Asia is increasingly becoming powerful in the modem globalized economy because its economies are growing rapidly. Central to this economic powerhouse is the vital role played by Japan as a nation that connects Asia and other parts of the world (Hook, Gilson, Hughes, & Dobson, 2011). According to Legrenzi & Momani (2011), Japan is one of the most influential political and economic actors in the Persian Gulf, precisely in the Gulf Cooperation Region (GCC). Despite the fact that this is not widely documented, Tokyo holds unique cards in the GCC. Japan is considered a huge global market with one of the largest economies (Hook, Gilson, Hughes, & Dobson, 2011). Additionally, the country host sectors with ceiling growth potential. It includes energy, tourism and health sectors. The strategic location of Japan in Asia and its economic strengths corroborate the strong trade and diplomatic relationship between Japan and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), specifically with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA). This paper discusses the impact of Japan-KSA diplomatic relationship on the GCC. In order to substantiate the impact, the first section gives an overview of Japan, Saudi Arabia and the GCC. Succeeding, the brief background is a detailed discussion on the impact of the relationship between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and Japan on the Gulf Cooperation Council.
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (hereinafter referred to as Saudi Arabia) is the world’s largest producer of crude oil. It is the largest exporter of crude oil to Japan as well (Legrenzi, & Momani, 2011). The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was established in 1932, and since then, its leaders have concentrated on modernization and development of the country as a regional power (Kamrava, 2011). To this end, Saudi Arabia has formed some loose alliances with Western powers, such as the United States, which is an ally to Japan. For instance, following Iraqi’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990, Saudi Arabia allowed the United States military to station within the country (Miyagi, 2011). Similarly, Japan approved the stationing of the United States military at Okinawa in 2013. Japan regained its independence in 1952 and joined the United Nations (UN) in 1956 (Kamrava, 2011). In 2014, Tokyo ratified a change in its security policy, allowing its military to engage in invasive activities overseas.
The Gulf Cooperation Council is a loose economic and political alliance consisting of Bahrain, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates (Hook, Gilson, Hughes, & Dobson, 2011; Kamrava, 2011; Kemp, 2012). Its core aim is to enhance economic cooperation between its constituents and to protect members against any aggression from Islamic extremism and other external forces through joint security initiatives. Considering these profiles, it is arguable that the alliance between Japan and Saudi Arabia is influential along economic and political lines. In the last three decades, the diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Japan have expanded in various sectors including energy, medical care, as well as infrastructure development and other investments. Both Japan and Saudi Arabia have a balanced history of foreign relations. At the international forefront, Saudi Arabia is one of the key actors in the Arab and Muslim worlds (Kamrava, 2011). The development of Saudi Arabia is attributed to its geographical size, oil reserves and the custodian of the origin of Islam. Japan is stated to be the one of the world’s largest and most developed economies, having attained significant growth after the Second World War. Japan’s role within the international community is remarkable. Besides being a major aid donor, Japan is a source of global credit and capital. Its foreign policy was heavily influenced by the legacy of its actions prior to and during the Second World War. Arguably, besides economic considerations, preferential trade agreements (PTAs) have geopolitical and strategic motivations that shape the trajectory of the GCC arrangement. As the oil and natural gas reserves have maintained the GCC member states, contemporary achievement and growth in business and economic initiatives between Japan and the GCC have supported the existing GCC governing systems (Kamrava, 2011).
Though there are a geographical gap and a limited military influence, Japan continues to be a strong ally with the political will and economic capability to exert itself in the region (Kemp, 2012). The six-member GCC is supposed to stabilize the region, but they suffer from intra-GCC rivalry, which is threatening to change the fragile balance within the council. One of the major issues is the emergence of the Saudi Arabia-Qatar contention. In this discussion, the Qatar-Saudi tension serves as the focal point of the impact of the Japan-KSA diplomatic relations on the GCC.
