Tag Archives: Middle East

The Long-Term Impact of Japan’s Hostage Crisis

International Relations and Security Network, March 19, 2015
Flag of Japan, courtesy of  Luc De Leeuw

The recent murder of Japanese hostages by ISIS has renewed debates about the country’s role in the world. The event has 1) strengthened the country’s resolve to ‘normalize’ itself, 2) illustrated the weaknesses of the pacifist Left, and 3) highlighted Shinzo Abe’s dependency on ‘Kantei Diplomacy’.

The kidnapping, attempted ransoming, and murder of two Japanese hostages by ISIS in Syria this January led to an intense debate in Tokyo and in the bureaucratic corridors of power in Kasumigaseki, Tokyo’s version of Whitehall. There have since been a number of attempts to understand the significance of the event for Japanese security and foreign policy-making. The conclusions, however, seem clear: first, the security policy that supposedly ‘set off’ the hostage crisis is not a recent phenomenon, and trying to frame the event as the immediate result of Abe’s nationalist or so-called militaristic agenda is simply wrong. Second, the crisis has seen a long-term shift to the right in Japanese domestic politics that has all but neutered the once-strong pacifist-oriented left. Third, and finally, the crisis showed that Kantei Diplomacy is alive and well, and that, although the fledgling National Security Council has added to the growing strength of executive power, it was unable to play a large role in the crisis due to a lack of intelligence-gathering capabilities.

A long policy trajectory

For those who would pin the blame for the crisis on Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his recent shift towards a nationalist agenda, the reality is that Abe is simply the latest in a line of LDP figures who have pulled Japan out of the Yoshida Doctrine – Japan’s Cold War policy of economic neo-mercantilism – bringing it closer to the US and into a more global posture. While the taking of the hostages was directly linked to Abe’s commitment of $200 million in non-military aid to the fight against ISIS, the policy direction it represented long preceded his tenure in office. In fact, Japan’s foreign policy shift towards the Middle East dates back to the early 2000’s. In the days following the September 11th attacks, when most global leaders were still trying to comprehend the import of what had taken place, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi pledged Japan’s full support to the United States. He was among the first to do so, along with NATO’s Secretary General Lord Robertson and the UK’s Prime Minister Tony Blair. With Koizumi’s personal blessing, the Japanese government passed legislation that allowed Japanese forces to lend logistical support to maritime forces around Afghanistan and to commit the proverbial ‘boots on the ground’ in Samawah Province, Iraq, where Japan’s SDF would carry out reconstruction work. At that time, another Japanese citizen – Shosei Koda – was beheaded by Al-Qaeda in Iraq in 2004.

There are many inside and outside Japan who believe that this policy direction sets a dangerous precedent. After all, as the 70th anniversary of the Second World War approaches, many in the region still remember the atrocities committed by Japanese troops and see the changes as a return to militarism. This is far from the case, however, as Japan’s shift has been driven by regional insecurity rather than nationalism or expansionism (though nationalism has been a personal motivation for Abe and those close to him). In fact, two of Japan’s harshest critics over this ‘normalization’, North Korea and China, have themselves built two of the region’s largest military forces, with China doubling its defence spending since 2008 and now spending more than four times as much as Japan. Anti-Japanese sentiment in China, fostered since the early 1990s, has also been utilized by Beijing to justify its salami-slicing expansionism towards Japan’s southwestern maritime corridor. As a result of this, LDP leaders have hewed closer to the United States and sought greater inter-operability with its and other allied forces, including those of Australia, NATO and South Korea. To some extent, Japan’s nationalists have also benefitted politically from this Chinese creeping expansion. While a number of senior bureaucrats and members of the LDP see this ‘normalization’ in nationalist terms, this may represent a ‘peak’, with some anticipating a return to liberal internationalism post-Abe.

