Isis threat to Japanese hostages exposes risk in Abe’s counter-terror strategy
The threat by Islamic State to kill two Japanese hostages, , dramatically illustrates the risks inherent in prime minister Shinzo Abe’s drive to raise Japan’s profile on the international stage, in particular by playing a bigger supporting role in western security and counter-terrorism policy.
The terrorist who is seen waving a knife over the heads of the two kneeling hostages, thought to be the British-born Isis member who has appeared in previous videos, specifically condemns a $200m (£132m) aid package unveiled by Abe last week for Middle East countries engaged in fighting Isis. The terrorist demands that $100m be paid as ransom for each hostage.
Abe made the aid announcement during a visit to , part of a planned six-day tour of Jordan, Lebanon, Israel and the Palestinian territories. The $200m in non-military aid intended for the anti-Isis coalition was part of a larger $2.5bn assistance plan for the region, which supplies most of Japan’s oil imports. Some of the money would be used to support countries hosting refugees from the Syrian civil war and Isis-related instability in Iraq, Abe said.
“It goes without saying that the stability of the Middle East is the foundation for peace and prosperity for the world, and of course for ,” Abe said in Cairo. Terrorism could not be allowed to spread across the region, he added.
Japan is part of the US-led international coalition that was formed last year by US president Barack Obama, with UN backing, to fight Isis. Japan does not have any military forces in Iraq or Syria – its postwar pacifist constitution currently prevents combat-related deployments abroad. It has previously donated $33m towards emergency humanitarian relief for internally displaced people and refugees in Syria and .
The Abe government announced last autumn it was taking measures to prevent would-be jihadis travelling from or via Japan to join Isis. About nine Japanese citizens are said to have been recruited by the group. Japan’s Muslim population is approximately 180,000, a tiny proportion of the total. Analysts say there have been connections with Middle East terrorism in the past, notably with the that operated out of Beirut in the 1970s.
The higher international security profile sought by Abe has almost invariably seen Japan allying itself more closely with US and British foreign policy aims in the Middle East, Iran, and elsewhere. His , former general Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, amounted to a very public, personal endorsement of a controversial US-backed leader who came to power after a military coup and the overthrow of an elected government.
Abe pledged bilateral aid to help Egypt strengthen border controls as part of its counter-terrorism efforts, and agreed to hold regular meetings on security and defence issues. He invited Sisi to visit Tokyo before the end of the year.
During his , Abe again kept firmly in step with American policy. He told prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu that Japan opposed moves by the Palestinian Authority to join international bodies such as the international criminal court if it hindered peace efforts, as Israel maintains. At the same time, he urged Netanyahu to release blocked tax revenues owed to the Palestinians.
Abe’s main foreign policy priority is not terrorism or Middle East stability. The perceived future threat posed to Japan by an increasingly assertive and heavily-armed China – and to a lesser but unquantifiable extent by its unstable, nuclear-armed ally, North Korea – is his biggest preoccupation. He recently , and is moving towards constitutional alterations allowing Japanese military forces to take a more active role internationally.
But Abe believes Japan needs the US alliance more than ever if it is to stand up to China. This also holds true for the UK. Bilateral security and defence cooperation will be cranked up further on Wednesday, when the Japanese foreign and defence ministers are due to join their Whitehall counterparts for a day of meetings.
The London talks, on counter-terrorism, cybersecurity, disarmament, nuclear non-proliferation and peacekeeping, will be given sharper focus by the Isis hostage crisis – and how Abe responds.