photo (Foreign Minister Taro Aso)

Middle East Policy As I See It
An Address by H.E. Mr. Taro Aso, Minister for Foreign Affairs
Organized by the Middle East Research Institute of Japan
Hotel Okura, February 28, 2007


Thank you very much for inviting me here today.

I understand that the Middle East Research Institute of Japan was founded at approximately the same time that the Liberal Democratic Party was formed. From the days of its founding to the current chairmanship of Reijiro Hattori, the Chairs of this Institute have never failed to be persons of great eminence. I am certain that the business community has had great expectations of this Institute.

Today I would like to expound upon what I myself consider to be our guiding principles as we move forward with our Middle East policy in the months and years to come.

The Arc of Freedom and Prosperity

It was exactly three months ago that I spoke on the topic of forming an "arc of freedom and prosperity," and in so doing announced a new principle for Japanese diplomacy.

Forming this arc would mean emphasizing universal values such as freedom, human rights, democracy and the rule of law in an area that geographically traces an arc along the outer rim of the Eurasian continent. This would be based upon the experiences that we Japanese have had as a result of our own struggles over the years.

I repeated this idea once again during my recent policy speech at the opening of the current Diet session, introducing it as a new axis for Japanese diplomacy.

What, exactly, do we consider important in life? Putting those values into words defines us in terms of what we are and what we aspire to be.

In this way, forming an arc of freedom and prosperity to my mind represents an attempt for Japan to define itself.

In some countries or areas within the Middle East, there might be some wariness at the words "freedom and prosperity." However, the way that Japan conceives of this principle is something that I am confident that everyone will be able to accept.

I want the peoples of the Middle East--and by that I mean the Middle Eastern region in the largest sense, from Afghanistan to northern Africa--to know what exactly it is that Japan treats as invaluable. Then, one day, I would like the people of the Middle East to hold those same ideals in common. This is my hope.

Words of healing to soothe injured pride

That said, while it is good for us to convey who we are to others in a straightforward way, the cardinal rule of diplomacy is that diplomacy can go nowhere without an understanding of the other party.

With that in mind, I would like to take a moment to imagine what it would be like if I had been born in the Middle East, taken Islam as my religion, and were now living there.

As I understand people of the Islamic faith, we can say for example that Muslims in general love their children no less than anyone else does.

Therefore if I were to stand in their shoes, should innocent children be killed as a result of terrorist attacks, it would be we Muslims who would be the most outraged and infuriated of anyone. At times we might want to raise our voices in our outrage, protesting that terrorists do not even deserve to call themselves Muslims.

And yet as a point of fact, at times the teachings of Islam, or the people of the Islamic faith, are in certain arguments painted with the same brush as terrorists, so I would think that more than once, we would have also wanted to say that we are misunderstood by the rest of the world.

If you read up on history you will soon come to see that the Middle East has historically been a place fusing and sublimating the cultures of East and West, bringing forth the foundations of modern civilization. For the people of the Middle East to have tremendous pride in this history is only natural.

Still, when you look at the modern era, it seems that things have not gone especially well. The Middle East, I would argue, is characterized by having many people who harbor feelings of frustration over this.

Is it not perhaps the case that people of the Middle East are yearning in their heart for words that will ease some of the pain of this injured pride? I believe that a sensitivity towards this matter must be the first building block for Japan's diplomacy toward the Middle East.

After that I consider it important to state clearly the fact that while we abhor terrorism, we Japanese do not by any means hate Muslims.

The Middle East as the "Ginza 4-Chome" of Diplomacy: Three Reasons

After that long introduction, let me now move on to the heart of the matter.

As a person charged with enhancing the prosperity of Japan for our children and our children's children, it is impossible for me to overemphasize the critical importance for Japan of the Middle East, which provides us with such important resources.

In forging principles for our Middle East policy, the first thing I must state today is my determination to deepen our engagement with the Middle East region with regard to not only economic but also political dimensions.

I will be addressing this in more concrete terms later in my remarks, but I believe that we must take every opportunity to increase the frequency of mutual visits by high-level and senior officials.