The weakness of the left

The second result of the hostage crisis was to highlight the gradual loss of power and influence in Tokyo’s policy-making sphere of Japan’s pacifist left. This long-term decline has occurred for a number of reasons. The first is linked to the above-mentioned changes in Japan’s immediate region. Many say that the 2010 Fishing Boat crisis in the Senkaku Islands fostered a shift in Japanese public opinion, after Beijing was perceived to have acted heavy-handedly towards Japan over the arrest of a Chinese fishing boat captain who rammed a Japanese Coast Guard cutter in Japanese waters. The belief that Chinese military power has grown may have led to more domestic support for Abe, though it is true that his election campaign was fought over the economy first and foremost.

Another more straight-forward reason that Japan’s pacifist left is weakening is that many of its members and constituents are simply growing old. Historically, the movement was the strongest immediately after the Second World War, when Japan’s devastated cities were a visible reminder of the case for peace. As Richard Lloyd Perry – a long–term resident in Japan and the London Times Asia Editor – remarked, “one inescapable fact of the weakening of the pacifist left is that many are simply dying out. You can also see it in the ages represented at the rallies.“ These rallies are increasingly marked by low attendance rates, with an April 2014 gathering attracting only 3,000 people . On the other hand, a poll conducted by the left-of-centre Asahi Shimbun newspaper indicated that 64% of Japanese citizens remain opposed to re-interpreting the Constitution, indicating their reluctance to completely abandon the status quo. That said, the Japanese public was initially skeptical of its first forays into peacekeeping in the 1990s, and polls have shown that support has only grown.

The strength of ‘Team Abe’

Third and finally, the crisis was marked by strong leadership by the Prime Minister and his aides. Indeed, Abe was aware that the hostages had been taken when he committed aid to the fight against ISIS, showing remarkable determination and confidence. That confidence is down to Abe himself, but it is also the result of having a strong team in place. ‘Team Abe,’ as it might be called, has benefitted significantly from ‘Kantei Diplomacy’, or the rise of the office of Prime Minister and the cabinet secretariat in a landscape traditionally dominated by the bureaucracy and by political parties. First used by a Japanese academic, Tomohito Shinoda, in his book on the subjectKantei Diplomacy has seen the powers of the Prime Minister and the size of his team increase. This larger secretariat – which can provide expert advice independently of the ministries – has enabled the Prime Minister to draft legislation and to manage crises more confidently. While the three DPJ Prime Ministers who followed Koizumi were ultimately unable to harness the power of the Kantei, Abe has been more successful in doing so, largely through his choice of key bureaucrats and politicians in positions of power around him. For instance, many in the bureaucracy believe that choosing LDP strongman Yoshihide Suga as cabinet secretary has been key to Abe’s success. Because Suga does not want the premiership, Abe has been able to entrust his deputy with considerable power. This has enabled the no-nonsense Suga to manage and discipline the bureaucracy quite effectively, often by reassigning recalcitrant bureaucrats to less glamorous posts. Abe has also managed to harness the power of the MOD and MOFA by filling the National Security Council from among their ranks. Shotaro Yachi and Nobukatsu Kanehara are two senior NSC staff members from MOFA, while the MOD has been represented by Nobushige Takamizawa.

Overall, the hostage crisis revealed a Japanese leadership more willing to take risks in the field of security policy and more hardened to changing domestic fortunes. While the death of the two journalists was a shock for the Japanese public, the Prime Minister’s foreign policy agenda was not widely blamed. Indeed, as one diplomat stated, it is as if everyone came out of the crisis more convinced of the rightfulness of its direction. This has included the pacifist wing (though they seem to have little influence on decision-making). Finally, it must be said that while the Prime Minister was able to handle the crisis from within the cabinet, it is notable that the National Security Council did not play a large role during the 18 day crisis. Most of the action took place in the basement of the Kantei, as the NSC’s inability to provide raw intelligence prevented it from being the locus of activity. Doubtless, the creation of a unified framework for Japan’s intelligence community, safely regulated as behooves a liberal democracy, is the next step in Japan’s evolution towards normal statehood.


