Japan can help build a better Middle East

Last month, Japanese Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi visited Egypt, Palestine, Israel, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Qatar as part of a regional tour focusing on Middle East security and COVID-19 recovery. The visit coincided with the United States’ exit from Afghanistan and the resulting uncertainty over Washington’s decades-long engagements in the Persian Gulf and broader involvement in regional geopolitics.

Returning to Tokyo, just a year after coming to power, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga joins the ranks of revolving-door Japanese prime ministers. But although Suga’s tenure was brief and troubled, his administration continued to lay the strategic foundation for his predecessor, Shinzo Abe, whose eight-year tenure saw Japan’s transformation into a prominent steward of international order. liberal. Given Japan’s currently depressed economy and the setbacks of its COVID-19 recovery after the Tokyo Olympics, Suga’s potential successors will have their work cut out for them.

But as a highly interconnected middle power engaged in key areas of concern for the Middle East, Tokyo has the opportunity to initiate a multilateral strategic dialogue with the region that focuses on critical issues of the coming decades, namely digital transformation and technological competition. Such a dialogue would help the Middle East adjust to Washington’s post-Afghanistan realignment, mitigate the risk of further regional destabilization, and balance the region’s competing interests between the United States and China.

Last month, Japanese Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi visited Egypt, Palestine, Israel, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Qatar as part of a regional tour focusing on Middle East security and COVID-19 recovery. The visit coincided with the United States’ exit from Afghanistan and the resulting uncertainty over Washington’s decades-long engagements in the Persian Gulf and broader involvement in regional geopolitics.

Returning to Tokyo, just a year after coming to power, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga joins the ranks of revolving-door Japanese prime ministers. But although Suga’s tenure was brief and troubled, his administration continued to lay the strategic foundation for his predecessor, Shinzo Abe, whose eight-year tenure saw Japan’s transformation into a prominent steward of international order. liberal. Given Japan’s currently depressed economy and the setbacks of its COVID-19 recovery after the Tokyo Olympics, Suga’s potential successors will have their work cut out for them.

But as a highly interconnected middle power engaged in key areas of concern for the Middle East, Tokyo has the opportunity to initiate a multilateral strategic dialogue with the region that focuses on critical issues of the coming decades, namely digital transformation and technological competition. Such a dialogue would help the Middle East adjust to Washington’s post-Afghanistan realignment, mitigate the risk of further regional destabilization, and balance the region’s competing interests between the United States and China.

Former Japanese Foreign and Defense Minister Taro Kono, a favorite to succeed Suga, played an important role in Japan’s efforts to mediate US-Iran tensions following the murder of Iranian General Qasem Soleimani. Abe’s longtime Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida, another potential successor, is also passionate about the Middle East. Most recently, as chairman of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s Policy Research Council, Kishida played an important behind-the-scenes role in Tokyo’s efforts to protect the Iran nuclear deal during the former president’s years. American Donald Trump. Even Abe’s preferred replacement for Suga, former Japanese Home Minister Sanae Takaichi, who has less foreign policy experience, could faithfully represent Abe’s security doctrine of “proactive pacifism” in the Middle East. .

Japan has a significant advantage as a bridge builder and unifier in the Middle East. Despite having close ties to NATO and having been a logistical cornerstone of other US-led wars such as Korea and Vietnam, Japan played a limited role in the occupation of Iraq. and Afghanistan. Japan is thus one of the rare allies of the United States to have emerged from the last decades of intervention in the region with a reputation still intact. Japan’s popularity can be attributed to a large extent to its post-war foreign policy consensus on “pass the buck” pacifism – recently rejected in favor of a more proactive security role in the world, this time. which confirmed Tokyo’s good faith as an “honest broker” and differentiated it from other US allies in the Middle East.

On the Tokyo side, the Middle East has been an important region for Japan and its trading partners in Asia due to its long-standing energy dependence on the Persian Gulf and the supply of oil reserves to countries. surrounding areas. Since the Carter administration, Washington has been committed to the free flow of oil from the Persian Gulf to the West and its allies, first and foremost: Tokyo. The main suppliers of oil to Japan remain Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Qatar.

