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LOS ANGELES — Since September 2001, Tokyo has come a long way toward redefining its international security interests. One significant result of this is that should any American hostages be taken in the war with Iraq or anywhere else in the Middle East, the Japanese are not likely to be indifferent to the issue as they were in 1979, when Americans were taken hostage during the Iranian revolution.

For many it is ancient history now, but the image of Japanese leaders scurrying about the Middle East after the first (1973) and second (1979) oil shocks, groveling in front of the oil-producing nations’ leaders and offering them yen loans, taking an anti-Israel political position, and doing just about anything the oil producers asked, is still vivid in the minds of many.

One of the defining moments at that time was when Japanese Foreign Minister Saburo Okita was told by U.S. Secretary of State Cyrus Vance of his displeasure with Tokyo’s policy on Iran and the holding of American Embassy staff as hostages. Vance accused Okita and Japanese leaders of “insensitivity,” and major U.S. newspapers carried that phrase as their headline when Okita and Prime Minister Masayoshi Ohira met with U.S. President Jimmy Carter on March 21, 1980.

While many people might see Japan’s new Middle East posture as simply a shift in foreign policy, perhaps due to pressure from Washington or the embarrassments during the Persian Gulf War, I believe that this change derives from a far more fundamental reassessment of how Tokyo sees its long-term energy security interests. At the core of this policy change is the abandonment of Tokyo’s earlier notion of oil “dependency” as a foreign policy principle, and the acceptance today of a broader framework of strategic “vulnerability.”

This policy shift was evident with Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s support for the U.S. position on the war with Iraq. To be sure, Japan’s foreign policy has been undergoing a major redefinition since 9/11. But the prime minister’s stance on the “Iraq problem” shows that Japan has crossed a major bridge in redefining its energy and, hence, overall Middle East strategy.

There are good reasons for Japan to abandon its “dependence-based” energy strategy. From 1973 and up until last year, Japan’s Middle East policy had been guided by several key assumptions: One was that since Japan was nearly totally dependent on the Middle East oil-producing countries, this “dependence” should be the foundation for dealing with those countries. Tokyo also invested heavily in nonoil energy alternatives like liquefied natural gas, nuclear power and coal. In addition, it established as a goal the diversification of oil supply sources outside of the Middle East. Energy conservation was also given a high priority. Japan also distanced itself from Israel, creating another major source of tension between Tokyo and Washington over the last 25 years.

The record shows that all of these “dependency-based” efforts have failed. Japan’s dependence on Persian Gulf oil has remained above 80 percent. In fact, while oil usage appears to have fallen to 52 percent as a percentage of total Japanese energy use, the total volume of oil imports has actually grown. In fact, economic “vulnerability” to oil price swings based on supply flow have proved to be far more disruptive and threatening to Japan’s economic performance, especially now that Japan’s economy is less regulated and underperforming.

To diversify its oil supply base away from the Persian Gulf, Tokyo created the Japan National Oil Company (JNOC) to promote overseas oil exploration. But this did not work either. JNOC was discontinued in November 2001, and in February 2000 Japan even lost its drilling rights in the Saudi Arabian portion of the Neutral Zone.

Japan has also invested heavily in energy conservation, but that, too, has not significantly altered overall Japanese energy use. The reality is that with 11 percent of proven world oil supplies in Iraq, getting Iraqi production back on line is the single best way to reduce world petroleum prices and ensure that rising oil demand in China and other Asian nations can be met.

As for alternative forms of energy, despite Tokyo’s massive investment (especially in nuclear power), this, too, has failed to save Japan from its overdependence on oil. Japan has 54 nuclear reactors, but many of those have been closed due to safety considerations and the cost of building new reactors has become excessively expensive.

The international community got a preview of these policy changes last year in the “Basic Strategy for Japan’s Foreign Policy in the 21st Century — New Era, New Vision, New Foreign Policy” (The November 2002 Okamoto report) chaired by Cabinet Secretariat Councilor Yukio Okamoto.

In that report, it was argued that Japan’s future Middle East diplomacy would be involved in supporting “global pressure aimed at the destruction of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction”; that Tokyo would support “the removal of the threat of global terrorism originating in the Middle East”; and Tokyo would work for “energy security, through the promotion of friendship with Gulf nations, such as Saudi Arabia.”

While the Okamoto report does not frame this shift in Japanese foreign policy in “dependence” or “vulnerability” terms, it is described as a shift away from a strategy of “economic aid in exchange for oil” to a policy of “alignment with the U.S. to obtain regional security in the maintenance of oil supply flow.” In essence, the tactics of compromise have finally been replaced with a strategy of confrontation.

The Okamoto report even suggested that Japan would take a balanced approach to the Israel-Palestine issue by helping resolve “poverty and population issues in connection with the Israeli-Palestinian dispute and regional poverty.” The report also committed Japan to “aiding Iranian moderates in their efforts at reform.”

It took a quarter century and considerable tension in U.S.-Japan relations over Middle East policy to get to this point, but Tokyo now appears ready to line up behind the United States and seek a broader solution to security, including energy security. Japan, which consumes 7.2 percent of world oil supplies, has finally realized that oil is a global commodity, and regions or individual countries have little control over supply or price. Tokyo now also realizes that if the two largest oil-consuming nations, the U.S. and Japan, work together, they have a far greater chance of insuring adequate petroleum supply at a reasonable price.

No doubt, Japan’s foreign policy leadership is doing all of this out of its own national interest. But these moves should also please Washington. Back in October 2000, the Japan experts that now staff the White House and the State Department crafted a report titled “The United States and Japan: Advancing Toward a Mature Partnership.” In that report, they called on Tokyo to define a common purpose, allow for collective self-defense, cooperate on missile defense, and engage in full peacekeeping activities. All of this now seems to be falling in place.

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