Japan and China may be changing their tune on policy in the Middle East. Photo: iStock

Over the years, China and Japan have followed very different paths of involvement in the Middle East. The one policy that both countries have consistently shared though is steering well clear of the region’s politics and conflicts. This is starting to change.

China and Japan are both highly dependent on Middle Eastern energy sources and are interested in expanding their economic interests in this area. Both countries are also trying to strengthen their political stance in the region and become more involved in big power Middle East politics.

But are the two countries’ competing trajectories in the Middle East related to the broader Sino-Japanese rivalry?

At face value, competition over access to energy sources seems like the greatest source of Sino-Japanese competition in the Middle East, with a direct contest over the development of some oilfields already happening.

But looking deeper, it does not seem like their decisions concerning investments and other economic activities in the Middle East’s energy sector are dominated by their confrontation elsewhere.

Another aspect of Sino-Japanese economic competition in this region is over access to markets and infrastructure projects.

Japanese and Chinese firms are even said to be fighting a “sales war” for construction projects in Asia, including the Middle East. That said, Sino-Japanese rivalry hardly affects their economic activities in the region — their economic interests seem to impact their respective political moves there more than the reverse.

Since the beginning of the 21st century, Beijing and Tokyo have sought to widen their political role in the Middle East.

In China, some have suggested taking advantage of the Arab Spring’s turmoil to improve China’s own position in the region amid other world powers.

Japan in turn seems to be cautiously increasing its political involvement in the Middle East to acquire world power status. But neither country wishes to become that deeply involved in the region’s intricate politics.

Japanese and Chinese firms are even said to be fighting

a ‘sales war’ for construction projects in Asia, including the Middle East

All things considered, there is one important way that the Middle East participates in the Chinese-Japanese rivalry: it gives Japan opportunities to ease its half-century of restrictions on the use of military force. And this is causing great concern in Beijing.

Since the end of the Cold War, legislation on the dispatch of forces overseas has played an important role in Japan’s relaxation of its self-imposed legal restrictions on the use of military force. Developments in the Middle East have provided it with ample opportunities.

The revision of the Self-Defense Forces Act following the 1991 Gulf War, the 1992 enactment of the International Peace Cooperation Law and, following 9/11, the enactment of the Anti-Terrorism Special Measures Law are just a few examples.

These laws had clear operational implications, and events in the Middle East have indeed given Japan the opportunity to implement them.

The anti-terrorism law allowed Japan to participate in non-UN (and non-combat) peacekeeping operations in US-led military attacks in Afghanistan and in Iraq.

In 2009, Japanese forces joined the international anti-piracy effort in the Gulf of Aden, which offered Japan new opportunities to expand the use of its military forces. Among other things, Japan even established an anti-piracy base in Djibouti in 2011 — its first overseas military base since World War II.

For China, Japan’s involvement in Middle East crises and the respective legislative measures it undertakes are mostly seen as means for a more ominous cause: the relaxation of its constitutional constraints on the use of military force.

Chinese sources maintain that Japan’s legislative and practical steps toward deeper military involvement in the Middle East were aimed at restoring its military capability, increase its military presence abroad and break the post-1945 order.

Still, China has not overtly challenged Japan’s military activity in the Middle East, nor has it disregarded it.

Arguably, the Japanese base in Djibouti was one of the reasons behind the establishment of a Chinese military base there, which in turn led to the expansion of the Japanese base.

The Middle East may also serve the two states’ military competition in more ways, such as mutual military intelligence gathering and acquiring operational experience.

More broadly, the Sino-Japanese dynamic in the Middle East offers some lessons to other regions outside Asia. Changing priorities have led China and Japan to expand their involvement in the Middle East and to seek new opportunities.

Yet unlike Western powers, acquiring dominance in that region has not become an independent goal for either China or Japan.

This means that the risk of their rivalry spilling over onto this region is slight. Likewise, players in the Middle East should not expect much support on regional matters from the two Asian powers.

Yoram Evron is a Lecturer in the Department of Asian Studies, University of Haifa. This commentary is based on his recent article ‘China–Japan Interaction in the Middle East: A Battleground of Japan’s Remilitarization’ in The Pacific Review.

The article first appeared on East Asia Forum. Read it here.

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