For Japan, the issues of the Middle East are, as someone rightfully said, "required subjects" in the field of diplomacy. If I were to rephrase that concept in my own words, I would say that in the diplomatic world, the Middle East is the equivalent of Tokyo's venerable Ginza 4-chome shopping district, the upscale must-see for over a century for folks visiting Tokyo for the first time. It is the area in which others will assess your overall strengths in the field of diplomacy.

Let me present to you today three reasons why it is fitting for me to state that the Middle East is so important.

Reason Number One

The first is related to oil resources.

In 2006 Japan was dependent on the Middle East for 89.2% of its imported crude oil, with the Gulf Cooperation Council states, or GCC states, providing 76.4% of our total imported crude oil.

Add to this the emerging economies of China and India, which already depend on the Middle East for approximately 40% and 60% of their oil imports respectively, and it becomes apparent that for the foreseeable future, the outlook from the perspective of the Middle East is that the oil market would become a sellers' market to the extreme. As an oil consumer, clearly Japan must maintain a tangible presence in the Middle East.

However, when we consider the world's recoverable petroleum reserves, we can see that in the future not simply countries such as China or India but indeed the entire globe will be increasing their degree of dependence on oil producing countries in the Middle East. The more the world depends on the Middle East for its oil import, the more increasingly important stability in the Middle East will become in the future. The reverse is clearly impossible. This is my first reason for you today.

Reason Number Two

The second reason why the Middle East is so critical is related to the unexpectedly bright prospects now seen in the region.

We are given to thinking that the Middle East is in a state of constant turmoil, but I would instead like to ask Hiromasa Yonekura, President of Sumitomo Chemical Company, Ltd. for his views, as Sumitomo Chemical has just entered into a joint venture with the world-famous Saudi Aramco for the development of one of the largest integrated refining and petrochemical complexes in the world, and he might tell a very different tale about the appeal of operating there.

This Rabigh project of Sumitomo Chemical in Saudi Arabia is truly enormous in scale, with total operating expenses of over 1.1 trillion Japanese yen. Simply supplying electricity, steam, and freshwater requires a major effort, being conducted by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, Ltd. As a project involving numerous entities among corporate groups, the tale of this extremely "hot" project now underway there in the blistering heat of Saudi Arabia looks to become one that will be handed down over the years as a great success story.

In the Gulf region now large-scale projects are becoming quite common, and as a result, there is no time like the present to have this "all-Japan" diplomatic power, which incorporates the private sector, exercised in the Middle East.

This is yet another definite aspect of the Middle East. Assisting Japanese companies that move to take advantage of this opportunity will have a tremendous positive impact on our national interests.

The Middle East at a Crossroads: Stability or Turbulence?

Reason Number Three

Yet my third reason is the most important of all, and one of which you are already well aware.

It is my firm belief that the Middle East region as a whole stands at a crossroads of great consequence. That is, the question before us is whether the region will head towards stability or instead spiral downward to turbulence and turmoil.

In the past, issues were largely compartmentalized, so to speak, with Middle East peace issues being Middle East peace issues, Iraqi issues being Iraqi issues, and Iranian issues being Iranian issues, more or less. Yet from around the time of the fall of Saddam Hussein, the balance of power has shifted, and such issues now have a host of mutual repercussions and interactions.

As a result, in at least certain parts of the Middle East, the situation is moving increasingly towards one with an extremely unpredictable future order. In such cases, extremist groups deviating from the original form of the religion are able to increase their power and the situation becomes increasingly confused.

Bringing About Poles of Stability for a Less Turbulent Order

I would assert that herein lies the answer to the question of why it is essential for Japan to strengthen its political engagement with the Middle East.

By that I mean, it is imperative that we secure and then reinforce maximum stability in the region, leading to a calmer and more stable order. This can be achieved by making full use of Japan's economic resources, intellectual resources, and diplomatic resources, in what I call an "all-Japan" effort.

