When Shinzo Abe succeeded Junichiro Koizumi as Japanese Prime Minister late last year, he was widely expected to make a foreign policy declaration, including a key statement on Tokyo's Middle East policy. It isn't an overstatement to suggest that there couldn't have been a better message to deliver than his visit next week – accompanied by a delegation of 100 businessmen – to Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar and the UAE, as well as Egypt.
Just how assertive the Japanese administration's foreign policy is and how serious it is about the region was also evident in a defining speech by Minister for Foreign Affairs Taro Aso in February that expanded on his "Corridor of Peace and Prosperity" comments made a few months earlier. The minister listed three reasons highlighting the importance of the Middle East, including the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, to Japan – oil, economic transformation that is throwing up lucrative investment opportunities, and value of Middle East stability for global peace.
In 2006, Japan was dependent on the Middle East for 89.2 percent of its imported crude oil, with the GCC countries accounting for 76.4 percent. It is well understood in Japan, like in most parts of economically-resurgent Asia, that the oil market would increasingly become a sellers' market. As a major oil consumer, Tokyo realizes the importance of maintaining a tangible presence in the Middle East. Explaining the need to strengthen Japan's political engagement in the Middle East, Aso urged using economic, intellectual, and diplomatic resources, in an "all-Japan" effort.
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