Japan in Their Own Words (JITOW)/日本からの意見

Middle East is not somebody else’s business for Japan
SAITO Mitsugu / Former Ambassador to Iran

May 16, 2023
1. Japan’s heavy oil dependence on the Persian Gulf
When Saudi Arabia suddenly announced in early April that it would reduce its oil production by 500,000 barrels per day (bpd), followed shortly thereafter by several other OPEC+ members, bringing the total cut to 1.1 million bpd, it was another bad sign to the Japanese economy, which is suffering from inflation. In spite of Japan’s serious efforts to work toward a carbon-neutral society, the country is still heavily dependent on oil, which accounted for 37.27% of its total energy consumption in 2021. Additionally, since the Russian invasion of Ukraine in early 2022, Japan has become overwhelmingly dependent on the Persian Gulf for its oil, relying on the region for over 95% of its supplies. It is of vital interest for Japan to maintain a stable and uninterrupted flow of oil from the Persian Gulf region.

2. Recent developments deserving Japan’s attention
(1) Iranian nuclear development
Since the Trump administration resumed unilateral sanctions against the Islamic Republic of Iran in 2018, Iran has been increasing the volume and density of its enriched uranium far beyond what was permitted under the 2015 nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Iran has subsequently insisted that it needed to balance against U.S. sanctions. JCPOA is an international agreement to lift economic sanctions by the UN Security Council in exchange for Iran limiting its uranium enrichment and stockpile.
The Biden administration still seems to be trying to find a diplomatic solution to Iran’s potential nuclearization, although senior U.S. officials recently made it clear that all options are on the table and warned that Iran was capable of stockpiling enough enriched, weapons-grade uranium for an atomic bomb in 12 days.

(2) Increasing friction between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia
The gap between the Biden administration and Saudi Arabia also seems to be growing wider. Before taking office, then-candidate Joe Biden criticized Saudi Arabia over the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul and pledged to treat the kingdom as a “pariah.” And naturally, Saudi Arabia was strongly offended by it. The divide between Washington and Riyadh has been attracting more attention since the Saudi-led OPEC+ decided to cut oil production by 2 million bpd last October. This came after President Biden visited Saudi Arabia in July 2022 to ask them to increase the output. The March 2023 China-brokered agreement to restore Saudi-Iran diplomatic relations was another blow to the Biden administration, and CIA Director William Burns visited Riyadh and expressed Washington’s frustration over the move. No doubt, the latest Saudi-led oil production cut of 1.1 million bpd has further provoked the U.S.

(3)Japan’s growing concern about China’s expansion of its influence
The Chinese mediation between Saudi Arabia and Iran, which could lead to the de-escalation of tensions between the two longtime rivals, should have been welcomed by Tokyo because both countries have been leading oil exporters to Japan. Saudi Arabia has been the largest oil exporter to Japan, which exported 39.7% of the total Japanese oil import in 2021. Iran’s share had been kept around 10% until the Trump administration resumed the economic sanction. In fact, to Japan, a country that is heavily dependent on Persian Gulf oil, China’s mediation suggests that China will be a strong competitor to Japan as an oil importer from the Persian Gulf. Like Japan, China has been heavily dependent on Persian Gulf oil, and therefore Beijing has plenty of motivation to try to increase its influence in the Middle East.

3. The U.S. will likely leave the Middle East
All of these issues are closely linked to the growing perception that the U.S. military personnel deployed around the Middle East will eventually leave the region and return to the United States, even though the U.S. insists there is no substantial change in its security commitment to the region. Whether this is true or not, such a perception is already widespread and broadly accepted. Thus, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Arab countries are trying to diversify their security partners and have become less hesitant about confronting the U.S., while China and Russia may try to fill the power vacuum created by an eventual U.S. redeployment. In other words, the present destabilization in the Persian Gulf has been triggered by the preoccupation with a U.S. withdrawal from the region.

4.Clash of Japan’s energy security and national security concerns in the Persian Gulf
As a country that is up to 95% dependent on oil imports from the Persian Gulf, Japan has a strong desire to see a continued U.S. military presence in the region. But the problem for Japan is that the U.S. forces are anticipated to be redeployed to the Asia-Pacific region. This further complicates matters for Tokyo as it tries to strike a balance between its energy security and national security concerns. For a long time, Japan has put a higher priority on energy security than on national security, thanks to decades of U.S. hegemony in the Asia-Pacific region. However, the Japanese people have come to view the continuous expansion of Chinese military power and continuing missile and nuclear developments by North Korea in the Asia-Pacific region as a potential threat to Japan’s national security.

5. Looking ahead
There is an inherent contradiction in what Japan expects of the United States under these circumstances. Out of its energy security concerns, Japan wishes the US military presence in the Persian Gulf to be kept to protect Japanese oil imports.
But, out of its national security concerns, it wishes the US military presence in the Asia-Pacific region to be increased to counter China’s aggressive military and ensure peace and stability. There seems to be no clear-cut answer to this conundrum. Possibly the speed of the US military redeployment to the Asia-Pacific region would be much faster than that of China’s increasing influence in the Middle East and other developments, which may give us some time to try to solve this conundrum.

Saito Mitsugu is a former ambassador to Iran.
The English-Speaking Union of Japan

斎藤 貢 / 元駐イラン大使

2023年 5月 16日


 (2) 米国とサウジアラビアとの間の摩擦の拡大
バイデン政権とサウジアラビアとの間の摩擦も高まっている。米大統領選挙時、ジョー・バイデン候補は、イスタンブールでジャーナリストのジャマール・カショギ氏が殺害された事件でサウジアラビアを批判し、同国を "のけ者 "として扱うことを公約に掲げたが、当然、サウジアラビアは、強く反発した。 ワシントンとリヤドの間の溝は、2022年7月にバイデン大統領がサウジアラビアを訪問し、増産を要請したにも関わらず、サウジが主導してOPEC+が昨年10月に日量200万バーレルの原油減産を決定して以来、より関心が高まっている。2023年3月に中国が仲介したサウジとイランの国交回復の合意は、バイデン政権にとって新たなダメージとなり、ウィリアム・バーンズCIA長官がリヤドを訪問してこの動きに対するワシントンの不満を表明した。間違いなく、今回のサウジ主導の110万BPDの原油減産は、米国をさらに刺激したであろう。

 (3) 中国の影響力拡大


4. ペルシャ湾における日本のエネルギー安全保障と国家安全保障の衝突

5. 今後の展望

一般社団法人 日本英語交流連盟

English Speaking Union of Japan > Japan in Their Own Words (JITOW) > Middle East is not somebody else’s business for Japan