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Japan's foreign minister maps out Middle Eastern detour to US

Kono sees deeper involvement in region as bolstering ties with Washington

Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono, left, speaks with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.   © Kyodo

TOKYO -- Japan's new foreign minister has taken a strategic interest in Middle Eastern affairs, hoping to deepen ties with Arab nations and help Washington smooth out its complicated relations with the region. 

Taro Kono, who assumed the post in August, returned home Wednesday from a five-country tour of the Middle East. In a speech delivered in Cairo, he revealed Japan's plans to actively get involved in the region, an initiative viewed positively by American officials.

U.S. President Donald Trump has a particular interest in the Middle East, entrusting Jewish son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner with regional peace efforts, among other goals. Anti-American sentiment runs strong in the region, however, and the Middle East has long been a thorn in the side of past presidents. The Trump administration's policy toward the region remains uncertain.  

In contrast, many Middle Eastern nations view Japan as a friendly country, making it easier for Tokyo to gain trust in the region. Kono has built up a network of contacts there since studying in the U.S. Kono met King Abdullah II of Jordan, a classmate at Georgetown University, over lunch in the royal palace in Amman. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman arranged for a private jet to take Kono to his next stop in Egypt. 

"Active participation by Japan in Middle Eastern affairs will reduce America's diplomatic burden," said one Foreign Ministry official. Should Kono successfully build relationships with other countries, Japan would gain valuable diplomatic credit to deepen the Japan-U.S. alliance, the thinking goes.

Middle Eastern countries are still feeling out their relationship with the Trump administration. "Japan is a country that can have frank exchanges with the U.S.," said Kono at a political dialogue with ministers from the 22-member Arab League on Monday in Cairo.

It is uncertain, however, how much Japan will be able to get involved in a region fraught with a complicated history that Japan has played little part in. Kono is likely to continue honing his policy approach through trial and error to deliver the inventive diplomacy Prime Minister Shinzo Abe wants to see.


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