Photo illustration by John Lyman

Japan has Staked out a Very Complicated Position on the Gaza War

The latest conflict between Israel and Hamas has quickly shifted the attention of the international community from Eastern Europe to the Middle East. As the death toll in Gaza soars and Israeli settler violence in the occupied West Bank escalates, raising the prospects of a third Palestinian uprising, the already dire humanitarian and tense geopolitical situation has worsened dramatically. For Japan, which needs to walk a tightrope between its alliance with the United States and relations with the Muslim world, such a state of affairs represents a particularly difficult challenge.

Tokyo has adopted a nuanced approach to its Middle East policy. It acknowledges Israel’s right to defend itself, albeit with more reservation compared to its G7 counterparts, and stresses the importance of adhering to international law. In a significant move at the UN Security Council in October, Japan supported humanitarian pauses in Gaza, and later, showed restraint by abstaining from the General Assembly’s vote for an immediate ceasefire. Financially, Japan has increased aid to Palestine, while concurrently imposing asset freezes on Hamas members within its banking system. Reflecting its balanced approach, Japan’s foreign minister made diplomatic visits to both Ramallah and Tel Aviv.

One problem, however, is that this very (presumably) balanced approach stands on rather fragile moral and normative grounds, which may hinder essential Japanese interests not only amongst Arab nations but also much closer to home.

Due to economic, geographical, and strategic factors, Southeast Asia has become a key ‘battleground’ in the great power competition that has been building up between China and the U.S., with the two giants pushing to expand their regional influence. As a key American ally that is deeply anxious about Beijing’s ambitions, Japan too has been seeking to further strengthen its already robust ties with the ASEAN states, offering its vision for wider East Asia based on a number of principles.

A key element in this strategy is the idea of a rules-based order (RBO), a rather imprecise concept that Tokyo has nonetheless been promoting internationally, with a particular ardor in Southeast Asia. Despite its conceptual contestability, it unequivocally encompasses the rule of law principle, a central tenet of the RBO as advocated by Japan and other leading industrial liberal democracies. Yet Tokyo’s approach in the Israel-Hamas conflict could harm its efforts to pitch this strategic concept to its Asian neighbours to the south.

For one, while condemning Hamas’s October 7 attacks as terrorism may be consistent with the position of a champion of the rules-based order, maintaining a neutral stance when violations of international law by one party keep mounting is hardly the case. Even if one considers Tokyo’s stakes in the conflict as a major U.S. ally, its refusal to at least back a ceasefire, as France has done, seems problematic. Contrast that to Japan’s attitudes towards Russia and the war in Ukraine, and the contradictions are striking.

Admittedly, the two situations are different in several ways, including in their immediate casus belli. Ukrainian territory was invaded by Russia, and Israel was the victim of a large incursion by Hamas; that fact clearly separates the two cases. What does make Ukraine and Gaza comparable is the behaviour of Russia and Israel, respectively, towards the local civilian populations once hostilities were triggered.

In that regard, both Russia and Israel have deliberately, indiscriminately, and systematically attacked non-combatants, engaged in forced displacement of populations, and cut vital supplies, such as energy and water, to name only a few. As far as international humanitarian law is concerned, whether such violations occur in the context of an offensive or ‘defensive’ war does not mean much, since no such distinction is made. By the same token, the fact that Hamas committed atrocities against Israeli civilians first does not legally justify further abuses, unless one wishes to hold Israel, a Western ally and full UN member-state, to the same legal and moral standards as an organisation considered a terrorist group by most liberal democracies.

Nonetheless, while Japan has sided with Ukraine and consistently defended international law against Russia’s excesses, including accusing it of committing war crimes, it continues to tacitly accept Israel’s infringement of conventions, norms, principles, and treaties that constitute that same legal body. This notorious gap in its approach to Moscow and Tel Aviv may make Japan’s push for a rules-based order seem like a cynical enterprise, given the existence of certain parallels between the two cases.

If anything, the situation in Palestine can be seen as even worse than that in Ukraine. Whereas Kyiv has been counting on massive diplomatic, financial, military, and humanitarian support from the world’s wealthiest nations, with the exception of the latter, Gaza is not – in fact, the U.S. is offering additional military aid to Israel on top of its $3 billion annual assistance; and while the Ukrainians have large regular armed forces to resist the Russian invasion, the Palestinians lack a single tank, fighter jet, or ballistic missile to face one of the world’s most capable and technologically advanced armies.

Thus, Japan’s approach to the war in Gaza in practice ignores several violations of international law against a besieged population. Traditionally, the historical experience with colonialism made most Southeast Asian countries sympathetic to the Palestinian cause, a factor further boosted by Islamic solidarity in the cases of Brunei, Malaysia, and Indonesia – the world’s largest Muslim-majority country.

Out of the ten ASEAN members, only Myanmar and Singapore do not recognize the State of Palestine, although both voted in favour of a ceasefire at the UNGA session in which Japan abstained. The only country to vote against the initiative was the Philippines, which otherwise recognises Palestinian sovereignty.

While these facts mean Japan’s position on Gaza is out of tune with that of most Southeast Asian states, to further complicate the scenario, China’s largely converges with theirs. Though officially neutral, Beijing has in practice taken a more pro-Palestinian stance and repeatedly urged Israel to accept a ceasefire. Moreover, Washington’s one-sided approach to the conflict has offered China (as well as Russia) the opportunity to claim the moral high ground and act as a responsible power that defends peace, justice, and international law. When it comes to the ongoing Gaza crisis, Tokyo’s adversaries are the ones seemingly standing up to the rules-based order.

Granted, Japan has a generally better track record of compliance with international law than Beijing and Moscow, or most other major powers, for that matter. However, it risks damaging that reputation if it continues to tacitly accept Israel’s violations of various international norms out of deference to the U.S., as when it supported the 2003 invasion of Iraq despite its illegality under international law.

But if twenty years ago the U.S.-led order was still at its peak, the current international context is markedly different, and the voices of the so-called Global South carry much greater weight today. This is one of the reasons Tokyo has been engaged in pitching the rules-based order to its Asian neighbours, to begin with, be it under the Abe administration’s free and open Indo-Pacific initiative or in the form of its ‘Kishida corollary.’

By refusing to support even a ceasefire and refraining from condemning Israel’s daily bombing of civilians, Japan is turning a central pillar of its RBO concept into a ‘dead letter’ while contradictorily preaching it to Southeast Asian states. The fact that Tokyo is the current chair of the G7 adds further weight to the problem to the extent that it lays bare Japan’s unwillingness to take a more principled approach in the defence of human rights and international law.

Whatever course of action Tokyo takes, it is bound to be an onerous one, given the sensitive matters and interests involved. Considering its past moves and the worsening security environment in East Asia, the Japanese government is all but certain to prioritize its relations with Washington and continue to chart the current path.

Among other drawbacks, this option is likely to entail greater skepticism towards Tokyo’s ‘universal values’ discourse and criticisms of Beijing’s infringements of international law in the South China Sea and the East China Sea. Be that as it may, Japan needs to manage important trade-offs in the current Gaza crisis. Ultimately, living up to its rules-based order discourse would require a ‘Solomonic’ approach, which the current leadership, and indeed the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) elites in general, seem reluctant to take.