Japan's 'Mercantile Realism' in the Middle East


After suffering the horrors of war and defeat, Japan’s post-World War II foreign policy orientation was fundamentally altered to emphasize economic rather than military tools in accomplishing its goals. Due to Japan’s altered identity as a pacifist merchant nation, analysts have termed Japan’s strategy “mercantile realism.” With the exception of the 1980s, when Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone advocated a vision of “comprehensive security,” Japan has pursued its interests through a combination of shoring up the U.S. security alliance and exercising economic influence. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s trip to Egypt, Jordan, Israel and Palestine – and Japan’s broader approach toward the Middle East – is no exception to this strategic framework. In addition to the $2.2 billion Japan pledged for the Middle East two years ago, Abe recently pledged another $2.5 billion for non-military assistance.

As an energy-poor island country, Japan keeps a close eye on Middle East stability. The Agency of Natural Resources and Energy’s 2014 White Paper noted that in 2012, more than 80 percent of Japan’s crude oil was imported from seven Middle Eastern countries, and 28.6 percent of Japan’s natural gas imports came from four. Despite some positive experiences in the Middle East – such as the deployment of Ground Self-Defense Forces for reconstruction efforts in Iraq – Japan continues to avoid military entanglements in the region. For example, Japan is not a participant of the U.S.-led coalition that began air strikes against Islamic State (IS) targets last August.

Leaving the use of force to countries that are less constitutionally- or culturally-constrained than Japan is, Abe has chosen to focus on how development and economic prosperity can bring stability to the Middle East. Abe expounded on his vision for Japan’s role at a meeting of the Japan-Egypt Business Committee: “There is no shortcut to nipping the violence in the bud. There is no way other than bringing stability to people’s livelihoods and fostering a middle class, even if it takes time… I am of the belief that here, Japan has a tremendous role to play.”

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Abe’s first stop on his Middle East tour was Cairo, where he pledged about $200 million in non-military assistance to countries battling IS, including Turkey and Lebanon. Abe said the world would suffer an “immeasurable loss” if terrorism spread. This aid package is meant to build up Middle Eastern countries’ human capacity and infrastructure. Abe also pledged $360 million to Egypt in loans for projects including expanding the Borg El Arab airport and building a power grid. “These are intended to contribute to Egypt’s development, and by extension, to widening the foundation for stability across the entire region,” he explained.

In Cairo, Abe met separately with President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi and Prime Minister Ibrahim Mahlab to discuss how to deepen bilateral ties between Japan and Egypt. In their joint statement, Abe and el-Sisi emphasized the importance of strengthening security dialogue, and el-Sisi accepted Abe’s invitation to visit Japan soon.

In Amman, Abe met with Jordanian King Abdullah II at the Royal Palace. In their meeting, both sides agreed to jointly cope with terror threats such as IS. Abe pledged ¥12 billion in loans (approximately $102 million) to help Jordan deal with the refugees incoming from Syria. On top of that, Abe offered food and other aid goods worth $28 million to the refugees. On the same day, over in Paris, Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida promised $7.5 million for antiterrorism efforts in the Middle East and North Africa, which Japan envisions will be used to investigate terror incidents and strengthen border controls.

On Monday, Abe held a summit meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem, where the two agreed to promote exchanges between their respective defense communities. Japan would be especially interested in collaborating with Israel’s high-tech defense industry, as well as in the field of cybersecurity. Abe also expressed a desire to play a more active part in promoting peace between Israel and Palestine. Before his, Abe stated, “Japan believes that the day will come in the near future when we can recognize Palestine as a state. In order for that day to arrive sooner, we will appeal to both Israel and Palestine to resume negotiations to advance the so-called two-state solution.”

It was while Abe was in Jerusalem that IS threatened to murder two Japanese citizens unless the Japanese government paid a ransom of $200 million within 72 hours. Despite the ongoing crisis, Abe proceeded to his final stop, Palestine, where on Tuesday he met with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Abe promised about $100 million to help reconstruction efforts in the Gaza Strip. As part of his peace initiative, Abe offered advice to both sides that he admitted “may not be easy to swallow.” Abe wrote in Yediot Ahronot, Israel’s largest Hebrew-language daily, that Jerusalem should carefully consider their settlement policy in order to build an atmosphere conducive to dialogue. A Japanese official noted that Abe would urge both sides to refrain from taking unilateral actions that would make a two-state solution more difficult, such as Palestine’s attempt to become a member of the International Criminal Court and indict Israel. After the meeting with Abbas, Abe flew back to Japan several hours earlier than scheduled to deal with the repercussions of the hostage crisis.

As this brief survey of Abe’s six-day trip reveals, Japan continues to rely on economic aid to advance its global interests. By focusing on humanitarian issues, Japan sought to minimize its participation in any military conflict. However, the distinction between military and non-military is not appreciated by the radicalized IS. In their online video, the militant said, “You [the Japanese government] proudly donated another $100 million to kill our women and children, to destroy the homes of Muslims.” The message equated Japan’s humanitarian support with the air strikes saying, Japan “has willingly volunteered to take part in this crusade.” Yet Japanese officials have, rightly, denied such a connection again and again. Ken Okaniwa, deputy press secretary for the Foreign Ministry, stated, “Japan will not bow to terrorism and will continue to contribute to the war against terrorism. Japan’s assistance for countering the Islamic State is basically to provide food, medical care, and education. It is absolutely nonmilitary assistance.” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihde Suga followed up on this, saying, “Japan’s assistance is not at all for killing Muslims.”

Abe would have enjoyed a successful and highly-publicized week of Middle East diplomacy, relying on tried-and-true economic methods, had it not been for the hostage crisis. Whether Japan will experience a moment of soul-searching, similar to what followed the 2013 Algerian hostage crisis, or will continue to plod along the same path of economic diplomacy even as evidence mounts that it is no longer enough will depend on what lessons Abe and the Japanese public takeaway from this traumatic experience. IS was trying to push Japan out of the Middle East by inciting a public blowback against Japanese involvement. However, based on public statements since then, the attempt seems unlikely to succeed.

Though constitutionally and legally the role the Japanese Self-Defense Force will play in Iraq and Syria will continue to be proscribed, Abe’s enthusiasm to bringing stability to the Middle East through economic development appears unhampered. When the video was released, Abe immediately responded: “I strongly demand [the hostage-takers] not to harm the two Japanese and immediately release them. Japan will cooperate with the international community and further contribute to peace and stability in the region. This policy is unshakable and we won’t change it.”

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