When I speak of this to my ministry's Arabists or our specialists speaking Persian or Turkish or Hebrew, I want them to be full of anticipation and excitement at what that implies. To assist in bringing stability to the region of the Middle East, a task with true significance in the history of the world, is the job that stands before us now.

A Corridor for Peace and Prosperity

Among these, the tremendous significance to be found in the Middle East peace process--that is, of working to bring about permanent coexistence between Israel and Palestine--cannot be emphasized enough.

If the order in the region became turbulent with this issue as its seismic center, or even in the opposite case, in which this area reached a state of maximum stability, a type of multiplier effect would develop, with implications throughout the region.

New momentum has emerged for peace in the Middle East. In the Palestinian Territories, a national unity government is now finally looking to take shape. I believe that we must enhance this momentum by exchanging high-level visits repeatedly between Japan and Israel and Japan and Palestine, while working together with such major powers in the region as Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

The concept of creating a Corridor for Peace and Prosperity, proposed by Japan, has a particular significance at this time.

Japan is calling for the creation of this Corridor for Peace and Prosperity on a route starting from the territory on the western bank of the Jordan River, better known as the West Bank, across Jordan and beyond, leading to the Gulf states.

The West Bank of the Jordan Valley, in which Palestinians reside, has a flat belt of land, rare for this region, of some 1,000 square kilometers, an area about half the size of Tokyo. As just a brief outline of the Corridor initiative, this area would be utilized as a central point for high-value added agriculture.

Brought Forth through Fruit: Trust, Confidence, and Immunity to Terrorism

Nation-building in the state of Israel started with success in agriculture. And what Israel was able to achieve, Palestine too must become able to achieve. The West Bank must bring forth fruit and olives in much greater plenty than now.

In order for that to happen, it is critical to have regional cooperation regarding water issues. Furthermore, the final products must pass through Jordan if they are to get to the Gulf states, the largest consuming region.

For that reason, the Palestinians cannot avoid cooperating with the countries concerned, namely Israel and Jordan, to create such a Corridor.

In fact, this statement contains the most significant aim of the Corridor for Peace and Prosperity initiative. Specifically, Japan would serve as the flagperson, calling on everyone to make his best efforts. Through their experiences in cooperative undertakings and the solid achievements that these experiences will bring about, the people of the region will gain the most valuable asset in the Middle East, and that asset is none other than trust.

But that is not all. Upon agricultural development and the success of agro-industrial parks, the youth of the Palestinian Territories will gain not only employment opportunities but also a can-do approach to challenges. What they will gain, my friends, is confidence.

For us in the Asian context, it was when we first gained this confidence and became optimistic about our futures that our economies took off. I want the people in the Palestinian Territories to feel that same sense of achievement well up inside them. In my view, there is no better way to build immunity to terrorism than that. The thought of optimists full of confidence about themselves and their future engaging in terrorism is a mismatch of the highest order; if such people do indeed exist I for one would like to meet them.

If the West Bank, which has often been synonymous with turbulence and tragedy, could instead become another word for "a pole of stability" and "success story," we can expect that the resulting multiplier effects would be nothing but positive.

In mid-March, representatives of Palestine, Israel, and Jordan will be coming to Tokyo to work to launch this initiative in earnest. I hope that you keep this important event in mind.

A Free Trade Agreement with the Gulf Cooperation Council States, and Comments on Turkey

Another key point in making a pole of stability in the region is the strengthening of our relationship with the Gulf Cooperation Council states, or GCC. We are now working to conclude a Free Trade Agreement, or FTA, with the GCC, and we are proceeding at a pace that is truly unprecedented.

An FTA would enhance our economic relationship with our most significant trading partners in the Middle East, namely Saudi Arabia, as well as with other GCC states. By extension, this will help to ensure a stable supply of oil resources.

Upon the conclusion of this agreement, there will be even greater interaction between Japanese companies and the GCC, and all the more so in the case of direct investment. And as the traffic between our countries intensifies, managerial and business know-how will begin to be transferred from Japan to the GCC states.