Today, however, Japanese policymakers must prepare for any potential erosion of Washington’s willingness or ability to protect strategically critical sea routes that cross the more than 3,200-mile sea area that stretches from the Straits of Washington. ‘Hormuz at the Straits of Malacca. While the US Navy has maintained a rapid pace of freedom of navigation operations in the Indo-Pacific, it may struggle to maintain this level of engagement in several regions. Observers may therefore view Motegi’s tour – and Japan’s upcoming diplomacy in the Middle East – as an important milestone for Tokyo’s ongoing efforts to define a new global role for itself beyond l ‘Indo-Pacific.

In recent years, regional capitals from Muscat, Oman, near the Persian Gulf to Rabat along Morocco’s Atlantic coast have struggled to navigate the New Cold War between Washington and Beijing. The United States remains the main guarantor of the security of the Persian Gulf states as well as an important military partner of major North African economies, such as Egypt and Morocco. But China has become not only the top oil export destination for the Persian Gulf region, but also the main trading partner of most countries in the Middle East. Recent events in Afghanistan, meanwhile, have renewed questions about the long-term US withdrawal. But it is still doubtful whether China is willing to step in and take greater responsibility for Middle East security, like the protective role Washington has played in the Persian Gulf since the 1980s and to the extent. Beijing’s current economic stake in the region.

As such, there is an urgent need for a new multilateral architecture, with much needed external support. During Motegi’s visit to the Middle East last month, the Japanese foreign minister urged Iran to defuse geopolitical tensions and affirmed Tokyo’s support for regional counterterrorism efforts. The Baghdad summit at the end of August represented a first effort by various regional actors and France, including the Head of State, to prepare for a post-Washington Middle East; the Biden administration has vowed to leave Iraq by the end of 2021, opening the door to a new power vacuum in the region.

Along with France, India has also forged strategic partnerships with Israel and the United Arab Emirates and deepened bilateral relations with Saudi Arabia and Greece. Also given that Japan, France and India are each the main proponents of free and open Indo-Pacific construction, the long-term viability of which depends in part on the sustained economic growth of the Persian Gulf, the three countries have a natural role to play in the Middle East. The future stability of the East.

The quadrilateral security dialogue of Japan, Australia, India and the United States, again active from 2017, could provide a model for this proposed strategic regrouping. To avoid the mistakes of its first incarnation, which ended in 2008, “Quad 2.0” organized three working groups dedicated to vaccine distribution, climate change mitigation, and critical and emerging technologies. The revived Quad’s focus on specific common concerns rather than a comprehensive framework has been essential to its development as a credible bulwark for regional security and prosperity. This so-called mini-lateral or problem-specific approach could serve Japan well in its engagement with the Middle East. It could build on Tokyo’s earlier efforts elsewhere involving the rollout of 5G, quality infrastructure, and cybersecurity cooperation, skillfully using these initiatives as stepping stones to a broader coordination mechanism. Certainly, given Japan’s positive reputation in the Middle East, a regional dialogue hosted by Tokyo has the potential to address a wider range of security issues than would appear realistic in a tightly focused US-led framework. on Iran’s nuclear program and the promotion of democracy and human rights.

Tokyo could be particularly suited to help the Middle East overcome the tensions associated with the deployment of 5G. The Persian Gulf states, Egypt and Morocco have each questioned whether to follow in Washington’s footsteps by excluding Huawei or ZTE equipment from their 5G networks. Even if China remains their largest trading partner and source of foreign investment, these countries and possibly others in the region will have to contend with the national security and privacy ramifications of Beijing’s current monopoly on the industry. 5G networks.

However, the Middle East’s concern about China’s closed network architecture is creating new synergies with Japan, whose government and industry have been leaders in developing disaggregated, virtualized and interoperable network solutions. A joint commitment of five major Middle Eastern mobile operators to deploy open RAN technologies, announced in July, could give Tokyo the momentum it needs to form a regional 5G task force to complement other multilateral efforts. aimed at supplanting Huawei, the Chinese company often seen as an arm of the state. Japanese open RAN developers already engaged in the region, such as Rakuten, Nippon Telegraph and Telephone and NEC, would play a vital role in this endeavor.

During this next phase of its engagement in the Middle East, Japan has a vested interest in helping the region adjust to its changing geopolitical landscape and is uniquely positioned for it. Multilateral problem-based working groups, such as the one focused on open RAN technologies, could facilitate a broader cross-regional strategic dialogue that harnesses the Middle East’s access to capital as well as the innovation potential of the Indo- Pacific to usher in a new era of stability and prosperity.

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