Japan can answer to those expectations remains unclear.