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Japan: An ideal link between the Middle East and the Indo-Pacific

By Vanessa Abou-Khalil
May 31, 2024

Japan: An ideal link between the Middle East and the Indo-Pacific

In the complex web of global geopolitics, Japan stands out as a formidable force, not just as an Indo-Pacific power and a technological giant but also as the world's fourth-largest economy. Moreover, Japan is perceived as a reliable partner, playing the role of the United States’s more important ally in the Indo-Pacific while nurturing friendly relations with Middle Eastern nations. The combination of these diverse strengths positions Japan as a key player capable of connecting the Middle East with the Indo-Pacific region. With a rich and complex historical background shaping the evolving dynamics between Japan and the Middle East, a continued partnership grounded in various areas of potential collaboration, and shared values, the two regions have laid a strong foundation for a robust and enduring relationship.

A friendship rooted in historical ties

The strong foundation of Japan’s friendship with the Middle East did not come easy, facing continual tests due to the ongoing tensions between the region and Japan's closest ally, the United States. From the first oil crisis in 1973, to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, to ongoing tensions between Iran and the United States, Japan had to navigate between its most important energy supplier, the Middle East, and its alliance with the United States.
But the country’s handling of challenges between the two was often characterized by a nuanced and balanced approach, earning it the trust and respect of Arab nations as a favored mediator. A YouGov survey highlighted Japan's popularity among Arabs, with 56 percent of respondents preferring Japan as a neutral mediator in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, far surpassing other nations like the US and the UK. This preference for Japan also stems from the country’s extensive aid programs to the region, and a pragmatic approach focused on economic and financial cooperation rather than political entanglements.

A friendship maintained through continued mutual interests

Former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe played a pivotal role in strengthening ties with Middle Eastern nations, setting the stage for ongoing collaboration in various fields beyond energy and focusing on shared goals of stability, peace, and sustainable development. Abe’s commitment to the region was also demonstrated through the personal relations he had cultivated with Arab leaders, including Saudi Arabia's King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the encouragement of dialogue between Israel and Palestine, and the support of countries like Jordan to counter extremism.
Building on this foundation, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida's recent engagements and agreements with Middle Eastern counterparts signify a continuation of Abe's legacy. In July 2023, he visited Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar, a significant step in strengthening Japan's ties with the Middle East. Although discussions on energy cooperation took center stage, the leaders also emphasized the importance of security cooperation and soft power exchanges. Moreover, several bilateral cooperation documents and Memorandums of Cooperation between Japanese companies and counterparts in the Gulf countries were signed during the visit, spanning sectors like advanced technology, healthcare, education, and tourism.

A friendship strengthened through shared values

With a unique blend of tradition and democracy, Japan is perfectly positioned to understand both Middle Eastern and Western values.
Indeed, Japanese and Arab cultures both prioritize authenticity and continuity with tradition while embracing modernization, striking a balance between traditional values and contemporary progress. Moreover, both societies value communal ethics, such as sacrifice for the greater good, underscoring the importance of social harmony and responsibility. Finally, a strong emphasis on work ethics and productivity is evident in both cultures, reflected in their economic strengths and societal structures. These shared values and traditions allow Arab nations to connect and relate to Japan more than they do with Western countries, leading to enhanced cooperation, including economic partnerships and cultural exchanges.
Japan has recently demonstrated a growing political influence and proactive stance on global issues, evident in various examples such as its tough response to Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the successful hosting of the G7 summit in Hiroshima, and its election as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council for the 12th time, surpassing any other UN Member State. This expanding role not only highlights its capability as a bridge-builder but also increases its responsibility as one of the few nations with a unique position to foster global peace and stability.
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