Despite the frail religious, cultural and historical bonds, Japan and the Persian Gulf have become vital geostrategic allies. Japan is constrained in terms of natural resources, thus a leading importer of oil and natural gas from the region. Kemp (2012) noted that the Japan-KSA diplomatic relations were established in 1955, and have historically revolved around that economic dynamics. The historical and passive Tokyo-GCC foreign policy has shifted to a more vibrant role with the intention of protecting Japan’s energy interests in the region (Hook, Gilson, Hughes, & Dobson, 2011). Since Japan imports more than 80% of its crude oil from the GCC and Iran, political and economic stability within the GCC and the Middle East a whole is of great concern and interest to Japan (Legrenzi, & Momani, 2011). Since Qatar is one of the world’s leading exporters of liquefied natural gas (LNG) and Japan is its export partner, Doha and Tokyo have progressively become strong allies. Given that Japan enjoys a strong relationship with both Saudi Arabia and Qatar, these relations can be exploited to serve as an envoy in the Qatar-Saudi contention. The bilateral relationship between Qatar and Japan brings stability in the Gulf Cooperation Council LNG marketplace. The oil and natural gas trade remains the core pillar in the relationship between Asia Pacific and the Gulf Arab (Legrenzi, & Momani, 2011). In reference to the rest of the world, Qatar core export market is Asia, particularly Japan. Besides Japan, its main trading partners include Italy, Germany, and the UK. Japan is the chief importer of Qatar’s LNG. In 2005, 60% of Qatar’s oil export were received by Japan(International Business Publications, 2004).
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The unfolding scenario between Saudi Arabia and Qatar has not only placed Japanese-KSA diplomacy to test, but has also posed a challenge to economic interest and security concerns of Japan (Hook, Gilson, Hughes, & Dobson, 2011; Miyagi, 2011). This is subject to the fact that the GCC has brought regional and external powers in the play. For example, the British established a military base in Oman, the French – in Abu Dhabi, and the U.S. – in Qatar, Kuwait and Bahrain (Legrenzi, & Momani, 2011). Notably, the GCC is long known as a concourse for external powers, and is under geopolitical configuration, which has the potential to impact on the region’s geo-economics. Though the region has a fragile relationship with foreign powers, it resolves most of its core problems with the external intervention, interference or influence. In spite of the fact that Japan is a vital ally of the United States, Tokyo holds a critical role in the GCC region and the Arab world. For example, Japan maintains cooperative ties with Saudi Arabia, Iran, Qatar and Israel, while remaining impartial with reference to the conflict in Syria (Kamrava, 2011; Miyagi, 2004). As the central export partner for Qatar, the UAE, Oman, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and Iran, Japan has a considerable economic and diplomatic influence throughout the region (Legrenzi & Momani, 2011). The pressure put on Japan by the United States of America and the Western-imposed economic sanctions on Iran highlight how Japanese consumption of oil and gas from the region has become an influential variable in the diplomatic relations between Washington and the Arab world (Legrenzi, & Momani, 2011).
Considering the fact that Japan’s post-war constitution prohibits its military from engaging in in aggressive activities, the Japan Self-Defense Forces (JSDF) can be deployed to the GCC in the cases of peacekeeping and humanitarian missions (Kamrava, 2011; Miyagi, 2011). The success of the JSDF can be borrowed from its 1991 mission in the Persian Gulf when it was deployed to carry out minesweeping operations following the Gulf War. It was the first time when Japan deployed its military overseas after the World War II. Further, Japan deployed its armed forces to Iraq to aid in reconstruction efforts. Besides carrying out peacekeeping and humanitarian missions, Japan can utilize its military to secure its energy interest. Japan can deploy its military to the Qatar-Saudi border to escort operations in the event of a border closure. This move would portray Japan’s use of its military prowess to ensure greater stability in the GCC. If a war were to break out in the Persian Gulf, Tokyo would be compelled to pursue aggressive measures to sustain its energy lifeline. Japan, has not only depended on its soft power to improve the projections for stability in the Persian Gulf, as well as the Middle East. For example, in 2006, Japan initiated the “Corridor of Peace and Prosperity,” meant to reconcile Israel and Palestine (Miyagi, 2011). The effort involved Japanese financial support for Palestinian refugee camps. Inferring from such peacekeeping and humanitarian initiatives, Japan has a strong advantage in bringing about reconciliation between Qatar and Saudi Arabia or any conflict within the GCC. Agreements between Tokyo and Riyadh concerning technical assistance and cultural exchanges can be factored in Japan’s diplomatic influence on/within the Gulf Cooperation Council region (Legrenzi, & Momani, 2011).
