• Satoshi Ikeuchi and Gedaliah Afterman

The Time Has Come For a Japan-Israel Strategic Partnership

Recent developments in Europe, the Middle East, and the Indo-Pacific have boosted the once-lukewarm relationship between Tokyo and Jerusalem. But to truly boost their international standing, the two regional powers should work together to develop new frameworks of cooperation in the Middle East

iStock Photo/Vladimir Gnedin

As the world again faces prospects of an intensified clash between superpowers following the tragic events in Ukraine, middle powers across Asia and the Middle East are reassessing their strategic positions. At the time of writing, Japan has been the only Asian middle power to join the United States and other Western countries in denouncing and sanctioning Russia, while others hesitate. In the Middle East, most countries have been reluctant to choose sides, with Israel attempting to mediate between Russia and Ukraine instead.


The Middle East, traditionally a US sphere of influence, is undergoing profound changes because of the evolving superpower dynamic and, more locally, the signing of the Abraham Accords in 2020. Recent developments have demonstrated that the current regional order is very much in flux, with countries attempting to avoid becoming entangled in superpower rivalry. While this harbors uncertainty and instability, it also provides opportunity and a growing appetite for cooperation between middle powers from Asia and the Middle East. Two players that could play an important role in shaping this new dynamic are Japan and Israel.


Tokyo and Jerusalem have led a stable, if lukewarm, relationship for most of the past seven decades. However, recent events have created new opportunities for both countries to strengthen their cooperation and bolster their status in their regions and beyond.

From Japan’s perspective, as instability and tensions between the United States and China in the Asia-Pacific grow, so does the need to recalibrate its position in this region and others, including the Middle East. Tokyo has substantial economic interests in the region, spanning from energy trade with Iran and Saudi Arabia to investment in the technology and innovation sectors in the UAE and Israel.


Israel, for its part, is working to position itself as a key player in the Middle East following the recent normalization of relations several Arab and Muslim states. But to further improve its global standing and better weather the increasing pressures of superpower rivalry, Israel needs to develop stronger relations and cooperation with Asian powers - and Japan can, and should, be a central pillar in such a strategy.


Japan’s growing interest in the Middle East, coupled with the region’s increasingly open acceptance of Israel, can indeed facilitate a closer relationship between the two middle powers – one that could serve both countries at this important strategic juncture. In this article, we analyze the developments that pave the way for the establishment of a strategic partnership between the countries and lay out how this can happen.


From reluctance to embrace

In July, former Japanese Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi visited Israel, the UAE, Egypt, the West Bank, Iran, and Qatar, highlighting the Middle East’s significance to Japan. The trip was part of a Japanese effort to better understand recent developments in the region and to position itself as a major actor within it. Israel, we argue, can be a central partner in this endeavor.


This year, Japan and Israel will mark 70 years of diplomatic relations. But while Japan was the first Asian nation to normalize relations with Israel, the relationship remained limited until the end of the previous century. Japan’s ties with Israel have traditionally been constrained by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and concerns over an Arab boycott. Though merely nominal for decades now, the specter of Arab outrage has loomed over Japanese decision making, discouraging any drastic step forward to tighten relations with Israel. As a result, Japanese officials have avoided openly supporting Israel and consistently condemned its settlements in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

 

Tokyo has relaxed its cautious approach towards Jerusalem in recent years, especially during former Prime Minister Abe’s administration

 

The signing of the Abraham Accords in September 2020, which normalized relations between Israel and the UAE and Bahrain (and later Morocco and Chad), creates an unprecedented moment in modern Middle East history. The agreements have already profoundly improved Israel’s position in the region, and will hopefully remove the shadow of the Arab boycott for good. Such a development could pave the way for Japan to increase its regional footprint and open a new chapter in its relations with Israel.


Tokyo had already relaxed its cautious approach towards Jerusalem in recent years, especially during former Prime Minister Abe’s years in office. The signing of the Abraham Accords, as well Japan’s growing need for advanced technology, appears to have removed any remaining reservations on the Japanese side, at least as it pertains to economic collaboration.


In fact, Japanese investments in Israeli technology increased in 2020 by 20% to $1.1bn, despite the COVID-19 pandemic. This trend has since accelerated, with Japanese investment in Israeli technology eclipsing their 2020 record almost three-fold.[1] In 2021 it reached an unprecedented high of $2.9bn across 85 deals, which represent 15% of all foreign investment in Israel tech last year. Without much fanfare by their government, private investors in Japan are quietly riding the tide into Israel with conviction.


Beyond growing Japanese interest in Israeli technology, the budding relationship holds broader significance for both countries. As the strategic rivalry between the United States and China intensifies, Israel finds itself under increasing pressure from both powers. The Biden Administration is urging Israel to scale down its economic engagement with Beijing, particularly in the areas of infrastructure and technology,[2] providing Tokyo with a unique opportunity to fill the void. For Israel, deepening ties with Japan present a significant strategic opportunity in terms of its growing interest in Israeli innovation, particularly in military technology.


