Japan Is Back As a Consequential Power

Under Shinzo Abe, Japan has actively repositioned itself at the centre of a network of regional initiatives by cementing ties with the US. Photo: Reuters
Shake on it Under Shinzo Abe, Japan has actively repositioned itself at the centre of a network of regional initiatives by cementing ties with the US. Photos: Reuters

In modern history, Japan has tried to “escape” Asia by allying with European powers (first Britain and then Nazi Germany) to attack, invade, occupy and annex parts of China, Korea, Russia and Southeast Asia. This led to the infamous attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, which in turn guaranteed Japan’s ultimate defeat, occupation and demilitarisation. Its dramatic and rapid economic recovery from the ravages of World War II was underwritten by the US — Japan’s third western ally in two centuries, but this time purely for self-defence quite narrowly defined — as part of the grand Cold War Soviet and China containment strategy, and in turn underpinned a growing trade and economic relationship with all Asian countries as well. Since the Japanese bubble burst, its economy has stagnated but the country remains among the world’s wealthiest in aggregate GDP as well as per capita income. In the meantime, however, China’s massive economic growth sustained for more than three decades has greatly expanded China’s total national power and encouraged many other countries to bypass Tokyo for Beijing as the Asian capital that counts and should be courted. Resentful of “Japan bashing” by many critics and “Japan passing” by supposed friends, Tokyo under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is pushing back hard.

The risk of accidental clashes between Japanese and Chinese military forces has grown as Beijing begins to send more ships and planes to patrol areas near and around the disputed islands called Senkaku in Japan, Diaoyudao in China, and Diaoyutai in Taiwan. According to Japan’s defence ministry, its air force scrambled fighters against approaching Chinese planes 156, 306 and 415 times in 2011, 2012 and 2013, respectively. On 19 January, a Chinese frigate is alleged to have “locked on” to a Japanese navy helicopter. In a second incident at the end of January, a Chinese warship beamed fire-control radar — a prelude to firing a missile — at a Japanese destroyer. When Abe announced this in Parliament on 6 February, China disputed his account but Washington confirmed it after being shown the raw information.

There were two further incidents in May-June within a fortnight of each other when missile-armed Chinese Su- 27 fighters flew to within 30-45 metres of Japanese electronic intelligence and image- gathering planes in areas where the two countries’ air defence identification zones overlap. Has China overplayed its hand and is Japan on the cusp of another historic turning point?

The Pathology
Speaking to the Yomiuri Shimbun shortly after being sworn in as PM for a second time, Abe highlighted the importance of strengthening the US security alliance and deepening the emerging partnerships with Australia, India and Indonesia as the democratic States of Asia and the Pacific. Japan is back, he declared during his US visit in February last year: “Japan is not, and will never be, a tier-two country.” This puts into context his efforts to revive Japan’s ailing economy, stand up to China on the disputed island territories while expressing willingness to engage with Beijing to address mutual concerns, reaffirm the US security alliance, increase defence spending and change the peace constitution by stealth.

Their faith in the honesty and competence of their leaders spooked by the earthquake and tsunami that also caused the nuclear meltdown at Fukushima in March 2011, their fear of the future made heavier by the rapid ageing of Japanese society that is grossly unbalancing the demographic equation, their social anxiety stoked by a shrinking population of uncertain prospects, their long-term employment worries settling into a depression with the prolonged economic slump, and their unease over security developments in China and the Korean peninsula intensifying, the Japanese people have developed almost a palpable sense of vulnerability. The situation seems ripe for exploitation by fear-mongering demagogues. The potential checks on such a development include the high level of universal literacy, deep integration with the regional and international economy, and powerfully internalised memories of the devastation and desolation caused by the militarised nationalism of the first half of the 20th century that culminated in the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945.

Abe’s father Shintaro Abe was foreign minister and his maternal grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, served as a Cabinet minister under Japan’s wartime prime minister General Hideki Tojo. Kishi was also a former senior official in Japan’s puppet state of Manchukuo in northern China and was arrested but never charged by the allied occupation forces as a suspected Class A war criminal. To understand the personal dynamics at work, it is worth knowing that Xi Zhongxun, the father of China’s President Xi Jinping, was one of the founders of the Chinese Communist Party and, more pertinently, helped to coordinate party policy against the Japanese invaders in the 1930s-40s. To complete the trilogy of political princelings in East Asia, South Korea’s President Park Geunhye is the daughter of the late strongman Park Chung-hee.

