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Ever since Shinzo Abe came to power in Japan, he has introduced many changes in Japan’s domestic and foreign policies. Some of the changes in his foreign policy are major, with major consequences. In my recent trip to Japan, I met Mr. Tetsuo Kotani, a senior fellow at the Japan Institute of International Affairs (JIIA)*, and discussed Japan’s foreign policy under Premier Abe with him. I met him in his office in Tokyo.
Mr. Kotani was very friendly and discussed the issues in a very cordial and informal environment. Excerpts of the interview follow:
“Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s foreign policy is based on his realistic approach founded on a realistic assessment of international relations,” Mr. Kotani said.
This approach can be witnessed in his regional policies as well as his policy towards far away regions.
Regarding relations with Iran, he said, “There is no obstacle to bilateral relations. No country has opposed Japan’s close ties with Iran, but there are rivals.
France, Germany and even the US are our rivals, but there is no practical obstacle to our bilateral relations with Iran”.
Asked about expansion of ties in post-JCPOA, he said, “The Japanese government encourages Japanese companies to engage with Iran”.
Iran signed a nuclear agreement with the P5+1 group of countries last year, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), according to which Tehran put some limits on its nuclear program in exchange for the lifting of all sanctions. The deal has been endorsed by the UN Security Council.
Since the deal, Japan has been stepping up relations with the oil-rich country, lifting its sanctions on Iran in January and signing a bilateral investment pact the following month.
Tokyo is pushing Japanese companies to do business in Iran amidst intensifying foreign competition for access to the Iranian market.
The value of Japan’s exports to Iran stood at 7,514 million yen in September 2016, showing 465.2 percent increase in a period of one year, while the value of imports from Iran stood at 44,941 million yen, showing an increase of 105.2 percent during the same period (www.customs.go.jp, as retrieved on Dec. 18, 2016).
A couple of weeks ago, Japan offered Iran around €2.05 million ($2.2 million) for nuclear safety initiatives to help the Middle Eastern state implement its historic nuclear deal with the West.
“We agreed that bilateral relations are steadily making progress in a wide range of areas, including on cooperation for the steady implementation of the nuclear agreement,” Japan’s Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida told a joint news conference in Tokyo on December 7, after talks with his Iranian counterpart Mohammad Javad Zarif, Reuters reported.
The ministers’ meeting came after Prime Minister Shinzo Abe expressed his readiness to visit Iran to boost economic ties during talks with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York in September.
Asked if Japan had a proper understanding of the new situation in Iran, Kotani said, the head of his institute visits Iran twice a year to get firsthand information and to brief the concerned officials.
Regarding Abe’s foreign policy towards the Middle East, Kotani said, “Japan will continue its policy of equidistance with Middle Eastern countries. Iran and Saudi Arabia are important partners of Japan.”
“Tokyo is more concerned about the future of Saudi leadership,” he said, adding, “The Middle East is very important for Japan’s economy and security. Japan will continue to engage in the Middle East”.
Today, both the Middle East and Europe are insecure, he said.
Stability in the Middle East and Europe is important to Japan.
“We are good friends of both Iran and Saudi Arabia, which is a strong point for Japan. Taking sides is good in the short term, but not in the long term; hence, an equidistance approach is our position,” he said.
“At this stage we want to engage in the region to play a role, send humanitarian assistance and encourage the countries to have dialogue with each other to solve the problems through negotiation,” he added.
On Japan’s regional policy, he said that before, Japan’s foreign policy was based on the Cold War, which was colored with antiwar sentiments.
Asked to elaborate, Kotani said, “In the previous policy, we did not care about what was going on in the world. Abe is determined to change that mindset.” In other words, he said, Abe wants a proactive approach to peace. However, this approach is based on a balance of power.
By ‘balance of power’ I mean creating a balance between powers in our foreign relations, he said.
“We have three options to create a balance of power: Accommodation; internal balancing, i.e., increasing our power; and external balancing, i.e., boosting our relations with like-minded powers,” said Kotani.
Abe is determined to combine the latter two options.
In order to achieve this goal, Prime Minister Abe has used the term Abenomics and has offered a new interpretation of the Constitution of Japan: Japan can expand its power and also expand its ties with the US, Australia and India. Abe tries to combine internal and external options to secure economic prosperity and boost security, Kotani said.
* JIIA is a comprehensive foreign policy/security think-tank established in December 1959 at the urging of former Prime Minister Shigeru Yoshida and modeled on the Royal Institute of International Affairs (Chatham House) and other institutions. Mr. Yoshida chaired the newly established JIIA, and the institute received strong and wide-ranging support from politicians in both ruling and opposition parties, leaders from the business community, and prominent experts from academia and media circles. In September 1960, JIIA was authorized as an incorporated foundation affiliated with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and in March 1963 it received certification as a corporate body making special contributions to the public interest, a status that made it eligible for certain tax incentives. Following amendment of the Act on General Incorporated Associations and Foundations, JIIA was certified as a public interest incorporated foundation in March 2012, and in April of that year it transitioned into the public interest incorporated foundation that it remains today.