From the Indo-Pacific to the Middle East

Under the leadership of Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, which assumed office in October 2021, Japan is currently reassessing its regional and global positioning. A key policy developed by the current government is that of economic security, which focuses on securing Japan’s national interests, such as critical supply chains, as well as research and development of strategic technologies and innovation.[3] Combining Israel’s leadership in technology and innovation with Japan’s manufacturing capabilities and expertise can provide a strong basis for a new partnership.


Furthermore, in response to what it perceives as a more unpredictable and potentially hostile regional outlook, Tokyo is nowadays taking steps to strengthen its own defense and military capabilities. In January, the prime ministers of Japan and Australia signed the Reciprocal Access Agreement (RAA) aimed at facilitating joint exercises and other activities between the Japanese Self-Defense Forces and Australian Defense Force.[4]

 

As with Australia, Japan can also launch a strategic partnership with Israel focused on innovation, technology, and defense

 

The treaty is only the second defense pact Japan has signed in 70 years, the former being the US-Japan Security Treaty which came into effect in 1952, when the US ended its occupation after World War II. Aside from the bilateral benefits, the new treaty between Tokyo and Canberra is also designed to buttress both countries' security treaties with the US and to ensure its ongoing presence in the Indo-Pacific, which recently suffers from oscillation. It also serves to check China’s behavior, which is increasingly domineering to its adjacent and distant neighbors alike.[5]


Just as it has done with Australia, Japan can also launch a strategic partnership with Israel focused on innovation, technology, and defense. Israel and Japan have recently signed an MoU for defense cooperation,[6] which can be expanded substantially. Likewise, both countries should strengthen and elevate cooperation and joint research in areas such as cybersecurity.


A changing region

Like the Indo-Pacific, the Middle East is also currently undergoing profound changes. The US’s failures in Iraq and Afghanistan and demonstrated lack of resolve in Syria, the perceived erosion of its regional dominance, and the COVID-19 pandemic, have all helped China substantially enhance its relations with the Arab world. Beijing’s growing role in the region, and in particular its evolving relations with Iran, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the Gulf states, are consequential for both Japan and Israel.


In early January 2022, the foreign ministers of Turkey, Iran, and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries all visited China within the span of one week. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi has also conducted a few visits to the region during the previous year, highlighting its importance to Beijing.

 

Japan traditionally excels in building bilateral relations, but the Middle East presents and opportunity to act in a more strategic fashion

 

Japan is also looking to diversify and strengthen its relationship with the Middle East, but its efforts are quite different from Beijing’s approach. While China’s reaction to the Abraham Accords has been lukewarm, Japan has an opportunity to embrace them and become an active party in strengthening the agreements and taking them to the next level. Japan can leverage its strong ties to parties to the agreement to strengthen regional cooperation, and help bring other countries, such as Kuwait, Indonesia, and Saudi Arabia, to the table.[7]


Japan traditionally excels in building bilateral relations based on mutual trust. However, by making Israel a cornerstone of its evolving regional strategy, Japan could adopt a “minilateral”[8] approach to its relationships with Israel and the Gulf and assume a greater role in the Middle East. Developing trilateral and regional cooperation with Israel and its Arab neighbors could become a linchpin of Japan's long-sought-after diplomatic upgrade.


Using its “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” vision as a basis, Japan, alongside Israel and Gulf states, could for example cooperate in Africa.[9] In bringing together Japan’s foreign aid leadership and Israeli and Emirati innovation and expertise, they could together tackle issues such as climate change, water, health, “smart cities” and food security. Such collaboration could position Israel and the UAE as regional leaders on climate change and food security, while helping Japan strengthen its regional presence in both the Middle East and East Africa amidst growing superpower competition. By achieving this, it could create new economic opportunities and have a lasting impact on regional stability.


A Middle Eastern Quad?

With the world facing increasing instability due to growing tensions between the United States and China, “minilateralism” is indeed emerging as the diplomatic spirit of the times.


Filling the gaps of the overextended multilateral treaty organizations and other diluted frameworks, “minilateral” coalitions of the willing are sprouting. The most conspicuous is AUKUS, the trilateral strategic defense alliance announced this past September between Australia, Britain, and the US to share top-secret technology of nuclear-propelled submarines. The ultimate aim of this agreement is to better position Australia in the Indo-Pacific region and to counter China’s increasingly assertive activity there.


A broader grouping is the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or “Quad,” which includes the US, Australia, Japan, and India and is gaining importance in Indo-Pacific geostrategy. Unlike AUKUS, the Quad is not military-oriented, and focuses instead on health, technology, and other regional cooperation issues.

 

The Abraham Accords should not be limited to the Middle East. Instead, they could help strengthen cooperation between the region and the Indo-Pacific

 

The primary goal of such groupings in the Indo-Pacific seems to be containing China. In contrast, more complex dynamics are developing in the Middle East. As relationships between Israel and its new Arab partners develop quickly, a new venture following up on the Abraham Accords is the nascent "Middle East Quad." This “minilateral” framework was recently announced by the foreign ministers of Israel, India, the United States, and the UAE.[10] A first in-person ministerial level meeting is due to take place in Dubai in March.[11]


While not part of this framework, its establishment presents strategic opportunities for Tokyo to play an important and active role in the region. The Abraham Accords should not be limited to the Middle East; rather, they could serve as a platform for growing cooperation between the region and the Indo-Pacific, which will become the global economic and political center of gravity for the rest of the century.