Kishi, prime minister from 1957 to 1960, was instrumental in revising the US-Japan security treaty in 1960 in order to strengthen the military alliance. His dream of recovering the true independence of Japan continues to motivate Abe’s vision of the proper role that modern Japan should play in Asia and the world by amending the constitution to permit a more active national and collective defence role, strengthening the military alliance with Washington in order to insure against any collapse of the Pacific military balance, and generally ending Japan’s defensiveness and apologetic pursuit of a national interest-advancing foreign policy.

However, Abe’s conservative vision is tempered by a strongly pragmatic streak that puts a premium on flexible adaptation to the limits of the politically possible. Today, Japan is one of the most heavily indebted countries of the world, with gross debt at over 235 percent of GDP and net debt (after discounting for government assets) of 135 percent of GDP. The biggest constraint on Japan in the foreseeable future will be a shrinking population and a rising elderly cohort, factors that will impact with growing severity on the country’s economic prospects and military role. One quarter of Japanese are over 65 years old and this is predicted to climb to 40 percent by 2055. Japan’s population declined by 2.44 lakh people in 2013, with births falling by 6,000 and deaths rising by 19,000 from 2012. On current trends, Japan will lose one-third of its population by 2050.

Abe as Japan’s Reagan or Modi
It would be easy but wrong to conclude that demographic trends and the relative changes in economic equations in the Asia–Pacific have condemned Japan to irrelevance. Talk of a declining Japan is very relative: for the average citizen, life as a national in declining Japan is still rather better than in a rising China or India. Per capita incomes are extremely high; universal literacy and high life expectancy testify to excellent educational and health standards; and the sense of social cohesion, community, civic pride and low crime rates even amidst the densest of urban settings were abundantly evident in the manner in which people dealt with the great earthquake and tsunami of March 2011. Japan may be a declining power in the 21st century, but it still is and will remain for some time yet a “consequential power”, in the words of Jeffrey W Hornung. For several decades yet Japan — not China or India — will continue to be Asia’s most advanced and capable economy with an affluent and sizeable domestic consumption market to support imports from other developing and advanced countries; and the chief Asian source of capital and innovation to support other regional countries’ growth, modernisation and development.

After decades of stagnation, Abe has taken several aggressive measures recently to stimulate growth: reducing the regulatory burdens on business, curbing the powers of the bureaucracy, cutting corporate tax rates, encouraging women’s participation in the workforce, improving working women’s access to affordable daycare to help them do so, and starting the necessary conversation on a large-scale annual migrant intake. The stock market, economic growth and wages are all starting to head north. The parallels with India under Narendra Modi are striking: taking over the reins of government of an ailing country with desperately weakened national self-confidence and resolve, and boosting self-belief and collective national pride. The belief in market-led growth and reduced government regulations is also reminiscent of the late US president Ronald Reagan.

Japan has the most modern military in the Pacific after the US, with almost 2.5 lakh military personnel, 800 aircraft and a navy with destroyers, frigates and submarines. But the legal, political and psychological restraints stemming from Article 9 of the “peace constitution” imposed on Japan after its defeat in 1945 have restricted Japan’s military role to national defence, humanitarian assistance and non-combat military assistance to UN and multilateral peace operations, for example in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Spurred to some extent by the reality of its relative decline, Japan has actively repositioned itself at the centre of a network of regional initiatives and developments that increase its role as the provider of regional public goods in economic, diplomatic and security spheres, not the least by building on prior relations with the US and Australia and forging new ones with India. This was most dramatically evident in the response to the December 2004 great Indian Ocean tsunami when Australia, India, Japan and the US formed the core coordination group that eventually handed over the role to the UN. During the Cold War, Japan’s role was essentially inward-looking. Since the end of the Cold War, Japan has enhanced its security relationship with Australia with joint humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, counter-terrorism and border protection, maritime security, counter-proliferation, and international peacekeeping and stabilisation operations; engaged in structured political and security dialogues with India; and pursued partnerships with Asean countries. Japan was and will continue to be key to creating and/or funding regional structures to promote and underwrite stability and prosperity of the regional architecture.

