Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has returned from a five-country tour of the Middle East. Ostensibly, Mr. Abe was focusing on energy security but his visits encompassed much more than that. Mr. Abe was raising Japan’s diplomatic profile in a region that is vital to its national security — and that of the entire world. Implicit in his conversations was the message that Japan seeks a higher diplomatic profile and is ready to play a larger role in that region’s turbulent politics.

With Middle East states providing some 90 percent of Japan’s crude-oil imports — and the countries he visited accounting for 70 percent of the total — the need for good relations with his hosts is plain. But Mr. Abe laid out a much wider strategic rationale for his trip in remarks before his departure, which he repeated at his last stop in Cairo. Both times, he explained that “The peace and stability of the Middle East is essential for the peace and prosperity of the world.” Desiring to contribute to that stability, “My nation will become actively involved in the area, building a multi-layered relationship and a new age for both Japan and the Middle East.”

Although rich now, the countries of the Persian Gulf know that their future depends on development so that they have economic options when the oil runs low. Japan has technology that can play a critical role in laying a foundation for development, as well as a history of success. These countries are too rich to receive Official Development Assistance, the traditional tool Tokyo uses to broaden relations. Thus, Mr. Abe was accompanied by some 180 business executives, a coterie that included such prominent names as Nippon Keidanren Chairman Fujio Mitarai, Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi UFJ Chairman Shigemitsu Miki, Sony Corp. Chief Corporate Advisor Nobuyuki Idei, and Nippon Oil Corp. Board Chairman Fumiaki Watari. Their presence signaled Japan’s seriousness to develop new types of relations.

The key is building long-term relationships. To that end, Mr. Abe and Qatari Emir Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani announced agreement to launch unofficial talks to start negotiations on a bilateral investment treaty and to begin work on a free-trade agreement between Japan and the members of the Gulf Cooperation Council — Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Bahrain and Oman. They also agreed that their countries would set up a joint economic ministerial committee to strengthen bilateral economic relations. The committee would meet annually to discuss measures to improve the investment and business environments and other core concerns, and to promote bilateral cooperation to ensure a stable energy supply.

At his first stop, Mr. Abe offered his Saudi Arabian hosts the free use of the oil reserve base in Okinawa to store oil, which holds over 5 million kiloliters of crude. The deal offers Saudi Arabia a chance to cut the cost of shipping oil to Asia and the West Coast of the United States. If both countries agree, Japan would be able to buy the stored oil on a priority basis in time of emergency. Not only does this move secure Japanese needs in the event of an emergency but the oil belongs to Saudi Arabia; attacking the facilities would be considered an attack on the country and that might alter any potential adversary’s calculations.

Meanwhile, the Japan Bank for International Cooperation (JBIC) has agreed to loan Abu Dhabi’s state-run petroleum company $1 billion on condition that it guarantee crude oil to Japan. This is one of JBIC’s largest loans and the first accepted by the recipient which, because of its wealth and reluctance to open its books to foreign eyes, has shied away from such agreements.

Traditionally, Japanese governments have relied on bilateral agreements to secure energy supplies. This administration, like its predecessor, understands that such a strategy does not match its international ambitions. Japan must look at the big picture and think strategically.

That means working to create an environment of peace and stability. This thinking underlies the determination to send Self-Defense Forces to Iraq for post-conflict reconstruction. Mr. Abe visited Ali Al Salem Air Base in Kuwait, where Air SDF personnel are stationed, the first visit by a prime minister to an SDF unit in connection with the Iraq support mission. It motivated Japan’s decision to host four-way talks in March on economic opportunities for Israelis and Palestinians.

Tokyo has long believed that it can serve as an effective broker in that dispute: It does not have the U.S. baggage and it can use its wealth and knowhow to prod the economic development that must be the foundation of any enduring peace. Noticeably absent was any mention of values and democracy, a recent pillar of Japanese foreign policy. Reconciling Japan’s “value-based diplomacy” with its more unabashed strategic interests is another challenge for Tokyo as it assumes a higher international profile.

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