In January 2022, Japan, Israel, and the UAE held the first Trilateral Innovation Forum. This first-of-its-kind gathering, which focused on trilateral cooperation in innovation and technology, could be broadened to include other joint regional and trilateral projects in areas such as greentech, healthcare, and investment.


With regions and outlooks undergoing fundamental changes, countries such as Japan, Israel, and the UAE are becoming pivotal to such new groupings in Asia and the Middle East. Middle-sized US allies with vital economic stakes in China are taking a more proactive and independent approach based on cooperation with like-minded countries.


Like in the case of Japan and Australia in the Indo-Pacific, discussed above, such middle power-led initiatives can benefit the individual countries and position them better. While the agenda for middle powers in the Middle East does not have to be the same, it might aim at a similar purpose. There is much room for a trans-regional concert of middle power nations, which simultaneously have indispensable security ties with the US and valuable economic assets in China.


As the superpowers continue to take what seems to be a zero-sum approach to managing their relations, middle powers have an important role in promoting a more inclusive agenda that could serve both regional stability and economic development. By working together, Asia-Middle East “minilateral” forums could make the security of participants more resilient and diversify their economic networks. Japan and Israel, along with Australia and the UAE and others such as India, could create a network of middle powers navigating together the increasingly tumultuous great-power rivalry.


As Japan and Israel celebrate 70 years of diplomatic relations, they face an unprecedented opportunity to establish a strategic partnership that can elevate bilateral ties and cooperation to new heights. But by taking a more strategic approach and becoming the forces driving such regional and trans-regional dynamics in the Middle East and the Indo-Pacific, the Tokyo-Jerusalem partnership could ultimately prove to be a strategic game changer for both their regions.

 

Prof. Satoshi Ikeuchi is professor of religion and global security at the Research Center for Advanced Science and Technology (RCAST) at the University of Tokyo. He is the founding chair of the ROLES (RCAST Open Laboratory for Emergence Strategies) which aims to be a University think tank for diplomatic and security studies.



Dr. Gedaliah Afterman is head of the Asia Policy Program at the Abba Eban Institute for International Diplomacy, Reichman University (former IDC Herzliya).




Notes:

[1] Ricki Ben-David, “Japan-Israel ties strengthen, as 2021 investments nearly triple to record $2.9b,” Times of Israel, 9 January 2022. https://www.timesofisrael.com/japan-israel-ties-strengthen-as-2021-investments-nearly-triple-to-record-2-9b/

[2] “Chinese companies lose Tel Aviv Light Rail tender amid pressure from US,” The Jerusalem Post, 31 January 2022. https://www.jpost.com/breaking-news/article-695045

[3] Suzuki Kazuto, “Inching Toward Economic Security: Kishida Cabinet to Focus on Defensive Tools,” Nippon.com, 9 February 2022. https://www.nippon.com/en/in-depth/a07901/

[4] Japan Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Japan-Australia Reciprocal Access Agreement, 6 January 2022. https://www.mofa.go.jp/a_o/ocn/au/page4e_001195.html

[5] Tan Ming Hui, “Japan and Australia ties blossom,” The Interpreter (Lowy Institute), 11 January 2022. https://www.lowyinstitute.org/the-interpreter/japan-and-australia-ties-blossom

[6] “Israel, Japan Sign Defense MoU,” Israel Defense, 11 September 2019. https://www.israeldefense.co.il/en/node/40173

[7] Jefferson Ng, “Indonesia-Israel Relations: Is a Breakthrough Imminent?” The Diplomat, 31 January 2022. https://thediplomat.com/2022/01/indonesia-israel-relations-is-a-breakthrough-imminent/; Jonathan Harounoff, “Why the Saudis Are Slower to Make Peace With Israel,” Haaretz.com, 16 February 2022. https://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/.premium-why-saudis-are-slower-than-their-neighbors-to-make-peace-with-israel-1.10612807

[8] Molses Nalm, “Minilateralism,” Foreign Policy, 21 June 2009. https://foreignpolicy.com/2009/06/21/minilateralism/

[9] Yuichi Hosoya, “FOIP 2.0: The Evolution of Japan’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy,” Asia-Pacific Review, Vol. 26, 2019, pp. 18-28. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/13439006.2019.1622868

[10] “Blinken hosts 4-way Zoom call with Israeli, Indian and UAE foreign ministers,” Times of Israel, 19 October 2021. https://www.timesofisrael.com/blinken-hosts-4-way-zoom-call-with-israeli-indian-and-uae-foreign-ministers/

[11] Rezaul H. Lasker, “New grouping of India, UAE, Israel, US to meet next year,” Hindustan Times, 14 December 2021. https://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/new-grouping-of-india-israel-us-and-uae-expected-to-hold-meeting-in-march-101639394229418.html