Japan's Middle East Policy: So at odds with the US
John de Boer (Research Associate, GLOCOM; Japan Fellow, Stanford University)
Japan and the United States stand divided on many issues that concern the Middle East and the U.S. President George W. Bush's abrupt announcement of a policy shift on the Israel-Palestinian conflict last weak has widened this gap. If there is any region towards which Japan has consistently taken an independent policy stand from the United States, it is in the Middle East. Japan's willingness to join the US-led occupation in Iraq has been a departure from this long-standing tradition and could end up eroding the political capital and good will that Japanese have spent decades trying to cultivate in the Middle East.
Ever since Japan regained independence in 1952 it has consciously promoted political, economic and cultural ties with Arab countries over expanded ties with Israel. Under the motto "there is only one Israel and many Arabs," Japanese diplomats and trade officials were ordered by successive Japanese prime minister's to develop rewarding business relationships with the Arabs, while ignoring potential interests in Israel. For a resource poor economy that was trying to develop, Asian natural resources and markets represented a critical component in the government's postwar industrialization policy. The importance of the Middle East to Japan between 1950-70 was exaggerated by the fact that Japan was barred by the US from trading with the People's Republic of China, its main source of raw materials and export market prior to and during the war, due to its alignment in the Cold War alliance structure. As a result, Japan was eager to secure chemicals, cotton, oil, food and minerals from the Middle East in exchange for markets that would consume its value added products such as ships, cars, radios, sheet metal, textiles and arms.
Although Japan sought to implement a policy of seikei bunri (separation of politics from economics) in the initial stages of its postwar engagement in the Middle East, the nature of its relationship with Arab states ruled out this possibility. Under the terms of the Arab boycott, to which Japan strictly adhered, trade with Israel came at the expense of contracts with the Arabs. As a result, Japan's economic involvement in Arab countries implied a political statement that questioned the legitimacy of the modern state of Israel. In practical terms, this also negated the option of exploring possibilities in Israel and virtually cut off Israel from doing business with Japan.
Japan's political position on the Arab-Israeli conflict grew increasingly explicit as ties with Arab states grew stronger and as Japan's economy became ever more dependent on Middle Eastern oil. Japan's first overt expression of support of the Arabs came during the 1954 Afro-Asian Conference in Bandung, Indonesia where official Japanese representatives voted in favor of a resolution calling for Palestinian self-determination. This was followed by Japan's condemnation of Israel in the Second Arab-Israeli war. In 1973, the Japanese government's political affiliation with the Palestinian cause grabbed international attention when the Mikaido statement was published, however, this was merely a confirmation of Japan's already existing policy that called for an independent Palestine. Into the 1980s, the gap between Japan and the US in terms of the Israel-Palestinian conflict was evident in United Nations resolution voting behavior and became particularly apparent when Japan recognized the Palestinian Liberation Organization as the legitimate representative of all Palestinians while the United States still considered it a terrorist group.
Today, the United States and Japan continue to stand apart on the Palestinian issue and this divide was made strikingly clear after President Bush overturned a longstanding US policy that condemned all settlements and upheld, in principle, the Palestinian right of return. President Bush also negated the existence of over 1 million Palestinians who currently live in Israel and hold Israeli citizenship when he declared that he would support Israel as a Jewish state. The Japanese Prime Minister, Junichiro Koizumi, responded to Bush's about face by saying that, "the US has its own stand. We cannot approve" (Yomiuri Shimbun, April 19, 2004). All cabinet members in Japan agree that Bush's "unilateral" moves are an obstacle to peace in the Middle East.
Israel's targeted assassination policy, and the refusal of the United States to condemn this act, has also angered the Japanese. In response to the murder of Abd-al-Aziz al-Rantisi, the recently named leader of the Palestinian militant group Hamas, Japan's foreign minister Yoriko Kawaguchi criticized Israel's behavior as "deplorable" and "unjustifiable" (Asahi Shimbun, April 18, 2004). While the American government endorsed Israel's tactics as an act of self-defense, Koizumi claimed that "Israel has gone too far" and demanded self-restraint (Yomiuri, April 19, 2004).
Japanese newspaper editorials have been even more vocal in denouncing US endorsement of Sharon's policy by stating that the "US has compromised its mediating role in the peace process" as it seems to "endorse an Israeli annexation of occupied territories" (Japan Times, April 21, 2004). The April 19th editorial published by the Asahi Shimbun went further claiming that, "the Bush administration is being pushed around by Israel" and challenged the credibility of the US government by concluding that, "such a government (American) is not qualified to talk about a plan for democratizing the Middle East."
Unfortunately, the record indicates that the editors at Asahi may be right. Since the occupation of Iraq, the agenda for democracy in the Middle East has been swept away by security concerns. There are fewer global leaders criticizing the lack of true democracy in countries such as Egypt, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia or even Jordan today then there were before the war. Worse yet, the democratically elected representatives of Palestine have been swept aside and ignored while the US and Israel determine the future, or lack there of, in Palestine.
Japanese officials, intellectuals, journalists and civil society recognize that Bush is bringing more chaos to the Middle East than clarity. Some Japanese who have spent much of their professional life cultivating ties with the Arab world and trying to promote peace between Israel and Palestine are starting to speak up and offer alternatives. The head of JICA's (Japan International Cooperation Agency) office in Palestine, Takeshi Naruse, is suggesting that Japan work with the close to 10,000 Arabs who have undergone JICA training to be responsible for implementing aid projects in Palestine that have been shut down for several years as a result of the violence. He suggests giving them agency and suggests that concrete efforts to improve the plight of Palestinians need not stop simply because the situation is deemed too unsafe for Japanese. If implemented, this could do much more to promote peace and stability in Palestine and the larger Middle East than will the Self Defense Forces in Iraq who are largely sequestered to their barracks for fear of a terrorist attack.
Prime Minister Koizumi needs to recognize that the Bush administration's unilateral initiatives in the Middle East are making peace and democracy more difficult to attain. The differences between Japan's approach to the Middle East from that of the United States is more evident than ever before, with the exception of Iraq. It is time for Japan to remove its troops from Iraq and explore more effective and coherent initiatives to promoting peace in the Middle East.