So will Australia and the US and, increasingly as part of its evolving “Look East” policy, India. To give practical content to the policy, India will have to reverse the neglect of its navy under the UPA and acquire the requisite maritime security perspective to protect its security and trade interests alike. The British colonisers came across the oceans, not over the Himalayas; so did the terrorists who attacked Mumbai with such brutality and ruthless efficiency. A modern, capable and adequately sized navy is not just essential for coastal and littoral security needs; it will also empower India to be a major provider of regional and global public goods like disaster relief, humanitarian assistance and anti-piracy operations, from the Gulf of Aden to Southeast and East Asia.

Life cycle The biggest constraint on Japan in the foreseeable future will be a shrinking population and a rising elderly cohort

China and Japan: An Increasingly Fractious and Dangerous Relationship
Ninety percent of Chinese and Japanese hold negative opinions of each other. There are many possible explanations for the rapid deterioration in China- Japan relations: rising nationalism in both countries, Japan’s lurch to the right, and the difficulty of psychological adjustments in both countries to the shift in their relative position bilaterally, regionally and globally that has promoted hubris and arrogance in China and stoked anxiety and insecurity in Japan. Japan’s denial of historical facts seems to be more than matched by China’s denial of economic reality. Japan depends on China’s market for its own economic recovery and growth, while China benefits enormously from Japan’s massive investment of almost $200 billion that provides jobs to 10 million Chinese.

The dispute with China over the Senkaku/Diaoyudao islands (now designated a “core interest” by China) is a concrete manifestation of the threat posed to Japan by China’s rising power and profile. It highlights both Tokyo’s dependence on the US security guarantee and its anxiety that the US might baulk at defending Japan at the cost of a war with China. An issues brief prepared for the US Congress in 2013 noted that the US-Japan alliance “has long been an anchor of the US security role in East Asia”. If Japan decides to join the Trans- Pacific Partnership free trade agreement, “it will become an even more critical element in the Obama administration’s rebalancing to Asia strategy”. However, Abe’s past statements and actions on controversial historical issues — on the comfort women sex slaves during World War II, history textbooks, visits to the Yasukuni shrine in Tokyo that honours Japan’s war dead but also has enshrined some convicted Class A war criminals, and statements on territorial disputes with China and South Korea — could potentially perturb regional relations to the detriment of US interests in Asia- Pacific. The issues brief noted that over the past year, “China has conducted increasingly aggressive operations by dispatching both military and maritime law enforcement ships and aircraft to the (disputed) area.” It explained that, while Washington remains neutral on the dispute over the sovereignty of the islands, the bilateral security treaty with Japan does cover the territories so long as they are under Japanese administration. The last point was explicitly reaffirmed by President Barack Obama during his 2014 Asia swing that included Japan.

Eviscerating ‘Peace’ Article 9
On any reading, Article 9 of Japan’s Constitution is crystal clear and leaves no room for ambiguity:

i. “The Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes.

ii. To accomplish the aim of the preceding paragraph, land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained. The right of belligerency of the state will not be recognised”.

To assuage recurring and persisting security anxieties, rather than amend the military-prohibiting constitution and rescind the “peace” Article, Japan has continually reinterpreted the constitution to permit more and more military units and activities under the guise of self-defence forces. Abe is building on that tradition to permit Japanese forces to engage in hot conflicts overseas. At the recent Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, he aligned Japan firmly on the side of Asia’s smaller countries facing bullying by China, by reaffirming the central importance of the rule of law and freedom of the seas and skies. This was also reiterated in the joint statement between him and Manmohan Singh when Abe was the chief guest of honour on India’s Republic Day six months ago.

On 1 July, Abe’s Cabinet formally reinterpreted the war-renouncing Article 9 to permit military assistance to an ally under attack if it poses a clear danger to Japan’s survival or to the life, liberty and pursuit of happiness of its people; if there is no other way of repelling the armed attack to protect Japan and its citizens; and if the use of force is limited to the minimum necessary. The previous interpretation had limited the use of military force to Japan being under direct attack. China and South Korea view the reinterpretation as yet another manifestation of resurgent Japanese militarism under the nationalistic, history-denying Abe.

