CAIRO – Various internal and external factors have prompted Japan to keep its involvement profile in the Middle East as low as possible for the past four decades.
Since the eruption of the first oil crisis in 1973, Japan has feared negative consequences from any explicit political engagement in the region.
For a country that imports 99 percent of its oil — 90 percent of which comes from the Middle East — any risk that may affect its main source of energy must be diminished.
Internally, its focus on economic policy, together with the legacy of the Second World War that directed the Japanese way of thinking toward not only standing against militarism but also against any expansion in the scope of its foreign policy, accompanied by the international conditions of the Cold War and the strategic U.S.-Japan alliance, put restrictions on the Japanese foreign policy behavior in general and toward the Middle East in Particular.
However, the Persian Gulf War in 1991 represented a very stunning experience for Japan. In spite of contributing a total of $13 billion for both logistic support for the coalition forces and aid to the neighboring countries, Japan was accused of doing ” too little and too late,” even government of Kuwait failed to list Japan among the countries to which it felt obliged and thankful. Since that time, Japan has learned to approach the region in a different way.
Besides its economic high profile, Japan started to pay much more attention to the security and politics of the Middle East. Japanese direct involvement in the Madrid Conference in 1991 between Arabs and Israelis, dispatching 77 Japanese observers in the Palestine election in 1996 and 45 soldiers to U.N. disengagement troops in Golan Heights, as the first Japanese peacekeeping mission outside East and Southeast Asia, were just a few indicators of Japan’s new approach to the region.
The 9/11 attacks in 2001 were another incentive for Japan to keep a relatively high involvement in the area. After those attacks, Japan enacted the Terrorism Law followed by special laws to dispatch the Self-Defense Forces to Iraq in 2003.
This increasing involvement had three main features: (1) It was directed toward economic and security issues at the expense of political ones; (2) it was based on U.S. foreign policy toward the region and not independently made; and (3) it was directed for the most part toward governments and not toward civil society and ordinary people.
Now with people changing their maps of the region after two complete revolutions created new political systems in Tunisia and Egypt, with the continued uprisings in Libya, Syria and Yemen, which are expected sooner or later to succeed, and with many Arab governments hurrying to take defensive countermeasures in Palestine, Jordan and the Persian Gulf countries, Japan should start restructuring its foreign policy toward the Middle East.
As many changes will follow such uprisings and revolutions in the region, there are expectations that:
• Policymaking will be built on wider participation of nongovernmental actors including civil society and other social movements.
Even in Persian Gulf countries where revolutions seem difficult and could be easily oppressed — Bahrain is a model — it is expected that wider participation and consideration to impoverished classes and other social movements will be admitted.
• Youth, minorities and other historically vulnerable groups in the region will fight more for their rights and most likely they will be able to reach their goals.
• Islamism and nationalism, though being old rivals in the area, will have more common grounds especially toward issues such as democracy, independent national and foreign policies, and Arab-Israeli conflict.
• The cold peace between Arabs and Israel will melt down soon with high possibilities of minor tensions in the short run and more escalations in the long run.
Amid such changes and uncertainties, If Japan wants to secure oil supply, keep its investments and markets highly competitive to the Chinese booming existence and hold Arabs’ support for a likely permanent seat in the U.N. Security Council, it needs to approach the region differently.
Economically, the old policy of directing Official Development Assistance only to governments must be changed to a direct technical and human assistance for impoverished areas and groups with more cohesive followup schemes.
Cooperation and coordination with governments instead of full dependence on corrupt bureaucratic apparatuses to perform ODA projects are necessities in the coming period.
Grassroots-based economic studies to understand the new mode, needs and mentalities of people in the region to keep Japanese investments and markets open and competitive are highly recommended.
Politically, a direct, explicit and independent involvement in the Arab-Israeli conflict seems to be a must now. Costs of such direct involvement are still high, but neutrality or low involvement in such a critical moment seems even more expensive.
Being a critical player in the hot Arab-Israeli conflict like the United States, the European Union, Russia and recently China seems to be the only guarantee for gaining benefits from radical changes in the region where there will be no more gains for free riders or neutrals.
Socially and culturally, Japan needs to work more with people in the region. Understanding and building bridges with civil societies, youth, minorities and Islamists is highly recommended during this transitional period.
Using cultural and exchange programs, opening a strategic dialogue with former education ministry and Japan International Cooperation Agency students, as most of them are now in strategic positions in governments, academia and civil societies and simultaneously owe much to Japan, are all cards Japan can and should play in the region for the coming period.
Enjoying wide respect among people in the Middle East for maintaining a clean and peaceful history in the region, Japan’s foreign policy has to have a high political and cultural profile toward the uprising region.
Ahmed Abd Rabou is assistant professor of Comparative and Asian Studies at Cairo University.