Abe’s vision under threat

Hostage killing rekindles concerns with Abe’s plans to recalibrate Japan’s foreign commitments.

Protesters holding signs bearing a photo of Kenji Goto
Abe adopted a tough stance against paying any ransom to ISIL, writes Heydarian [Reuters]

Shortly after Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, on an official trip across the Middle East, pledged $200m to assist the intensifying regional campaign against ISIL, the Japanese public was confronted by the horror of a video depicting two Japanese hostages, Kenji Goto and Haruna Yukawa, held captive by ISIL. In an unequivocal rebuke to the Japanese government’s decision to aid international efforts aimed at containing ISIL, and addressing the humanitarian tragedy unfolding across the region, the captors demanded exactly $200m within 72 hours for the freedom of the Japanese hostages.

Haruna Yukawa, a private military contractor who was kidnapped in Syria last August, was allegedly killed when Japan missed the January 23 deadline for payment of the ransom. Subsequently, ISIL offered a “prisoner swap” deal, demanding the freedom of an ISIL member, currently in Jordanian custody, in exchange for the safe release of the second Japanese hostage, Goto, a prominent freelance journalist. It marked the first time that ISIL took Japanese citizens, who were abducted in Syria.

Shinzo Abe, fresh from a resounding electoral victory at home, vowed “an all-out effort” to use “every diplomatic route” to secure the lives of the Japanese nationals. He enlisted the assistance of major Middle Eastern leaders,from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas, to the Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and Jordan’s King Abdullah.

Cowardice of terrorism

In line with the position of western powers, particularly the US, Abe adopted a tough stance against paying any ransom to ISIL, declaring “Japan will never yield to terrorism. Japan will do its best in the battle against the cowardice of terrorism, hand in hand with the international community.”

Second Japanese hostage ‘beheaded’ by ISIL

In a dramatic turn of events, Jordanian authorities, worried about the fate of a Jordanian pilot currently held hostage (along with Goto) by ISIL, expressed their willingness to negotiate a prisoner swap deal, raising hopes for the safe release of the second Japanese hostage. Japanese and Jordanian authorities have allegedly been coordinating the negotiation of the prisoner swap deal with ISIL, with Iraqi tribal and religious leaders serving as intermediaries.

In the end, however, Goto faced the same fate as his compatriot, with Abe condemning the “horrendous” and “despicable” killing of both Japanese hostages and vowing “Japan will not be defeated by terrorism”.

Under Abe’s leadership, Japan has embarked on an ambitious plan to overhaul its foreign and defence policies. Abe’s decisive brand of leadership has won him tremendous popularity at home, but Japan’s deeply pacifist culture has constrained Abe’s plan to make Japan an increasingly independent and influential actor on the global stage. The hostage tragedy, however, could further strengthen domestic opposition to Abe’s vision.

Beyond oil Interests

Resource-poor Japan, a leading industrial power and the world’s third largest economy, continues to be among the least energy secure countries on earth – a conundrum that was compounded by the Fukushima crisis in 2011. The Middle East alone is responsible for almost 90 percent of Japan’s hydrocarbon imports. Japan’s post-World War II “economic miracle” was largely fuelled by Middle Eastern energy resources, with such staggering level of dependence repeatedly exposing the Asian country to upheavals across the Arab world and beyond. It is no wonder that Japan was one of the most severely affected countries during the “oil shocks” of the 1970s and 1980s.

For a long time, Japan stood as a top trading partner of many Middle Eastern countries, including Iran, but Tokyo struggled to translate its robust economic relations into a coherent source of influence across the Middle East.

For a long time, Japan stood as a top trading partner of many Middle Eastern countries, including Iran, but Tokyo struggled to translate its robust economic relations into a coherent source of influence across the Middle East. As a major ally of the US, which has acted as the main guarantor of the Asian country’s national security for decades, Japan has had to repeatedly toe Washington’s line, from freezing major investment in Iran, to supporting NATO operations against Saddam’s Iraq in the 1991 Gulf War and, later, the US-led “coalition of the willing” invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Constrained by a pacifist constitution, which bars the country from offensively projecting its military prowess, Japan mainly served – to the dismay of its western partners – as a source of logistical and financial support throughout repeated western military interventions in the Middle East. Japan was the largest extra-regional financier during the first Gulf war, contributing as much $13bn to NATO operations against Iraq.

Japan rising

With the rapid rise of China, and growing volatility in the Korean Peninsula, Japan has had to revisit its foreign policy doctrine in recent years. After years of dangerous territorial showdown between China and Japan over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands in the East China Sea, Abe was able to reclaim the mantle of leadership by promising economic revival and national rejuvenation to a worried public.

True to his words, Abe has introduced major economic reforms, dubbed as “Abenomics”, which have so far, fallen short of ending Japan’s decades-long economic stagnation. But he has been more decisive in refashioning Japan’s foreign policy by visiting dozens of countries across multiple continents in the last two years, increasing military aid to strategic partners such as the Philippines and Vietnam, relaxing restrictions on export of military hardware, and enhancing the Japanese Self-Defence Forces’ ability to withstand external threat and aid allies in times of crisis.

Earlier this year, Abe endorsed the country’s biggest post-World War II defence budget, allocating $42bn to the maintenance of Japan’s formidable military muscle as well as state-of-the-art military acquisitions such F-35 stealth fighter jets, Aegis combat systems, P-1 maritime patrol aircrafts, components of Northrop Grumman RQ-4 drones, among others. His pledge of $200m to help international efforts against ISIL was part of Abe’s to enhance Japan’s profile as a reliable partner of the West and a key contributor to international security.

Nonetheless, the tragic death of the two Japanese hostages has rekindled lingering concerns with Abe’s plans to recalibrate Japan’s foreign commitments, potentially galvanising greater opposition to his vision of a more proactive Japanese foreign policy.

Abe has faced a difficult balancing task of reassuring allies of Japan’s continued commitment to its international obligations – specifically, not giving into ISIL’s demands as encouraged by the US and its western partners – while preventing a full-scale alienation of the staunchly pacifist electorate at home, which will more likely shun a more proactive Japanese foreign policy as it mourns the grievous death of two Japanese citizens.

Richard Javad Heydarian is a specialist in Asian geopolitical/economic affairs and author of “How Capitalism Failed the Arab World: The Economic Roots and Precarious Future of the Middle East Uprisings.”

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.