What Japan's assertive foreign policy means for the Middle East

Once shackled by its pacifist constitution, Tokyo could play a more pivotal role in the region

Japan Maritime Self-Defence Force escort ship Kurama navigates behind destroyer Yudachi with a rising sun flag. AP
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In his groundbreaking work The End of History and the Last Man, the political scientist Francis Fukuyama underscored the importance of differentiating between “what is essential and what is contingent or accidental in world history”. By separating trivial from tectonic changes, Fukuyama argued, one can properly detect as well as correctly analyse transformational shifts in global affairs.

As far as Japan’s foreign policy goes, what we are witnessing is nothing short of an "essential" shift with major implications for the Indo-Pacific region and beyond. In the past few months alone, the North-East Asian powerhouse released three major strategic documents, namely the National Security Strategy, the National Defence Strategy, and a Defence Buildup Plan, which will collectively transform Japan’s post-Second World War foreign policy.

Accordingly, Japan is expected to double its defence spending as a share of its gross domestic product over the next five years, thus allocating $315 billion to enhance its defence capabilities. In particular, Japan, as noted in its National Security Strategy, seeks to develop a “counter-strike capability”, which would allow it to more effectively deter threats from rival nations.

Eager to gain support for Japan’s new defence posture, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida travelled to several G7 partner nations, where he signed defence agreements with the UK and Italy. Though still committed to its alliance with the US, with the two sides upgrading their defence relations in recent years, Japan is intent on enhancing its own strategic autonomy.

Authoritative surveys show that most Japanese people support the country’s new policy direction, even if the country’s pacifist constitution expressly proscribes offensive military capability development. An unshackled Japan, the world’s third-largest economy, will have major implications for international security, probably ushering in a new era of defence co-operation with a whole host of partners from South-East Asia all the way to the Middle East over the coming years.

Cookies on a plate sit on a table as US and Japan defence officials meet at the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia, last May. EPA

Following its decisive defeat in the Second World War, Japan was forced to relinquish its military capabilities in favour of a de facto protectorate status under the US. Accordingly, it adopted a new constitution, which not only established liberal democratic institutions, but also placed severe restrictions on the development of a standing army.

The country's constitution makes it clear that “the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as [a] means of settling international disputes”. In operational terms, Japan had to give up any military capability that gave it any "war potential" and the ability to exercise belligerence.

The advent of the Cold War, however, radically altered Washington’s strategic calculus towards Japan, which had now emerged as a bulwark against communist expansion in East Asia. On the one hand, the US supported Japan’s economic reconstruction, especially as a major war raged on in the neighbouring Korean Pensinsula. Meanwhile, Japan steadily rebuilt its armed forces, which were rebranded as “Self-Defence Forces” in lieu of the country’s pacifist constitution.

Nevertheless, former prime minister Shigeru Yoshida ensured that the US would largely handle the country’s external defence needs so that Tokyo can focus its energy and finite resources on economic redevelopment at home. Under another prime minster, Nobusuke Kishi, Japan formalised its status as a junior defence partner to the US, which, in turn, singlehandedly sponsored a new liberal security architecture in East Asia through a wide network of alliances.

Within a few decades, Mr Yoshida’s strategic gamble paid off, as Japan reclaimed its pride of place among the world’s leading industrialised nations. Buoyed by a booming economy, Japan founded the Asian Development Bank, the region’s premier intergovernmental financial institution, which backed large-scale Tokyo-led development projects across Asia.

Business people offer prayers for prosperity for their companies and the economy on the first business day of the year at the Kanda Myojin Shrine in Tokyo in January. EPA
Recognising its relatively helpless position in international affairs, Japan has steadily re-defined the contours of its foreign policy

Amid blossoming ties with South-East Asian nations, Tokyo chose Manila as the host to the ADB’s headquarters, thus cementing its position as a major economic partner in the region. Meanwhile, Japan, which became the world’s largest oil importer in the mid-20th century, also became the “pivotal customer” of oil-exporting nations in the Middle East. Throughout the 1970s and 80s, it sourced more than half of its oil imports from this region.