The Islamic State and the Future of Iraq

Rear Admiral Christopher Parry as the dinner speakerchris-parry_hi_def__2__Homepage Box

Tuesday, 21 October at 19:00 – 22:00

Naval and Military Club

The Policy Dinner Club is proud to announce that its next speaker will be Rear Admiral Christopher Parry, who will speak about the Islamic State (IS) at the Naval and Military Club on the 21st of October. A dinner discussion will then ensue on the topic offered. The Islamic State, also known interchangeably as ISIL or ISIS, is an organization which has created headlines worldwide for its radical take on Islamic doctrine and, especially also, for its barbaric means of achieving its goal to exercise political control over Muslim-inhabited regions in the Middle East and beyond. A U.S. military intervention was launched in September 2014 with subsequent support from regional and international allies, to ‘degrade and ultimately destroy’ the group. To date, international efforts have been unable to deter, much less destroy, IS or diminish its appeal amongst radicalized communities regionally and internationally.

The status quo prompts a range of questions: Which combination of factors led to the formation of IS? Will Western-led military intervention help or hinder further radicalization of the group? Which strategic specificities are essential to heighten prospects of military success and minimize mission creep? How to intercept the war-economy that sustains IS? Which security threats (material and normative) does IS pose for the West, including its non-radical Muslim community? What does the future of the Iraqi state(s) look like? Such questions are necessarily interlinked and equally crucial to understanding the complexity of Islamic State, and implications of the group’s existence for international security, economy as well as issues related to faith.

Who:          Rear Admiral Christopher Parry CBE

When:        19:00-22:00, 21 October, 2014

Where:        The Naval and Military Club (map)

Please note that dinners are filled on a first-come, first-served basis. Please also note that there is a dress code at the Club and diners are expected to adhere to that.

All remarks and discussion taking place after the initial speech are off-the-record and not-for-attribution, so as to further the warm and informal nature of the dinners. Should you wish to book seats or have any other questions, please let Magdalena Delgado know immediately by emailing her at

Speaker’s Biography

After reading Modern History at Jesus College Oxford, Chris Parry spent 36 enjoyable, rewarding years in the Royal Navy as an aviator and warfare officer.  He also had five Joint appointments with responsibility for operational and developmental issues relating to all three Services.

As well as sailing every sea, he experienced regular operational tours and combat operations in Northern Ireland, the Gulf and the Falklands, where he was mentioned in despatches for his part in rescuing 16 SAS from a glacier in South Georgia and the detection and disabling of the submarine SANTA FE.  As a Rear Admiral, he was responsible for determining the future strategic context for operations and leading the conceptual development of all three armed forces out to 2030.

Nowadays, he runs his own strategic forecasting company, advising governments, leading commercial companies and banks about strategic issues, high-level leadership and systemic risk.  A regular broadcaster and commentator in UK national newspapers and magazines, he is an active author, most recently the best selling ‘Down South – a Falklands War Diary’, published in February 2012 and ‘Sea Power in the 21stCentury’, published in May 2014.

History Rhymes in the Arab Spring

PNYX Comment on Global Security & Politics | NOVEMBER 8, 2011 |

Across the continent, crowds fill the streets with banners proclaiming revolution, while troops sent to repress them either stand aside or swell their ranks. The region seems to ignite despite the lack of coordination between revolutionaries in different countries.

Behind all of this social upheaval are a variety of factors: widespread dissatisfaction with authoritarian leadership, combined with a growing middle-class desire for greater political rights and participation. While this middle class revolution of lawyers, professors and doctors spoke of political reform, the multitudes in the squares and streets were the urban poor and unemployed, squeezed between the elites and army who controlled the economy and markets. Succouring these masses were suppressed ideological groups, seeking to impose radical designs in place of the old regime.

While one might be forgiven for assuming this to be a description of the Arab Spring, it could just as easily be a description of the Revolutions of 1848, also known as ‘the Spring of Nations’, which took place across the European continent in that year, and threatened to overturn the long-standing Conservative Order established by Clemens von Metternich.

