Twenty-six years ago when I was a graduate student at Tokyo University, I escorted and translated for the French international relations scholar Dominique Moisi. After meeting Japanese executives and government officials and observing Japanese pedestrians from the Champs-Élysées-like coffee shops in Harajuku, he shared with me his conclusion about the country. “The Japanese,” he said sipping his latte, “live a mirror existence to the Israelis….Israel is a nation of merchants who were forced to become warriors, while Japan is a nation of warriors who were forced to become merchants!”
The year was 1989, and Japan appeared poised to come out of the Cold War the winner. Economists at Goldman Sachs were predicting that Japan’s GDP would surpass the United States by 2005 and Washington and Tokyo were embroiled in high-tech trade disputes over jet fighters, supercomputers, and semiconductors. In public opinion polls that year, more Americans expressed fear of Japan’s economy than Soviet nuclear weapons. Political scientists advanced various theories to explain why Japan was not developing its own nuclear weapons and declaring independence from the United States, given Japanese economic prowess. Constructivists argued that Japanese political culture had become permanently pacifist. Political economists argued that Japan was pursuing dominance, but using a new form of techno-nationalistic competition instead of traditional balance-of-power approaches. Regionalists predicted that Japan would “re-Orient” and align with China against the United States after the Cold War. The Japanese themselves started to believe the hype and Japan’s Vice Finance Minister published a book declaring that Japan had “surpassed capitalism itself.”
Within a few years, all of these theories unraveled. The Japanese economic model crashed in 1990. When the “New World Order” was declared with the Gulf War, Japan was almost irrelevant, coughing up $15 billion in financial contributions, but unable to send a single soldier or civilian bureaucrat in support of the U.S.-led coalition. In 1995 and 1996, China tested nuclear weapons over Japan’s objections and bracketed Taiwan with missiles, some landing within 70 kilometers of Japanese-inhabited islands. When Tokyo protested and threatened to cutoff economic aid to China, Beijing responded that China received no Japanese aid, only overdue reparation payments from the war. Even isolated North Korea rattled Japan’s cage, launching ballistic missiles into the Japan Sea in 1994 and over Japan itself in 1998.
Japan began to rebalance. In 1997, Tokyo and Washington signed new Defense Guidelines, promising to cooperate for the first time to address military challenges in the area surrounding Japan (up to that point, cooperation and planning had only been focused on direct attacks against Japan itself). Japan became the largest international partner on missile defense development, shifted its aid from China to India and Indonesia, and began championing democracy and rule of law in Asian multilateral meetings instead of promising to champion Asian values against the so-called “Washington consensus” on democracy and development. A nation of warriors who had become merchants was beginning to think like warriors again.
The Western media has decided that all of this began with the election of Shinzo Abe in 2013. To be sure, Abe has accelerated Japan’s new realism about national security. He established Japan’s first National Security Council to coordinate and articulate national strategy. He relaxed previous cabinet rules preventing export of arms so that Japanese industry could collaborate on multilateral projects like the F-35. He revised the original U.S.-Japan Defense Guidelines to focus on new threats such as cyberspace and outer space and authorized a reinterpretation of Japan’s Peace Constitution to allow Japanese forces to provide non-offensive military support (logistics, rear area defense, etc.) to the United States or other like-minded allies in operations overseas. Abe also signed new strategic agreements with Australia and India and offered defense-related equipment to countries under pressure from China in maritime Asia, including advanced submarine co-development with Australia.
None of these initiatives really began with Abe. The previous Democratic Party of Japan debated them all and would have implemented many if the Party had not been badly divided internally between pragmatists and former socialists. In other words, the shift in Japanese strategic culture is well underway and will continue even if Abe does not hold power for another three years or more as many political experts expect.
Strength Leads to Stability
The United States and other major powers have to decide what to make of this more strategically assertive Japan.
China has reacted ferociously, for reasons of historical experience and cynical realpolitik. Over 80% of Japanese now say they do not trust China and, in the limited polling available in China, it is obvious that the feeling is mutual. Beijing has tried hard to punish and isolate pro-defense and pro-alliance Japanese leaders like Abe or Junichiro Koizumi before him. Yet, the Japanese public has also figured out that China is most aggressive when Japanese political leaders are weak and vacillating. Chinese incursions into the area of the Senkaku Islands increased when the DPJ governments in Tokyo initially distanced themselves from Washington and promised closer relations with Asia. Abe strengthened security ties with Washington and increased Japanese defense spending. The Chinese press demonized him, and President Xi Jinping refused to hold a bilateral summit with Japan until Abe promised to accept China’s claim that Senkaku islands were under dispute. For over a year, Abe did not blink, outflanking Xi with every government in Asia (except Korea) until it was China that was isolated diplomatically. Finally, in November last year Xi agreed to meet with Abe. There is no love between Xi and Abe nor any obvious resolution to the territorial and strategic tensions between Tokyo and Beijing, but Xi respects power and there is a new stability in relations between the two Asian giants.
In South and Southeast Asia, there is renewed respect for Japan. The Indians have turned to Japan to help counter Chinese influence in Asia and attract economic investment. In polls last year, an amazing 96% of respondents in the ten ASEAN states expressed positive feelings towards Japan. Singapore, which suffered the most during the war, still harbors some reservations about Abe, but the leaders of Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Myanmar, and the Philippines have all welcomed Japan’s efforts to provide more strategic balance in the wake of China’s growing coercion against Southeast Asian claimants in the disputes over the many atolls and islets in the South China Sea. The Philippines and Vietnam have accepted patrol boats and intelligence sharing from Japan and their neighbors are in similar discussions with Tokyo.
