By Takuya Nishimura, Editorial Writer, The Hokkaido Shimbun
The views expressed by the author are his own and are not associated with The Hokkaido Shimbun
July 24, 2023. Special to Asia Policy Point.
Facing the difficulty of energy price hikes caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it was not strange that Prime Minister Fumio Kishida visited the Middle East early this summer. Through a three-day visit to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Qatar (July 16-18, 2023), Kishida sought stronger economic connections in the region as well as political alliances. However, those Arab nations were mainly interested in acquiring Japan’s technology and investment. Kishida’s geopolitical effort to include the countries called “the Global South” on the side of Western democracy is still halfway there.
In the meeting with Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Kishida emphasized the importance of cooperating as strategic partners for regional stability. Saudi Arabia is in the process of socio-economic reform titled “Vision 2030,” a national plan started in 2016, aiming at moving the country away from its dependence on oil profits. Referring to a bilateral framework named “Japan-Saudi Vision 2030,” Kishida hoped for further cooperation in advanced science and technology, medicine, healthcare and other areas. Confirming the establishment of a strategic dialogue at the level of foreign ministers, both leaders agreed to enhance the countries’ relationship to foster decarbonization through technology-sharing that will establish the Middle East as the hub of next-generation energies.
It was obvious that Kishida made the visit to address Japan’s current energy problems. After Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began in February 2022, the government of Japan has increased subsidies to stabilize gasoline prices. The subsidies originally were part of a program to reverse the economic damage caused by COVID-19. According to a report of Agency for Natural Resources and Energy, Japan’s procurement of crude oil overwhelmingly depends on the Middle East, which provided as much as 97% of Japan’s oil imports this past May.
Kishida did not forget to express his gratitude to Prince Mohammed for the stable supply of crude oil from Saudi Arabia over the years. While Kishida emphasized the need for stability in the international crude oil market, Muhammad bin Salman simply expressed his willingness to work for the benefit of both the oil-consuming and oil-producing countries.
What Saudi Arabia wanted from Japan was cooperation in the energy shift from fossil fuels to clean energy. Based on a Saudi proposal , both leaders issued a joint statement on Light House Initiative for Clean Energy Cooperation, a bilateral framework to showcase Saudi-Japan leadership in clean energy projects and sustainable advanced materials and to support the Saudis’ ongoing efforts to become a hub for clean energy, mineral resources and supply chains for energy components.
For Japan, security in the Asia-Pacific region is crucial; economic development in the Middle East is not. One major reason for strengthening Japan’s relationship with Middle Eastern countries is to limit China’s influence over energy policy. Kishida introduced Prince Mohammed his renewed plan of Free and Open Indo-Pacific, which upholds principles of freedom, the rule of law, respect for diversity, inclusiveness and openness. While Kishida expressed his desire to continue working closely with Saudi Arabia in addressing various challenges in the Indo-Pacific, Prince Mohammed more generally expressed his pleasure to have an opportunity to cooperate with Japan “in various fields.” Although two leaders affirmed that they would never allow any attempt to unilaterally change the status quo by force, the Saudis did not mention Russia in Ukraine.
As the chair of the G7 this year, Japan is responsible for promoting G7 policy that condemns Russia. Yet Japan cannot find any leverage to invite Saudi Arabia into the framework of economic sanctions against Russia. Indeed, Saudi Arabia has cooperated with Russia in keeping oil prices relatively high, In a similar vein, Kishida did not touch on the murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi, notwithstanding a G7 statement in 2018 that condemned the killing.
Kishida’s meetings with the heads of UAE and Qatar were less fraught: economic cooperation with Japan was the basic feature of both visits. In the meeting with UAE President Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, who will be hosting COP 28 later this year, Kishida stressed that the cooperation between Japan and UAE was not limited to energy but extended to various fields including space. Both leaders issued a joint statement to lead international efforts to tackle climate change, recognizing the role of advanced technologies in accelerating decarbonization. In the meeting with Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, Kishida stressed the importance of investment in natural gas. Thanking Kishida for the contribution of Japanese companies to Qatar, Emir Tamim expected further investment and technology transfer.
In the decades after the World War II, the Japanese have been working to improve their image in the Middle East to spur economic growth in the recovery process from the devastations of war including the suffering from atomic bombs dropped by United States. The turning points in Japan’s relationship with the Middle East were the Gulf War in 1990-91 and September 11th of 2001. Following U.S. strategy, Japan shifted its diplomacy from strictly non-military support to involvement in military operations.
In the opinion poll in seven Middle East countries in 2021, 76% of the people acknowledged friendly relationships with Japan. That result surpassed United States (70%) but fell below ASEAN (93%) or India (91%). If Japan wants to exercise its leadership in Middle East, it must listen carefully to the voices of the people there, who are reluctant to be involved in the conflicts among the Western nations.