The failure to recognise constitutional checks on executive power is the source of anxiety inside Japan as well as among its many neighbours. Domestic critics are sceptical that the three ‘conditions’ will serve as meaningful restraints on a future administration that wants to wage war, since only the government will be the judge of whether the conditions are met. Most Japanese opposed the change. The continual evisceration of Article 9 to the point where Japan can now wage war has been done not through the prescribed constitutional procedures of parliamentary debate and approval and a referendum, but “like a thief in the night sneaking in the back door to steal the heart and soul of Japan’s pacifist Constitution, and this is what angers people” (Jeff Kingston of Temple University in Japan).

To some extent, bellicose statements from North Korea punctuated with missile and nuclear tests and, even more critically, serial acts of provocations by China have acted as external enablers for Abe’s constitutional revision by executive reinterpretation. That is, China’s growing militarisation of its maritime territorial disputes with Asian neighbours has given Abe unexpected political space, domestically and in the region, to pursue his revanchist ambitions. The efforts around the globe and in the region to accommodate China’s rise also feed Japan’s motivation. The rise of China was, for example, the dominant geopolitical theme during the inaugural Crawford Australian Leadership Forum (29 June-1 July) at the Australian National University. Mesmerised by the dizzying pace of its sustained growth, many conference participants seemed to believe that China seeks the position of leadership in Asia and the US is being forced to cede it a position of shared strategic primacy, or risk a costly war.

A New Security Consultative Forum of Asia-Pacific Democracies?
The notion of a China-US G-2 condominium is surreal. The world is much bigger than just these two. Asia is much bigger than China and the US. The idea that countries such as Japan, India and others will meekly accept being mere consumers of an Asian or global security order decreed by China and the US is utterly fanciful. Ain’t going to happen — not this year, not next year, not ever. India’s new nationalist PM Modi is expected to boost military acquisition and modernisation and upgrade infrastructure in border areas. He may also look to deepen military ties and intelligence sharing with Australia, and perhaps resurrect the mothballed quadrilateral democratic coalition between Australia, India, Japan and the US. Although an abandonment of India’s traditional opposition to formal military alliances is unlikely, New Delhi could be receptive to the idea of a security consultative forum to promote a structured dialogue among the four democracies.

In a warning overloaded with animal metaphors, Senior Colonel Liu Mingfu of China’s People’s Liberation Army described the US as “the global tiger” and Japan as the Asian “wolf”, and “both are now badly biting China”. Continuing with his metaphors, he warned Australia should not “play the jackal for the tiger or dance with the wolf” but instead be a “kind-hearted lamb” which China would help from being led astray. Unsurprisingly, many Australians fear they could become lambs being led to the slaughter.

During a three-day visit to Australia, Abe addressed a joint sitting of Parliament on 8 July — the first Japanese PM to speak to Australia’s Parliament. Welcoming him, PM Tony Abbott (Australia has an Abbott for PM and a Bishop for foreign minister!) noted that the firm friendship between the two countries had “arisen from the ashes of the most destructive war in history because our peoples and our leaders have consistently refused to let the past blight the future”. There were two unusual features of Abe’s speech: he spoke in English and he leavened his speech with humour. He pointedly noted freedom, democracy, human rights, the rule of law and peaceful resolution of disputes as the shared values that bind the two countries together. Expressing regret for Japan’s wartime aggression, Abe said Japan’s security policy had been “self-absorbed” for too long. Japan and Australia had freed themselves from the baggage of history and entered into a “special relationship” of free trade and defence cooperation pacts.

Giving depth and texture to other Asian and Pacific countries’ relationship with Tokyo will provide ballast for and strengthen regional security, not weaken it. Because of constitutional constraints and public nervousness in Japan and regional apprehensions about a remilitarised Japan that have deep emotional roots in the events of World War II, any move towards making Japan a “normal” country has to be managed very delicately. The pay-off will be that a normal Japan could be an anchor of regional security and provide practical contributions to efforts to promote regional peace and prosperity. The alternative is that Japan retreats inwards, becomes more introspective, turns to the hard right, remilitarises and perhaps acquires nuclear weapons. The choice between this and like-minded and trusted friends helping Japan to acquire the self-confidence and poise to play the normal role of a regional heavyweight should be a no-brainer.

This is the third article in the four-part series on changing power equations in Asia and the Pacific


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  1. […] Japan Is Back As a Consequential Power – Speaking to the Yomiuri Shimbun shortly after being sworn in as PM for a second time, Abe highlighted the importance of strengthening the US security alliance and … global tiger” and Japan as the Asian “wolf”, and “both are now badly biting … […]

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