Intra-GCC rivalry or instability in the Persian Gulf continues to be a challenge to Japan. While Japan supports the sovereignty and democracy of Qatar, Tokyo’s absence in the United Nations Security Council and the GCC limits its influence on the wrangles within the GCC, as well as the UN’s decisions. Given the tense situation between Saudi Arabia and Qatar, as well as the rest of the Persian Gulf, Japan approaches the situations strategically since it recognizes that its economy depends on oil and gas from the region. With the aim of reducing overreliance on the GCC for its energy demands, Japan has sought alternative sources of oil and gas from the non-GCC suppliers, including Indonesia, Russia, Egypt, Nigeria, Peru, and the United States (Legrenzi, & Momani, 2011).
The Fukushima nuclear disaster resulted in the shutdown of Japan’s nuclear plants. Consequentially, Japans’ domestic electricity bill rose by 30%. Further, its trade deficit rose to the record high levels. Therefore, Japan has become progressively dependent on Persian Gulf’s oil and natural gas. As Qatar starts building its infrastructure in the preparation for the 2020 World Cup, Japan is set to cooperate with Qatar in building railways, stadiums and other utilities where Japanese companies have an advantage. Construction and labor firms in Japan have been winning contracts in the GCC states to build and supply human resource for multi-billion dollar projects (Legrenzi, & Momani, 2011). To that end, Japan’s economic and political interest within the GCC would be served. Besides, strengthening the Japan-KSA relationship, the Investment Agreement signed in April 30, 2013, between Japan and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was meant to develop an investment environment and protect investments, as well as to strengthen the relationships between the member states of the GCC. Following Kuwait, this investment agreement is the second successful agreement that Japan concluded with a GCC member state. Such agreements contribute to the reinforced diplomatic relationship between Japan and the GCC member states (Legrenzi, & Momani, 2011).
Within the context Qatar and other wrangling GCC member states, the conflicts between radical and moderates continue to grow, thus leading to divergent opinions about the issues covered by the GCC. The Japan-Saudi Arabia relations can contribute to discouraging division, radicalism and breakdown of member states by desisting from supporting one state over another (Miyagi, 2011). Additionally, Japan can deter conflicts by strongly and actively convincing other states to desist from such meddling. This efforts should be carried out while maintaining its aid to address issues of poverty, human rights and social inequalities.
The Japan-KSA relations is also influential in the politics of the GCC because it goes beyond material interest. Japan’s record in respect to ethics and human rights, as well as its profile on issues and concerns of the people in the Middle East will continue to matter in the GCC region (Kemp, 2012). In Qatar’s case, even if political reforms or the pressure from the Japan-KSA relations alter public opinion, Qatar’s core stand pertaining to it national interest will not change significantly. In case Japan’s foreign policies are altered to align with the demands of the western countries, the population of the GCC will not welcome the altered Japan-Saudi Arabia relations regarding the terms of oil export, nuclear and modernization policies, as well as further political democratization.
