DUBAI: As the security environment surrounding Japan becomes more severe, maintaining a favorable balance of power has become an increasingly delicate task for Tokyo, which faces challenges on three major strategic fronts: China, North Korea and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Yet, two developments in the space of just two months have called Japan’s neutrality into question and exposed its diplomatic vulnerabilities.
In the latest incident, the principal security agency of Russia on Monday detained a Japanese consul in Vladivostok, in the country’s far east, on suspicion that he was obtaining information illegally in exchange for money.
The diplomat, Tatsunori Motoki, was subsequently ordered by the Russian Foreign Ministry to leave the country within 48 hours and an announcement made to the effect that a senior Japanese Embassy official in Moscow had been summoned to protest against his alleged improper acquisition of information.
“A Japanese diplomat was detained red-handed while receiving classified information, in exchange for money, about Russia’s cooperation with another country in the Asia-Pacific region,” the FSB security service said in a statement quoted by Russian news media.
On Tuesday, a Japanese government official said the consul had been released.
Nevertheless, on the same day, Takeo Mori, Japan’s vice foreign minister, summoned Mikhail Galuzin, the Russian ambassador, to the foreign ministry’s office in Tokyo to lodge a formal a protest over the Japanese consul’s detention.
Separately, Hayashi Yoshimasa, the foreign minister, said that detaining and interrogating a consul is a “clear violation of the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations,” as well as of a consular treaty between Japan and Russia.
Hayashi said Russia’s action was “totally unacceptable,” and claimed that Motoki was taken away blindfolded and restrained before being subjected to high-handed questioning.
He denied the Russian allegation that Motoki had engaged in illegal activities.
Russia’s Federal Security Service said the Japanese consul obtained nonpublic information on Russia’s cooperative ties with an unnamed Asia-Pacific country and also on the effects of Western sanctions on the economic situation in Russia’s Far East by offering money.
The Russian agency also released secretly shot images of a person who appears to be the consul receiving documents at a restaurant.
Russia recently designated Japan as an unfriendly country in response to Tokyo’s cooperation with US and European countries on imposing sanctions on Moscow following its invasion of Ukraine.
The first diplomatic development that cast doubt on Japan’s neutrality was its decision sign a defense agreement with Israel in August.
The deal was part of an effort to boost defense cooperation between the two countries, particularly in the area of military hardware and technology. But it potentially diminishes Tokyo’s ability to remain even-handed when it come to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Japan has long been hailed as an impartial broker of a future deal between Israel and the Palestinians. In 2019, a joint Arab News Japan-YouGov survey found that 56 percent of Arabs view Japan as the most credible potential candidate to act as a Middle East peace mediator.
On his trip to Tokyo, Benny Gantz, Israel’s defense minister, met with Hayashi, who took pains to reiterate his government’s support for a two-state solution to solve the decades-old conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.
Japanese analyst Koichiro Tanaka, a professor at Tokyo’s Keio University, believes the expansion of the Abraham Accords, the normalization agreements signed between Israel and several Arab states in 2020, has relieved Japan of this mediator role.
“Japan feels relieved from the pressure that existed in trying to balance its Middle East policy with its energy security,” Tanaka told Arab News Japan.
Mindful of the need to maintain allies in its own standoff with China, Japan’s primary foreign-policy goal has been to “appease Washington,” he said. With that comes the expectation of “making friends” with Israel.
“Japan’s role to mediate has never materialized because of US reluctance and rejection by Israel of such a role,” Tanaka said.
The Abraham Accords were the first public expressions of normalization between Arab states and Israel since 1994. When the agreements were announced, Tomoyuki Yoshida, Japan’s former foreign press secretary, called it a “positive development” that could “ease tensions and stabilize the region.”
He reiterated that Japan supported a “two-state solution” whereby Israel and a future independent Palestinian state “live side by side in peace and security.”
However, with Japan’s increasingly tense relationship with China and North Korea, the country has been expanding its military cooperation beyond its traditional ally, the US, to other nations in the Asia-Pacific region and Europe.
It is particularly concerned about Beijing’s military actions in the East and South China Seas. Israel has previously traded weapons with China and is the second-largest foreign supplier of arms after Russia.
China has accumulated a large arsenal of advanced military equipment and technology. The US has strongly opposed Israel’s arms trade with China. However, Israel has largely ignored Washington’s objections.
Some observers suspect Israel and China’s close trade relationship is the reason Japan has chosen to boost defense cooperation with Israel.
Japanese military strategists have been looking for ways to ease their defensive reliance on the US, potentially viewing Israel as a source of weapons and technology to strengthen Tokyo’s military power in the region.
But with the signing of the new defense deal with Israel, is Tokyo still in a position to mediate between Israel and Palestine?
Waleed Siam, the Palestinian Authority’s ambassador to Tokyo, told Arab News Japan that the Japanese government is “mostly supportive” of the two sides.
“Japan has a long history with Israel, but I believe Japan could still be part of the neutrality in helping both sides achieve settlements,” he said.
Siam said Palestinians, and the Arab world in general, have great respect for Japan, noting that Tokyo “always has supported the Palestinians to the highest degree, through many UN organizations.
“Japan is committed to helping the state of Palestine and has also always stuck to the UN resolution, refusing to recognize East Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and never recognized Israel’s illegal settlements.”
Asked whether Japan should have first reassured the Palestinian side of its continued neutrality before striking its security deal with Israel, Siam said Tokyo has the “right to do what it wants.”
He added: “Japan does not have to guarantee anything, because it stands very firm on its conviction with the international community and the UN resolution. It supports a two-state solution and the Palestinians’ right to independence.
“Even during the Trump period, when the former US president was pressuring everyone to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, Japan stood strong in the UN and voted against it.”
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However, Siam believes any country that signs an agreement with Israel should also place an emphasis on compliance with international law and human rights.
“I call on Japan to use this kind of deep friendship with Israel to put pressure on the Israelis to comply with international law,” said Siam. “If the international community does not stand together and pressure Israel into a two-state solution, there will never be peace.”
Israel has been the “largest obstacle” to finalizing a large agro-industrial park and logistics initiative in Jericho, proposed by Japan, called the “Corridor for Peace,” said Siam.
Japan, he argues, could utilize its deepening relations with Israel to help finalize the project.
During the 11-day war in Gaza in May 2021, Japan was adamant that all UN resolutions and international laws should be followed, reiterating its “clear, respecting and supporting” position in the conflict, said Siam.
Japan has long framed itself as the country most capable of negotiating a peace settlement between Israel and the Palestinians.
In the final analysis, few can argue that strengthening its military capabilities and investing in defense technology is a step in the right direction by Japan. But it clearly needs to be more diplomatic in pulling them off.