After a week of talks with Japanese officials, scholars, and intellectuals, I am still grappling with the back-and-forth about the emerging global disorder and the evolving situation in the Indo-Pacific and the Middle East. China was the elephant in the room. Tokyo is closely following some of the recent developments in the Middle East, mainly the Abraham Accords, the I2U2, and the new role of India. As a reflection of Japan’s status as a G7 economy with an undisputed advantage in some of the most critical areas of technology, the Japanese intelligentsia was clear-eyed about this era of great decoupling and the risks it poses to the multilayered globalized system. Here are some of my key takeaways from the trip.

  1. Shinzo Abe’s legacy is alive: The new Japan and its new trajectory to safeguard its national sovereignty and ability to stand up to potential Chinese aggression are a reflection of the deep structural changes that the late Prime Minister Shinzo Abe championed during his time in office. Abe wasn’t only fundamental in redefining the Asia-Pacific on Japan’s terms as the Indo-Pacific — a term that became the main framework for the region for regional and global powers — but was also crucial in rebuilding strategic ties with the Middle East. His personal relations with the leaders of Egypt, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates made Abe one of the most trusted G7 leaders in the region.
  2. The growing China threat: China has been everywhere in my discussions with Japanese intellectuals and policy professionals. The fear is that China won’t just stop with annexing Taiwan by force, but that will only be the beginning, and Japan and other nations such as Korea and the Philippines could come under enormous strategic pressure. These growing fears explain the recent change in Japan’s strategic posture, which could be seen in the release of three documents: its national defense strategy, national security strategy, and military buildup plan. It is important to highlight the disagreements inside the Japanese political establishment on how to finance this new strategic posture.
  3. Merging the European theater with the Indo-Pacific: Japan embraces the liberal international order and is in line with the U.S.-led transatlantic alliance in Europe and its efforts to support Ukraine against Russian aggression as it highlights Japan’s commitment and seriousness in defending the rules-based international order against revisionist powers. While I understood the rationale in Tokyo, I made the case that linking the European theater to the Indo-Pacific one could be a strategic blunder, as it requires the diversion of Japanese resources that are better used in the Indo-Pacific in case of a Taiwan contingency.
  4. QUAD in Europe: It seemed that there was an expectation that the coordination with India in the Indo-Pacific should have been expanded to the situation in Ukraine. The argument I made is that India is clear-eyed about the growing threats in the Indo-Pacific and is a committed partner in the QUAD. However, repurposing the QUAD as a vehicle that goes beyond the Indo-Pacific into Ukraine might change its very nature as an issue-based minilateral framework with a very specific geopolitical focus. Furthermore, India is a member of an emerging group of nations that includes Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, and South Africa that pursues a third way between the U.S.-led alliance and the China-Russia axis.
  5. It is still the Middle East, not yet West Asia: Tokyo still views the Middle East traditionally as a region where Turkey, Israel, Iran, and Egypt are the big powers, and the Gulf is the main source of energy resources for Japan and other Asian economies. One issue I raised with Japanese intellectuals and strategists is the need to reconceptualize the Middle East as West Asia, a region that connects the Indo-Pacific to the Mediterranean Sea, and which is fundamental to Tokyo’s strategic thinking as a maritime power with an interest in connectivity around the Eurasian rimland. I made the case that India is a consequential player in the Eurasian landscape, not only in the Indo-Pacific but also in West Asia, and Japan and India should work together on maritime security in both the Indo-Pacific as well as in West Asia.
  6. Energy security: Japan’s most important priority in the Middle East is ensuring the free flow of energy from the Gulf into the Indo-Pacific. Tokyo imports more than 94% of its crude oil from the Arabian Gulf: 46% from Saudi Arabia, 30% from the UAE, 8% from Qatar, and 6% from Kuwait. In addition, Iran used to supply 5% of Japan's needs before the imposition of severe U.S. sanctions. There is always the fear of another oil shock, similar to the 1973 Arab embargo, but this time, in the case of a Taiwan contingency, there is a growing fear in Tokyo that another energy crisis might erupt and it would have the biggest impact on Japan and other Asian economies.
  7. The Korea-Japan situation complicates their cooperation in West Asia and the Gulf: Tokyo and Seoul have assumed a much more proactive role in the Gulf because of the increased levels of trade and investment, growing defense and security ties, as well as the need for greater energy security. The recent Japan-Korea reconciliation, if it succeeds and lasts for the coming years, could offer an avenue for cooperation between Tokyo and Seoul in the Gulf, building on the U.S.-Korea-Japan trilateral, which aims to build confidence between the two nations in the meantime and bring them closer together on issues of common interest, such as the Indo-Pacific.
  8. Tech competition intensifies: Japan, as a technological and innovation superpower, is a player in the ongoing tech competition between the U.S.-led bloc and the China-Russia axis. There is a growing fear that China is building a technological edge, and out-competing Beijing might have been the right strategy in 2010. It is time for an allied tech containment strategy, and nothing exemplifies the significant role that Tokyo plays in tech competition more than semiconductors. Japan recently joined the U.S. and the Netherlands, as well as Taiwan, to impose export controls on China’s advanced semiconductors. Semiconductors are a central piece in this new allied tech containment strategy, but other industries will be part of the tech competition in the near future as well.

From the Middle East to the Indo-Pacific, and from the Ukraine war to the tech competition, Tokyo is one of the few capitals with global interest and reach. Japan is also unwavering in its resolve to recalibrate its role in the emerging global disorder. This is why it is enormously important to understand Japan, and engaging with Tokyo should be about the status of bilateral relations as well as global thematic challenges.  


Mohammed Soliman is the director of MEI's Strategic Technologies and Cyber Security Program, and a Manager at McLarty Associates’ MENA Practice. His work focuses on the intersection of technology, geopolitics, and business in emerging markets.

Photo by Akio Kon/Bloomberg via Getty Images

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