Either a democratic or conflict-ridden Persian Gulf with extremist Islamist ascendancy, Japan’s interests and concerns seem to be aligned to an independent policy, built on fair or balanced approach (Miyagi, 2011). Given that there is a gradual decline in the Western influence and increased competition for the Japanese market from major Asian energy importers from Saudi Arabia and other GCC member states, aligning with Japan interventionist strategies tend to be beneficial to the GCC’s interests. Both domestic and international constraints limits Japan’s hard power. However, its soft power can be channeled effectively in political scenarios through multilateral involvement, especially via the United Nations.
Riyadh and Tokyo’s commitment in the maintenance of their global stature as mature democratic capitalists is put to test when the hard power of the emerging states, such as Qatar, becomes progressively noticeable. This can be protected through a value-based diplomatic approach. Such a diplomatic move must resonate with the views of the people in the GCC region, and should not be limited to promoting democracy, human rights, and the rule of law at the local level. Further, the initiative should be evident at the global forefront.
The Japan-KSA diplomatic relations is politically active; hence, it can be probed to resolve conflicts within the GCC and the rest of the Middle East because the partnership is less biased than the prominent Western powers. Japan’s foreign policy in the Middle East, particularly in the Syrian and Iranian cases, has illustrated its uniqueness from the West (Hook, Gilson, Hughes, & Dobson, 2011). For instance, Japan has consistently asserted that Iran has a right to engage in peaceful nuclear activities. However, Tokyo’s approaches have been opposed by the sides taken by the Western powers, particularly its incorporation in imposing economic sanctions and discouragement for military action. These standpoints limit the influence of Japan’s soft power induced from its reputation as an anti-militarist and non-partisan state (Miyagi, 2011).
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It is worth noting that the increasing political democratization implies the way that the Japan-KSA’s strategies are perceived by people in the GCC region is likely to have increased implications with them for Tokyo’s relations. The partnership between Saudi Arabia and Japan and its strong political leadership shape the path towards a comprehensive policy for Japan and the GCC, which departs from the conventional practice of exclusively balancing between the international powers. This is made possible by the sufficient and broad range of input from pertinent bureaucratic divisions in Tokyo and Riyadh. Furthermore, the Japan-KSA relations provide expert knowledge and various perspective regarding trade and dispute resolution. This pool of knowledge is used to arrive at a fair and balanced approach to the wrangles within the GCC.
In the democratic GCC, public opinion has more weight in international agreements and foreign policy. The GCC member states are more likely to accommodate a change in Western interventionist and containment approaches. That is to say, the Japan non-partisan image stands to be welcomed in the GCC states more than the Western powers whenever dispute resolutions are needed. Further, if the impact of the radical Islamists grows, opposition to the Western powers is likely to be more radical (Miyagi, 2004). Therefore, the Japan-KSA relations is more appealing and influential within the GCC.
The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) is a regional intergovernmental economic and political agreement in the Persian Gulf. It consists of Saudi Arabia (KSA), Bahrain, Oman, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Qatar. Though it is not widely documented as such, Japan holds unique cards in six-member GCC, something that is not likely to change in the foreseeable future. In other words, Japan is among the most influential economic and political actors in the Persian Gulf. Japan has no historical rift in the Persian Gulf or the Middle East; therefore, the Japanese are respected in the Arab world. With respect to its unique position in the GCC region, it would be prejudiced to point Japan as merely an economic player in the region. It is committed to being an agent of peace and stability in the Middle East and the GCC, even if the initiative is in its foreign policies. In pursuit of energy independence from the Gulf Cooperation Council, Japan should seek liquefied natural gas imports from its main non-GCC suppliers, including Brunei, Russia, Malaysia, Australia and Indonesia. Further, the Japan-KSA diplomatic relations should ultimately prove to be influential in determining the outcome of some of the GCC’s conflicts.
In summary, as Japan strives to be a vibrant actor in the GCC region, the impact of its strategies both in terms of image, foreign policy, soft power and consequences will be more significant in the future than nowadays. However, Japan’s character as a non-partisan country and reputation as anti-militarist in the GCC region may be compromised if its policies align with Western terms.