4 May 2007 - 17:29
  • News Code: 103798

TOKYO - The past week has seen an unprecedented flurry of top-level Japanese diplomacy aimed at ensuring the resource-poor nation"s energy security through stable supplies of oil and other resources.

After traveling to the United States for talks with President George W Bush, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe flew on to the oil-rich Middle

 

East, where he visited Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Qatar and Egypt to strengthen bilateral relations. The trips to the US and the Middle East were both his first since assuming office last September. Abe returned to Tokyo on Thursday.

Abe agreed with leaders of the five Middle East nations to strengthen bilateral relations with Japan on a wide range of areas, including politics, culture and environment as well as energy, trade and investment. At a business forum in Riyadh, Abe stressed his determination to build a "multi-layered" relationship between Japan and Saudi Arabia, going beyond the "oil-based" one.

 

Abe"s visits to Saudi Arabia and Egypt were the first by a Japanese premier in four years. His visit to the UAE and Qatar were the first by a top Japanese leader in 29 years. His visit to Kuwait was the first ever by a Japanese prime minister.

 

Meanwhile, Economy, Trade and Industry Minister Akira Amari visited Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan as well as Saudi Arabia in the past week. Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan are also rich in resources, including uranium. Amari"s trips to the two Central Asian nations came six months after Abe"s predecessor, Junichiro Koizumi, became the first Japanese prime minister to visit the region.

 

Japan imports almost all of its oil, and is the world"s third-largest oil consumer after the US and China. Japan relies on the Middle East for nearly 90% of its oil. The six nations of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) - Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman and Bahrain - alone supply about 75% of Japan"s oil.

What was particularly noteworthy about Abe"s and Amari"s journeys was the fact that they were both accompanied by huge delegations of business people. Abe was joined in his Middle East tour by a delegation of about 180 business leaders, led by Fujio Mitarai, chairman of the Japan Business Federation (Keidanren), the nation"s most powerful business lobby. Mitarai is also Canon Inc chairman.

 

Unlike many other countries, Japan does not have a tradition of "top sales diplomacy". Abe became the first Japanese leader to be accompanied on an overseas trip by a delegation of business leaders last November when he visited Vietnam with some 130 corporate executives, including Mitarai.

 

Amari was also accompanied on his Central Asian tour by a 150-member government-private-sector delegation, including top-level executives of trading houses and energy-related firms. While Amari was in Kazakhstan, the two sides clinched numerous business deals that are expected to increase dramatically the Central Asian nation"s uranium supplies to Japan.

 

Japan has recently revved up its diplomatic drive for oil, gas and other energy resources abroad in a bid to ensure national energy security amid stubbornly high oil prices and also in response to the increasingly intensifying global rush for oil, gas and other resources, led by China and India.

 

Chinese President Hu Jintao had already visited Saudi Arabia in April last year. Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh also invited Saudi Arabia"s King Abdullah to Delhi in January last year, the first trip to India by a Saudi king in 51 years.

 

Japan has recently begun to place priority on concluding free-trade agreements (FTAs) with resource-rich countries as a foreign-policy tool to beef up relations with them and thereby ensure its energy security through stable, long-term supplies. Japan launched FTA negotiations with the GCC last September, but later than China and India did so.

 

South Korea also got a head start over Japan in implementing its top-level diplomacy toward the Middle East. President Roh Moo-hyun made a tour of three GCC member nations - Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Qatar - in late March, accompanied by an economic delegation of about 200 people. During the tour, Roh said his country will open FTA negotiations with the GCC as early as this year. The GCC is a customs union whose member nations apply the same tariff rates in trade with third parties.

 

Toward a stronger partnership

In their talks with Abe, the GCC leaders pledged regular oil supplies to Japan. Saudi Arabia, for example, "expressed its intention to continue to assure stable oil supply to Japan", according to a joint statement issued after Abe"s talks with Saudi leaders.

 

Qatar also "expressed its view that it would keep supplying oil and natural gas ... to Japan at an acceptable rate for both sides in a stable manner" and "both sides reaffirmed to develop the relations between the two countries in the field of production and transport of oil and LNG" (liquefied natural gas), according to a joint statement issued after Abe"s talks with Qatari leaders.

 

Abe and leaders of Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Kuwait and Qatar agreed to seek a successful conclusion of FTA negotiations between Japan and the six-nation GCC at the earliest possible date. Japan and the GCC have so far held two rounds of FTA  negotiations. Tokyo wants the proposed FTA to contain the GCC"s pledge to ensure stable energy supplies to Japan.

 

In Riyadh, Abe proposed to King Abdullah to let Japan"s largest oil supplier use part of the state-owned oil-storage tanks in the southernmost Japanese prefecture of Okinawa in exchange for a preferential right to purchase the oil reserves there in case of emergency. Abdullah agreed that Saudi Arabia will examine the plan through ministerial-level and working-level talks.

 

The oil-storage plan is designed to deepen Japan"s interdependent relationship with Saudi Arabia and ensure stable oil supplies. Saudi Arabia, as well as Japan, is expected to benefit from the proposed Saudi use of Japanese storage tanks, which would enable the Arab kingdom to set a new commercial foothold in Asia. At present, Tokyo has stockpiles of about 5.25 million kiloliters of oil - an amount equivalent to 10 days of the nation"s consumption - at the oil-storage facilities on Okinawa prefecture"s Henza Island.

 

The Japanese and Saudi leaders issued a joint statement in which the two countries agree to strengthen high-level political dialogue, including between their foreign ministers. The joint statement spelled out the creation of a joint task force comprising representatives from the two governments and private sectors to expand investment, particularly in the fields of automobiles, electronics and construction materials. Both sides also emphasized the importance of an early conclusion of negotiations on liberalization, promotion and protection of investments between the two countries.

 

 

PIN/ASIA TIMES

News Code 103798

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