Federico Pieraccini, SCF 28.06.2018
There are two countries that more than others show how the Western world order is undergoing a profound change. Japan and Turkey occupy two distinct and diverse geographical areas, yet they share many of the same strategic choices about their future. Their geopolitical trajectory is increasingly drifting away from Washington and moving closer to China, Russia, India and Iran.
Both Japan and Turkey are two important states in the US’s strategy for controlling the Middle East and Asia-Pacific. Both countries have economies that are competitive in comparison to their neighbors, and both often conveniently find themselves allied to countries within Washington’s orbit. Japan has a good relationship with South Korea, and Turkey (until a few years ago) had a privileged relationship with Saudi Arabia and Israel. Keeping in mind that the US aims to prolong and consolidate its regional dominance, Washington has always tried to have excellent relations with these two countries as a way of ensuring its constant presence in regional affairs.
Japan and Turkey have perfectly fulfilled America’s role for them in military, financial and economic terms. Ankara, for example, is a key part of NATO and offers military bases like the Incirlik Air Base, allowing for US military influence in the Middle East. Qatar, for example, is a satellite of Turkey, thanks to the shared religious bonds of the Muslim Brotherhood. Not by coincidence, one of the most important US air bases is located in Qatar, helping further lock in America’s regional presence. The goal, of course, is geopolitical, highlighting America’s ongoing confrontation with Iran, Russia and China. The United States tends to control certain geographical areas because of its military and economic power that is expressed directly or indirectly through compliant allies like Turkey and Japan.
Japan, for example, appears to be in a historically favorable position to be able counter the Sino-Russian influence in the Pacific. Japan, a key ally of the United States, has been subject to Washington’s military diktats ever since the conclusion of the Second World War, always being viewed as a chain of islands ideal for containing the military expansion of Russia and China.
Originally, in the minds of policy makers like Brzezinski, countries like Japan and Turkey held vital importance because of the dual role they played. They offered not only an obvious contrast to China and Iran respectively but also to Russia, given their privileged strategic position. In a different way, and with different degrees of success, Turkey and Japan have had some acute differences with Iran, Russia and China over the last few decades. Russia and Japan have never signed a peace treaty since the end of the Second World War. Japan and China have for years had very heated differences over the events of the Second World War as well as over their rivalry in the Pacific. In the Middle East, Russia and Turkey almost came to blows only a few years ago; and on the Crimean affair, Ankara took an anti-Moscow stance. Most importantly, Turkey is one of the advocates of the war against Syria, which is a great ally of Iran.
Trump’s victory, the decline of the unipolar world order, and a series of sensible strategic choices by Iran, Russia and China, have served to usher in a process of transformation in these two regions. The manner in which this transformation is occurring differs significantly. In the Middle East, the forces supporting Damascus are ending the conflict and moving Turkey away from the aggressor camp. Ankara has chosen to keep one foot in each camp, and even though Moscow is perfectly aware of this, it is still better than Turkey being one step away from declaring war with Russia. In the same way, the failed coup in Turkey, which Ankara attributes to Gulen and the CIA (mistakenly, in my view, about which I wrote at the time), has had as an immediate effect of moving Tehran and Ankara closer together, in spite of their differences over the situation in Syria and Iraq. Other factors that have served to bring Turkey closer to the Sino-Russo-Iranian axis concern the rift within the Gulf Cooperation Council, with the commercial and industrial blockade against Qatar, an ally of Turkey, conducted by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, and enjoying Trump’s blessing.
To this extent we can also add the understanding between Syria, Iraq, Iran and Turkey on the Kurds and the territorial integrity of Syria. Contrary to what Erdogan would have expected, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) are Washington’s tool for illegally occupying Syria and influencing events in the country. And, lastly, another consideration to take into account is the increasingly strong tensions between European Union countries and Turkey, especially between Berlin and Ankara, with Erdogan and Merkel increasingly driven apart by humanitarian and strategic positions occasioned by the migrant crisis since 2014.
Even though Japan enjoys relatively good relations with Washington, trade tariffs have given Abe further incentive to pursue a much more independent policy than in the past. Trump’s abandonment of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) confirmed the fears of Abe and the Japanese establishment. Tokyo seems to have fully embraced multi-stakeholder relations and is assigning strong economic priority to this end. The creation of an economic zone between ASEAN, Japan and South Korea has been suggested as a replacement of the TPP. There has even been an attempt by Japan to diversify important sources of energy (80% currently comes from the Middle East), with Russia being an easily accessible source.
The Kuril Islands dispute with Russia will first need to be resolved. Nevertheless, it is conceivable that economic and energy relations could be established while setting aside highly divisive matters for now. Another important aspect in Japan’s strategic opening concerns participation in the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which would greatly enhance the synergies between the two countries.
What can clearly be seen in analyzing Turkey and Japan’s situation is that they find themselves in very different situations, but both have a wide range of options at their disposal. These two countries are in a transitional phase that cannot last forever. Both are currently enjoying the benefits of a fruitful dialogue with both contending groups, the US and Europe on the one hand, and Russia, China and Iran on the other. The strategy of Abe and Erdogan seems to be aimed at avoiding to have to choose in the future what side to be on. For Turkey, an important member of NATO, it is almost impossible to leave the NATO, given the country’s strategic importance. Having said that, Turkey’s pursuit of third-party weapon systems like the Russian S-400 already seems to be setting a course for a showdown with Washington.
Japan still seems more hesitant in diversifying its relations than Turkey, preferring to continue a fruitful dialogue with Washington and its main allies in the region. One element that could severely curb Abe’s support for Trump concerns the negotiations with North Korea. Abe has no reason to cheer at the prospect of a union of the two Koreas. Japan would find itself with a strong competitor in the region that would inevitably end up integrating completely with China, strengthening the triad of China, Russia and Korea to the detriment of Japan, which would be left isolated from the continental block.
This change is already happening in the Middle East, with Turkey, Iran and Russia in Astana trying to pacify Syria without the involvement of the United States. It would represent a major loss of US influence in the region were Tokyo to begin an important trade cooperation with ASEAN, an energetic one with Russia, and participate in an infrastructure project like the BRI with Beijing.
These processes require significant changes that will not happen overnight. An economic indicator that suggests Japan and Turkey could be moving away from the US dollar system is the entering into bilateral agreements that are not denominated in the dollars. This is precisely what Turkey is doing with Iran, as reported by Press TV. A general moving away from a dependence on the US dollar as the world reserve currency is explained by the Strategic Culture Foundation: “The US Treasury Department report for April published on June 15 revealed that Russia sold $47.4 billion out of the $96.1 it had held in Treasury bonds (T-bonds). In March, Moscow cut its Treasury holdings by $1.6 billion. In February, Russia reduced its bond portfolio by $9.3 billion. Other holders did it too. Japan sold off about $12 billion, China liquidated roughly $7 billion. Ireland ditched over $17 billion.”
Moscow, Beijing and Teheran will have to offer to Japan and Turkey peace, development and mutual gain in order to accelerate the replacement of the United States as a central player in the international relations of these two countries. It will not be easy, given the nature of Abe and Erdogan, but Xi Jinping and Putin have shown themselves to be masters of cleverly combining the commercial, economic, military and diplomatic skills of China, Russia and Iran.