Within Asia, it is Korea that remains the weak point in Japanese grand strategy. The founder of Japan’s modern army, Aritomo Yamagata, declared in the late 19th Century that the Korean peninsula was a “dagger aimed at the heart of Japan.” Yet contemporary Japanese leaders find relations with Seoul more annoying than strategically important. Abe has antagonized Seoul with suggestions he might revise Japan’s official 1994 apology to Korea for the so-called “comfort women” forced into brothels for Japanese soldiers during the war. He has since clarified that he will not revise the apology, but his government has provoked Seoul in other ways, such as removing the description of Korea as a “like-minded democratic country” in the official Japanese diplomatic Blue Book. The Korean government has made the situation worse by declaring the United States and China its major diplomatic counterparts and dropping Japan to second tier; by welcoming a Chinese memorial in the Harbin Railroad Station honoring the memory of a Korean patriot who assassinated Japanese Prime Minister Hirobumi Itoh a century ago; and through a dozen other moves so petty that it is difficult to recall whether it was Seoul or Tokyo that actually started the escalation. The bottom line is that the scratchy relationship between Japan and Korea has tempted Beijing to think that South Korea can be used to isolate Japan and weaken the U.S. position in Asia –and that is not good for Seoul, Tokyo, or Washington.
How Does America See Asia?
That leaves the United States—the most important ally and partner for Japan of all. American views of Japan have been somewhat divided for over a century. Some American statesmen have viewed Japan as the indispensable base for American economic, diplomatic, and military engagement in Asia. This view began at least with Commodore Perry in the middle of the 19th Century and has been carried on by maritime strategists from Alfred Thayer Mahan and Theodore Roosevelt to more recent leaders like George Schultz, Richard Armitage, and arguably Hillary Clinton. Others have viewed China as the natural center of Asian civilization and therefore of U.S. foreign policy, including William Howard Taft, Henry Kissinger, Brent Scowcroft, and arguably John Kerry in more recent times. (The verdict on Clinton and Kerry was delivered by an editorial in The Peoples’ Daily in early 2013 which hailed Kerry’s appointment as Secretary of State noting that he would be wise enough not to “meddle in Far Eastern Affairs” the way his predecessor did).
The Obama administration started out, like Bush, claiming to center its Asia policy on Japan, but initially put most of its effort into China, periodically adopting Chinese slogans like the call for a “New Model of Great Power Relations” between Washington and Beijing that deliberately demoted Japan to second tier status. Abe’s raw nationalism and revisionist views of Japanese war guilt also raised alarm with liberals in the Obama White House whose views were shaped by academic writings and New York Times editorials warning that Abe’s defense policy represented a return to the dangerous Japanese nationalism of the 1930s. Within even the Pacific Command and the Pentagon there were senior officers who initially worried that Japan’s more assertive stance might entrap the United States in an unwanted conflict with China. “We are not going to get in a war over a bunch of rocks,” as one PACOM senior admiral put it to the chagrin of Japanese counterparts watching China increase its operational tempo in the East China Sea.
Abe appears to have convinced President Obama in the end, though, as well as the new Admiral running Pacific Command and the top officials in the Pentagon. In late April, Abe visited Washington, DC for a State Visit where he was also the first Japanese Prime Minister to address a joint session of Congress. Obama praised Abe’s defense agenda and welcomed progress toward a bilateral U.S.-Japan agreement that would move forward the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP). Secretary of State Kerry reportedly spent much of his dinner with Abe in Boston lecturing the Prime Minister on historical revisionism and climate change, but Abe took that in stride and returned with another diplomatic victory in his trophy case.
An Alliance for the 21st Century
The United States needs Abe to succeed. With the new Defense Guidelines, U.S. and Japanese forces will approach the kind of interoperability and joint readiness (“seamless” operations is the official phrase in the Guidelines) that are essential in the face of new threats from China and North Korea. NATO is joint and combined, as is the U.S.-ROK alliance. And jointness means greater deterrence at a time when China is poised to have more surface combatants than the United States and Japan combined by 2020. Japanese participation in TPP and structural reforms at home will further integrate the U.S. and Japanese economies (Japan is already the largest investor this year in the U.S. economy), add growth to Japan, and set rules for trade in Asia that China will not be able to ignore.
But there should be no mistake what this means for U.S. foreign policy. At a time when Britain is declining and decoupling from both Europe and the United States, Japan is the most closely aligned industrial country with Washington in the G-7, has a larger defense budget than the UK, and hosts the largest number of U.S. forces abroad. As all of Asia rises, the United States will lean on Japan more. Moreover, the challenges we will face together will require faster and more agile coordination. China’s expansionism puts Japan on the front lines in the East China Sea. Preemptive escalation by Japan could pull the United States into a conflict, while pre-emptive capitulation by Washington could cast a damaging shadow over the U.S.-Japan alliance and the entire U.S. position in Asia. The United States and Britain lived in this world of shared risk and leadership for 75 years. We will need to begin thinking in similar ways about Japan.
Michael J. Green is senior vice president for Asia and Japan Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and an associate professor at the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University.