In trying to shape a policy response to the ‘Arab Spring’, Western governments have struggled to understand the roots and origins of the social movements which overturned authoritarian regimes in Tunis and Cairo, and which look set to topple regimes in Yemen, Bahrain and Syria. There seem to be a myriad of quantifiable root causes – a long history of authoritarian repression, oligarchic control of public good and services, the inflow of information about the outside world though the internet, a large population under the age of 25 (60%), a failed welfare system, and mass unemployment, (23% in Egypt according to the International Labour Organization).

There also seems to be a myriad of quantifiable processes by which the Arab populations were able mobilize their anger and frustration – technology in the form of written and online media, Facebook, Twitter, mobile phones, and Al Jazeera. As with 1848, the four common factors that see societies mobilize against repressive regimes after long periods of docility are (1) the development of political conscious middle and working classes, (2) social tensions caused by economic inequality, (3) new mass communications technologies, and (4) the dissemination of political and economic ideas through these technologies. Western governments that wish to understand the Arab future might look at their own not-so-distant past.

The idea that history repeats itself is a cliché. However, few modern policy-makers today consider history in their analysis. In trying to fully understand a polity, one should base one’s analysis simultaneously on three levels: structural, historical and individual.

Structural assessment involves understanding the basic programming of how human societies react to a given stimuli, for example how societies react to new communication methods, like Facebook. This involves understanding the commonalities between various human societies or political structures, and the commonalities in complex human behaviour.

Historical assessment involves understanding how a particular polity has behaved throughout its history, or how it has reacted to trends or events. This might include how the Arab world reacted to decolonization in the 1950s or how Egyptian politics reacted to the assassination of President Sadat in 1981.

Finally, one should study a given polity’s leadership, the character and composition of its decision-makers and culture of its political parties. Naturally, when reading political literature on the Middle East it is more interesting to study the impact of Kissinger on US policy-making in the 1960s, or on the Ba’ath Party in Syria, than how societies have, say, adapted to industrialization. The stories of individuals and groups are easier to comprehend then the stories of societies.

The trick for modern policy-makers, struggling to come to terms with the Arab Spring and what it means, is to look for similarities within the structural factors of 1848 and 2011; the human need for political representation after a certain economic threshold is reached, the reaction of conservative societies to liberal ideas, the radicalism of societies with a large percentage of young people, and the appeal of ideology, Liberal, Muslim or Marxist, for the disenfranchised.

Analysts should note the differences too, such as the fact that 1848 Europe was at the beginning of an industrial revolution that would give it economic primacy across the globe. The Arab continent at the start of 2012, by contrast, is in a much weaker position, have only its energy economy to compete with the old developed economies of Europe and North America and the new economies of developing giants in Asia, and at a time when austerity grips international markets.

How will fledgling democracies react to these economic pressures? Are they more likely to get into conflict, as political elites search for external enemies to distract unhappy citizens, or lead to a polarization within the body politic? What particular to Egyptian and Tunisian history should stand out for the analyst? Should the legacy of British or French colonialism be considered or the relationship between Coptic Christians and Muslims? Finally, one should study the personalities of the Generals who make up the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, and other influentials like Muslim Brotherhood  General Leader Mohammed Badie and democracy advocate Mohamed El Baradei.

It is not enough to say that each civilization is different from its peers, or that each epoch can or is able to remake the rules of the game. It is not arrogance to assume that structural factors reveal themselves in history, or that Western history might provide lessons for those seeking to understand recent events in the Arab world. Nor is it arrogance to say that certain liberal values – commonly ascribed to the West – can be adapted by other cultures. Tell that to a pro-democracy advocate in Burma or a South Korean lawmaker. What is remarkable about the story of 1848 and 2011 is the fact that how such different societies are affected in such a similar way by the same ideas, and how they continue to run through the veins of international political society.

Jeremy S. Maxie

Energy & Political Risk Consultant

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