When it comes to Syria, Japan finds itself in a bind. Committed to aligning itself with the US on foreign-policy matters, it also has a huge strategic interest in keeping the Middle East as stable as possible. Quite simply, oil from the troubled region is helping to keep Japan in production at a time when all but two of its nuclear power plants are out of action, as they have been since the earthquake and tsunami in 2011.
The thermal power plants that are being used to make up the shortfall in energy are largely run on fuel imports from the Middle East – 83 per cent of oil and 29 per cent of liquefied natural gas. Although Japan is a loyal ally of the US – on whose presence its defence depends – it will be reluctant to join a call for military intervention.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has been working hard to cement resource-poor Japan’s relationship with the oil-rich region. Only last week he returned from a four-state visit to Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar and Djibouti, having visited the UAE and Saudi Arabia earlier in the year.
Japan has already shown that principle sometimes has to go by the wayside when it comes to energy needs. It was granted an exemption from the international embargo on doing business with Iran, as it continues to import quantities of crude oil from the pariah state. Although there has been an overall decrease in crude imports to Japan from Iran – presumably a condition of it being allowed to continue business dealings – the amount it bought in May was around 220,000 barrels a day, double the amount it was buying in the same month the previous year. In March the US extended Japan’s sanction exemption for another six months, a period that will shortly be up for renewal.
So far, Japan’s official comments on Syria have been non-committal. Yesterday, Prime Minister Abe said he would “closely monitor” the US Congress’s reaction to President Obama’s request for support in a military strike on Syria. Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida was similarly vague, “We have to consider our position,” he said. “While closely watching the situation and continuing to collect necessary information.” Neither clarified whether Japan would support a strike by the US.
Judging by the media coverage there’s no appetite in Japan for military action. Most of the commentary from across the political spectrum calls on all parties to pursue diplomatic means before resorting to military intervention.
Japan is in a difficult position and with limited influence at the UN and a pacifist constitution that restricts its defence force to a peacekeeping role, it has little to offer its ally in practical terms anyway.
Fiona Wilson is Asia bureau chief for Monocle.