These will create a virtuous circle, and what will result is increased stability in the economies and societies of the GCC states over the medium to long term. I believe that in concluding an FTA with the GCC, great significance can be found in this point. Indeed, in my mind, this makes our FTA important in a broader international context as well.

In looking at Turkey, as one of the largest countries in the Middle East, it is imperative that there too a pole of stability be achieved.

Both historically and in the modern era Turkey has held a strategically important location geographically. The fact that Turkish is commonly understood across Azerbaijan and into Kyrgyzstan only underlines the point that interacting with Turkey nowadays is of increasing significance. Turkey is also one of the few countries in the region that does not have a poor relationship with Israel. In a number of ways it is indeed critical for Turkey to be at the heart of regional stability.

This same Turkey has been waiting to accede to the European Union for many long years, and now even at the stage of negotiations for accession it has found the road to be extremely difficult. I feel that we must not allow our voicing of moral support for Turkey to die down. The challenges of modernization and democratization that Turkey successfully went through are those that Japanese consider close to their own hearts. I want to convey my support to Turkey and encourage it wholeheartedly to keep up its efforts.

Dealing with Iraq, Iran, and Afghanistan

The other question of course is how to deal with countries that are already facing the risk of their order entering a state of flux, namely Iraq, Iran, and Afghanistan. In none of these cases can we say that optimism is warranted.

However, in the case of Iran for example, the Iranian Foreign Minister and I have a relationship at present by which we can readily have conversations by telephone, and I intend to maintain our relationship so that we can continue to do so. Japan enjoys a very unusual position in the international community, able as it is to hold conversations with any country throughout the Middle East in the broadest sense. I very much consider this to be a key asset for Japan's diplomacy.

Diplomacy of course is really an art at its core--the art of persuasion. This year, I plan to have our staff at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs become extremely well-versed in the art of persuasion as they become engaged with Iran.

Today I will not be touching further on Iraq or Afghanistan, but there are three thoughts that I would like to leave you with today.

The first of these is that Japan has over the past few years gritted its teeth and continued to invest in these two countries in various ways--in terms of human resources, goods, and capital, regarding economic, political, and also national security matters. In Iraq, people in our Ministry even lost their lives in the course of their service to society. Having overcome the tragedy of our lost colleagues, if we were now to retreat out of fear, what purpose would our many efforts there have served?

Incidentally, I would like to add that in the hopes of helping to foster reconciliation among the people of Iraq, we are planning to host a small National Reconciliation Seminar here in Japan in March.

The second point I would like you to remember today is that unless we are able to stop the bloodshed in Iraq and Afghanistan, it will be no surprise if the violence occurring among religious factions and by terrorist extremists spreads beyond the Middle East as a whole to various regions of the world. In that regard, this issue is of the greatest urgency.

Working to Eliminate Animosity and Build Confidence

The third thought that I want to leave with you today is one that is always a major issue, and that is namely that the image of Japanese, whether in Iraq or Afghanistan--or, for that matter, anywhere in the Middle East--appears not to be a negative one at all. It may be presumptuous for me to make such a statement, but this does in fact seem to be the case.

It seems somehow that there are no feelings of ill will towards Japanese in the countries of the Middle East. Instead, what we often hear is that people hold Japan in a positive light as a rare example of a non-Western European country that has successfully modernized while maintaining its own traditions.

To give you a different perspective on this, one columnist in Iraq had an article in the newspaper that ran something like this. "Japan for me has always been a part of my imagination since I was little.... The Japanese have always been here with us, along with UFO Robo Grendizer and Captain Majed."

So you see, Japanese anime is very well-received in this region of the world, too. UFO Robo Grendizer is a robot-focused anime series created by Go Nagai; Captain Majed is the Arabic name for none other than our Captain Tsubasa.

Both of these are in a class by themselves in popularity in Iraq and, indeed, all over the Middle East. Yet despite such fertile fields existing for Japan in this region, Japan has not been successful in watering these crops. We need to push a bit more for better public relations efforts.

At any rate, if indeed it is the case that Japan is a country fortunate enough to be seen without particular prejudices by the various countries and factions around the region, then that suggests a unique role has emerged for Japan.