By the 1980s, Japan, now flushed with cash and high-profile acquisitions across the world, seemed well-positioned to overtake America as the world’s leading economy. The limits of its geopolitical influence, however, was exposed during the First Gulf War, as it proved unable to protect its energy supply lines in the Middle East.

Following the liberation of Kuwait, Japan contributed $13 billion in development and aid assistance. But thanks to its pacifist constitution, it was unable to deploy troops or relevant personnel on the ground, thus largely confining itself to the margins of international diplomacy. As a result, its foreign policy, especially in the Middle East, was derisively dismissed by some as “chequebook diplomacy”.

As Japanese expert Akiko Yoshioka explains, even if Tokyo has had the “historical advantage of neutrality” in the Middle East, it has lacked the “political leverage to be an influential mediator between parties in conflict because of stringent constitutional limitations on the military sphere”.

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, with a payload including two lunar rovers from Japan and the UAE, lifts off from Cape Canaveral, Florida, last December. AP Photo
ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - April 30, 2018: HH Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces (R), stands for a photograph with HE Shinzo Abe, Prime Minister of Japan (L) and a UAE-Japan Business Forum delegate (C), during a reception at the Presidential Palace.

( Mohamed Al Hammadi / Crown Prince Court - Abu Dhabi )

Recognising its relatively helpless position in international affairs, Japan has steadily re-defined the contours of its foreign policy. Two particularly charismatic prime ministers played a crucial role in this regard. First came Junichiro Koizumi’s controversial decision to deploy troops, although primarily engineers, to the Middle East following the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.

But it was his successor, Shinzo Abe, who would oversee a significant transformation of Japan’s foreign policy throughout the 2010s, largely in response to the rise of China as well as growing doubts over America’s commitment to regional allies.

During his long stint, the longest among all Japanese premiers, Mr Abe subtly relaxed legal restrictions on the Self Defence Forces’ ability to project power overseas, expanded defence co-operation and high-profile war games with likeminded powers across the Indo-Pacific region, and oversaw a significant increase in defence spending.

His efforts to amend the pacifist constitution, however, were met by vociferous opposition from allies, progressive legislators and civil society groups. Nevertheless, Mr Abe managed to steadily normalise a more proactive foreign and defence policy. Following his assassination last year, the governing coalition, led by Mr Kishida, a former cabinet colleague, managed to garner a super-majority in the parliament.

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida with French President Emmanuel Macron and other G7 Leaders at the Nato Headquarters in Brussels last March. AFP

In recent months, Tokyo pursued defence agreements with neighbouring states, including a potential Visiting Forces Agreement deal with the Philippines as well as a tripartite US-Philippines-Japan security framework. Japan has also announced a defence aid package that could transform it into a major arms supplier and source of military technology.

Booming defence spending and a more outward-looking military doctrine means that Japan is well-positioned to play a more prominent role in international affairs, including in the Middle East. Crucially, unlike the West, it has largely refrained from criticising systems of governments that are unlike its own elsewhere in the world.

The UAE, Saudi Arabia and Qatar are among Japan’s top sources of hydrocarbon imports. The North-East Asian power, which has robust relations with all the major regional players, has a direct stake in the Middle East’s peace and stability. Booming military spending at home will probably also boost Japan’s defence industry, thus the likelihood of expanded military equipment exports such as advanced radar systems and fighter jets to regional powers.

Similar to South Korea, Japan is in a strong position to provide high-tech defence equipment and vital technologies in the realm of renewable energy production. Since it has no history of imperial aggression in the Middle East, its re-emergence as a global power is likely to be welcomed by regional powers seeking a reliable partner outside of the West, Russia and China.

Published: March 16, 2023, 2:00 PM