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.

Last year, Noda announced a relaxation of Japan’s arms export rules and his defense advisory board recommended lifting the ban on collective defense, which would allow the Defense Forces to engage in collective action with the United States, the same way our NATO allies and Australia can. The prime minister has the power to recognize and activate the right of collective defense; it requires only a reinterpretation of Article Nine (the “peace clause”) of the Constitution rather than the more difficult path of revision. Already Japanese forces are operating in the Arabian Sea with rules of engagement that allow them to use force to help other partners under attack by pirates, the legal distinction being that pirates are criminals and not a state. The next step, well within the realm of political possibility, would give a significant boost to the ability of Japan’s defense forces to operate with the United States and other allies.

Third, Japan should align with other maritime states to maintain a favorable equilibrium in the Pacific. Japan signed security agreements with Australia in 2007 and India in 2008 and cooperation with both countries continued to increase even after the DPJ came to power in 2009. Noda proposed in a speech at the East Asia Summit in Bali in 2011 that Japan help the region establish a new maritime order with clear rules for maintaining peace and stability. He did not need to tell his ASEAN and other counterparts that the challenge to that order would most likely be China. Abe’s enthusiasm for maintaining a maritime coalition led him to propose a “Quad” summit among the United States, Japan, Australia and India when he was last prime minister in 2007. The proposal proved too rich for the other three states, but he will search for new ways to achieve the same strategic alignment when he comes back into power.

Fourth, the country will join the TPP trade agreement. This will seem odd to those who see the LDP candidates campaigning on the theme that they will only join a regime that would allow Japan to carve out exemptions, a stance that makes participation in TPP impossible. But what else can a mostly rural-based party say before an election? In private, the LDP leadership knows that the United States always carves out exemptions—particularly for sugar—and that Japan will find a way to do the same. Business leaders express quiet confidence that the LDP will bring Japan into the TPP, something Noda proposed but failed to follow through on before his party lost popular support. LDP leaders acknowledge that it is an issue of when—not if.

Finally, Japan must find a way to grow its economy. For decades the country managed to have impressive economic growth and keep theGini coefficient (the gap between rich and poor) at the lowest level in the OECD. In the 1990s, that juggling act fell apart and in 2001, Koizumi chose reform and growth over redistribution. The economy grew faster, but so did the Gini coefficient. The DPJ came in to power in 2009 promising to put an end to what they called Koizumi’s “neocon economics” and to massively redistribute wealth through subsidies and tax exemptions. That experiment ended in dismal failure. Noda began to adjust the party’s position on pro-business policies and the LDP will bring the government back full circle.

It goes without saying that the last of these priorities—growing the economy—is both the most important and the most difficult to execute. There is a general consensus among conservatives that nuclear power cannot be phased out and that business needs an improved environment in terms of taxation and labor-mobility laws. How quickly the LDP moves on restoring nuclear power will depend on the political climate they face once in power.

Other issues remain more contested. Will the government stimulate the economy through monetary easing? Through deregulation? Through women’s empowerment? Through immigration reform? These are more difficult to address as policy questions than the national-security measures listed above. But they are critically important and as with American choices—about fiscal, immigration and regulatory reform—they will affect the strength of the Japanese economy and the scope of resources for foreign aid and defense.

Does Japan have a strategy? The ends are fairly clear. Establishing the means will be a generation-long effort. In the meantime, Japan remains a powerful nation and an important variable in the security of Northeast Asia.

Michael J. Green is Senior Vice President for Asia and Japan Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and an Associate Professor of Asian Studies at Georgetown University.