Does Japan Have a Strategy?

Beneath public disagreements over nuclear policy and handling the Senkaku dispute, Tokyo has a bipartisan consensus on Japan's future.

Image: Oliver Orschiedt.It has become oh-so-easy to dismiss Japan these days.

The nation’s political leaders seem incapable of addressing the fundamental problems of an aging society and massive debt. They only make matters worse by flirting with zero nuclear power and flip-flopping on whether to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) to liberalize trade or to proceed with deregulation of the economy. Japan’s foreign policy appears to have entered a self-defeating cycle of confrontation with China and South Korea over contested islands, compounded by the emergence of hypernationalists like Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara and Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto on the national scene. Reading the Washington Post or New York Times, one would get the impression that Japan is drifting aimlessly somewhere off the coast of China before floundering and finally sinking beneath the waves.

Yet there is remarkably more consensus about national strategy among Japanese elites than meets the eye.

There is no denying the debilitating effect of rotating prime ministers and three years of mostly dysfunctional governance under the once populist and now deeply unpopular Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ). Japan faces incredibly hard public-policy choices on the home front. But on foreign policy, Japan is still an actor to be reckoned with.

There are various voices, some pacifist and some more ultra-rightist, but the center-right has now prevailed. And one hears their view with clear consistency across the senior ranks of the bureaucracy, business community, defense forces—and most importantly—among the political leaders who are set to dominate Japan for the coming decade.

The current Prime Minister, Yoshihiko Noda, is one of those center-right leaders. He will likely lose power in elections scheduled for mid-December, not because of his policy views but because his party has become so unpopular. If he had been born with a different pedigree, he would have joined the long-dominant Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), but instead he went to the Matsushita Institute where self-starters train to become political leaders, and he ended-up in a DPJ full of former socialists and populists.

In the coming shake-up the LDP’s current leader (and the son and grandson of heavy weight politicians) Shinzo Abe is all but certain to make a come-back and become prime minister again. Abe and Noda have largely convergent views of foreign policy. The other contenders against Abe for leadership of the LDP, Shigeru Ishiba and Nobuteru Ishihara, are both cut from the same cloth, as are most of the DPJ politicians waiting just behind Noda, including National Strategy Minister Seiji Maehara and Foreign Minister Koichiro Gemba. A good 30-50 percent of the DPJ and virtually all of the LDP would be prepared to follow a strategy for Japan that any one of these leaders would chart.

Elements of a Strategy

Japan’s strategic thinking begins with a clear-eyed view of the challenge posed by China—much clearer than we have in the United States in many respects. Noda, Abe and the rest are fully cognizant of the fact that China is Japan’s largest trading partner and an increasingly important source of tourism and exports.

They also know that China seeks to assert greater control over the seas within the First Island Chain (stretching from Japan to Taiwan and through the Philippines) and that the dispute over the Senkaku Islands is more about that geostrategic struggle than fish, gas or popular nationalism at home. A few years ago, they will tell you, Japan had full control over the Senkaku Islands and the sea lanes stretching towards Taiwan. Now China’s growing naval and paramilitary presence has reduced that to 20 percent and many more PLA and other maritime vessels are being put into service every year.

They also generally concur on how Japan should respond. First, lock-in the U.S.-Japan alliance. This was something the DPJ’s first prime minister, Yukio Hatoyama, failed to do with his populist imaginings of an exclusive “East Asia Community.” The result of his theatrical distancing from the United States was a far more aggressive and opportunistic China—a negative development that even DPJ leaders concede would not have happened under the more pro-U.S. Junichiro Koizumi. No political leader on the horizon is likely to repeat Hatoyama’s mistake.

Second, Japan’s leaders know that they must remove the more unreasonable and anachronistic constraints on the Self-Defense Forces. Japan’s military is now the most respected institution in Japan in some domestic polls—a remarkable turnaround for a supposedly pacifist nation. The response to the March 11, 2011 tsunami helped, but support for the military was already on the rise.