TOKYO -- Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono is arranging visits to Saudi Arabia, Jordan and other Middle Eastern countries in early September, likely to propose a more active role for Tokyo in helping solve such issues as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the Syrian refugee crisis.
The Japanese side and ministers from the 22-member Arab League are expected to hold their first political dialogue in Egypt and exchange opinions on a wide range of topics relevant to peacemaking in the Middle East. A joint statement is also being considered.
Tokyo takes a neutral stance on religious conflicts involving Islam and has close ties with Washington, a major player in the region. "Japan can talk frankly with the U.S. over various matters and play a large political role," Kono said.
Kono has long had an interest in Middle East diplomacy. He has built deep connections through his time studying in the U.S. and as a member of Japan's parliament. After taking office Aug. 3, Kono received a congratulatory phone call from Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. He is also familiar with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and is a fellow Georgetown University alumnus along with King Abdullah II of Jordan.
The foreign minister is also expected to use his trip as an important opportunity for dealing with North Korea. Several countries in the region take in North Korean workers. Kono will emphasize the significance of United Nations Security Council sanctions to cut off funding for Pyongyang's missile and nuclear programs.
China has leaped ahead of Japan in opening a political dialogue with the Middle East, a vital passage for Xi Jinping's Belt and Road Initiative. To check China's advances, Tokyo is expected to stress freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, where Beijing continues to build military bases, and the importance of the rule of law.
Japan also wants to mediate a reconciliation between Qatar and a group of Arab countries including Saudi Arabia and Egypt that have broken off diplomatic ties with the country. Kono is expected to press Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and other leaders to restore ties.
Regarding Jordan, which is dealing with a flood of refugees from Syria, Kono will likely propose a greater role for Japan in such fields as humanitarian aid.
Iran is an important country in Tokyo's push to diversify its oil suppliers and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has contemplated a visit. But the Japanese delegation will not go there this time due to concerns about rising tensions between Tehran and the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump over the countries' nuclear deal.