Even people who, if they had not come to Japan, might never have interacted at all their entire lives, and might even have come to hate each other, are able to discuss issues with full peace of mind when the venue is Japan. This is because, should someone come to a meeting in Japan, he or she would not be branded with any particular label. In other words, Japan is able to play a major role in both eliminating animosity and building confidence, and, indeed, this is a role that it should take on.

Japan brings together bereaved families from both Israel and the Palestinian Territories victimized by terrorism, enabling them to experience their common feelings of grief. When I first learned that various local authorities in Japan are undertaking programs that make use of these shared feelings to seek avenues for reconciliation, I was genuinely delighted. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has been providing assistance for these efforts.

In Israel and the Palestinian Territories, or in Japan, initiatives are being undertaken to bring together parents who have lost their children, or children who have lost parents or siblings. By all means we will be continuing steadily with such truly moving efforts.

In addition to these projects, we have been continuing for some time to bring together young civil servants, students and youth leaders, and journalists from both Israel and the Palestinian Territories, and as we continue these efforts their impact becomes greater.

Japan is also promoting intellectual exchanges and dialogue fora, such as "the Japan-Arab Dialogue Forum" and "Dialogue among civilization between Japan and the Islamic World." It is my goal that eventually, in the minds of the people of the Middle East, it will be Japan that excels in enabling people to consider the issues shared across the region.

Issues Common to the Middle East (Concluding Remarks)

Taking up now the question of what issues are common to this region, I believe that the answer has already emerged.

I have saved this point for last, and with that in mind let me touch here on the importance of fostering human resources in the region.

Along with Jordan and other countries, Japan has been stressing the critical nature of education and of developing human resources in the Middle East.

In Afghanistan, Japan has established nine job-training centers to assist with the reintegration of former soldiers into society.

What's more, public-private partnerships have helped to advance projects such as an advanced training institute for automobile-related technology in Saudi Arabia and the improvement of education in automated control technology in Turkey. This emphasis on job training is a hallmark of Japanese efforts in the Middle East.

In Saudi Arabia, Japan is involved with a program that assists women who often stay in the home with the fundamentals of starting a company even there at home. Another hallmark of our efforts is that we work for the empowerment of women.

The feudal lord Takeda Shingen is said to have remarked that it is people that build stone walls, and people that build castles--meaning that people are indeed valuable resources. And while I am no Takeda Shingen, I am able to say that Japan's modern history began once it began investing heavily in people.

Japan has led the world in promoting government-financed foreign students and in making elementary education compulsory.

It is absolutely clear to me that in the case of modern Japan, it was the ongoing investment in human resource that served as the foundation upon which our freedom and prosperity rested.

In the future as I work towards the creation of an arc of freedom and prosperity in the world, I will make it clear that efforts should start with human resource development.

In the Middle East, the importance of human resource development and education has been emphasized increasingly in recent years as a result of one situation that is quite imminent. When I spoke earlier of issues that are common throughout the region, this is what I was referring to.

Specifically, in the first half of the 21st century, across the board the Middle East region will be experiencing a population explosion. Saudi Arabia for example will see its population more than double between 2002 and 2025, going from 23.5 million people to an estimated 48.5 million. Over the same time period Egypt will see its population grow from 73 million to 103 million, and even Iraq is expected to grow from 24 million to over 40 million.

The question is therefore how we can bring hope for the future to the tremendous number of young people with which the population will swell in the years to come, and how we can create necessary employment opportunities for them. Should we err in our handling of the situation, there may very well appear groups of frustrated persons, the scale of which the world has never seen before. This will most certainly result in the region being an ideal hotbed for terrorism.

With this in mind, I perceive the Middle East as currently standing at a critical crossroads.

Today, I have given you my thoughts on what Japan should do in order to assist in steering the Middle East region as a whole to greater stability, including various concrete proposals.

None of the tasks currently at hand will be easy, but Japan will be taking a sound, steady approach, always keeping our aspirations high as we work on practical means of implementation. On that note, I would like to conclude my remarks to you today.

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