Making sense of Japan as an international political and security actor and maintaining a sense of proportion regarding Tokyo’s foreign and security policy are hardly a straightforward task. It is not just a headache for outside observers. There is no consensus in Japan either on what role the country should or is prepared to play in the international political and security arena. In light of the ever worsening security environment in which Japan is situated, the gap between those who argue for focusing on the immediate needs of Japan’s territorial defense and those who argue for more global engagement seems to be growing. I call the former camp the domestic-oriented “Japan First” and the latter the internationalist “Global Japan.” The competition between the two camps will shape the future course of Japan’s foreign and security posture and the country’s role in the region and beyond—and importantly, the Global Japan camp is far from winning.
The “Japan First” and “Global Japan” Camps
The logic behind the Japan First camp is rather simple. Given the limited nature of resources that Japan can spend on its foreign, security and defense policy, they argue that Japan needs to concentrate available resources to its core interests strictly defined, most notably addressing the threats and challenges regarding the Senkaku islands in the East China Sea—controlled by Japan, but claimed by China as well—and North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile developments. The value of the political and security partnerships that Japan has with other countries are assessed more or less exclusively based on the extent to which partners can help Japan address those immediate threats and challenges.
In this regard, countries other than the United States—the only treaty ally of Japan—are likely to be seen as secondary or irrelevant. They believe that non-U.S. partners cannot do anything substantial in contingencies involving Japan. As a result, the geographical scope of Japan’s security interest, as far as the ‘Japan first’ camp is concerned, has shrunk considerably over the past several years amid growing tensions in the vicinity of Japan. They believe Japan is too busy and there is no time, energy and resources left to think about less relevant partners. For them, global engagement is nothing but a waste of resources. While Japan’s defense budget is increasing under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, it is not thought to be enough.
The Senkaku- and North Korea-centered mentality and defense posture looks evident. As for the Senkaku Islands, Japan Coast Guard (JCG) takes the lead in addressing China’s challenge to Japan’s administrative control over the islands, supported by the Self-Defense Forces, particularly Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) vessels deployed in the adjacent waters. Amid China’s increasingly assertive actions and the build-up of its maritime capability, the operational burden on the Japanese side has increased a lot and the whole operation is becoming more difficult, if not impossible, to sustain. On top of that, JMSDF’s role in ballistic missile defense (BMD) against the North Korean threat has also increased in recent years and the fleet of Japan’s BMD-capable aegis vessels are in high operational demand, which could affect the level of training. Under these circumstances, it is of no surprise that the Japan First camp tends to prevail in Japan’s foreign, security and defense-policy thinking.
Conversely, the Global Japan camp argues that, precisely because the security environment surrounding Japan becomes ever severer, Tokyo needs to reach out more to new sets of political and security partners, hoping to get political and diplomatic support for addressing the North Korean threat and China’s increasing maritime assertiveness in the South and East China Seas. Bluntly put, it is about building a global coalition of partners against such threats and challenges—while being well short of containing China. Tokyo has sought to expand strategic cooperation with such countries as Australia, India, Indonesia, Vietnam, the UK and France among others as well as the European Union and NATO. The basic idea is to use a wide range of partners to help address the threats and challenges facing Japan.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s “diplomacy through a panoramic perspective of the globe [chikyuugi wo fukan suru gaikou]” and the idea of “proactive contribution to peace” are seen as the tool to advance such an agenda. In addition to dialogue and consultation, the Abe government has expanded practical security and defense cooperation, including defense equipment cooperation mainly with European countries and defense capacity-building assistance mainly to Southeast Asia. These are by no means a trivial development and Japan’s profile as a political and security actor in Asia and beyond has no doubt been raised under Abe’s leadership.
Competition between the Two Camps
The Japan First and Global Japan camps compete with each other on a daily basis on a host of issues and the balance of power, or more precisely compromise between the two shapes the direction of Japan’s foreign, security and defense policy. Counter-piracy operation in the Gulf of Aden and off the coast of Somalia is a good case in point. For Global Japan types, defending the sea lines of communication (SLOCs), including in the area far away from Japan, is always part of Japan’s core interest and the global deployment of JMSDF vessels itself serves Japan’s broader interest as a major sea power with naval partnerships across the globe in close cooperation with the United States.
On the other hand, not surprisingly, people in the Japan First camp believe that the counter-piracy operation, not least in light of the fact that the number of piracy incidents has dramatically decreased, is an unnecessary distraction of Japan’s scarce resources. They argue that JMSDF is overstretched due to the high operational tempo needed in the East China Sea and believe that Japan needs to concentrate its resources to the issues of vital importance, such as those directly related to the territorial integrity of the country like the Senkaku Islands.
As a result of a compromise between the two camps, Tokyo decided to continue the operation but decreased the number of vessels participating in the counter-piracy operation from two to one in late 2016. Closer to home, the idea of more engagement in the South China Sea is also met by resistance by those who argue that Japan’s precious resources should be concentrated on the East China Sea where the stakes are higher.
Discussions on cooperation with other partners can also be understood in the same context. The Japan First camp does not regard cooperation with geographically distant partners to be of direct interest for the purpose of addressing security problems at home, whereas the Global Japan camp argues that precisely because the security environment surrounding Japan deteriorates, Japan needs more partners in the region and beyond including Australia, India and Europe. It is important to note that Japan is not currently fighting a war against China or North Korea—what takes place now is political and diplomatic competition, where strategic messaging plays an important role. Therefore, the Global Japan camp appreciates a series of statements by NATO, the European Union or individual European countries and Australia condemning North Korea’s nuclear tests and ballistic missile launches and expressing concerns about the situation in the South China Sea, albeit dismissed by the Japan First types.
It is easy to criticize that the Japan First camp does not understand how connected the world has become and it is, as a result, becoming more difficult to maintain Japan’s security as well as prosperity just by focusing on the areas geographically close to Japan. However, the current state of play also shows that the Global Japan camp has largely been unsuccessful in making the case that Japan needs more international engagement, not less, to secure the country’s future.
Why Misperceptions Occur and Matter
There seems to be a significant gap between the actual state of play in Japan and perceptions outside the country as observers abroad tend to lean toward the Global Japan discourse. In the U.S. context, for example, those in the policy community involved in the U.S.-Japan alliance naturally want to highlight the value of Japan as an ally as well as those who warn Japan’s dangerous path toward normalization and re-militarization tend to equally emphasize, though for different purposes and in different ways, how strategic, global and security-minded Japan has become.
Another major reason why foreign observers are more exposed to Global Japan views has to do with the fact that in many cases they only talk to English-speaking Japanese politicians, officials and experts, who are likely to represent the Global Japan camp. Many of those in the Japan First camp do not often see foreign (particularly non-American) visitors and not surprisingly, Japanese participants in international conferences are usually dominated by the Global Japan camp, arguably including this author. As a result, the Global Japan discourse is represented disproportionately in discussions on Japan’s foreign and security policy outside Japan.
Although some Japanese, including government officials, are aware of this gap, they do not have a strong incentive to try to redress it as letting the Global Japan image be promoted is not usually seen as damaging to Japan’s public image in the world.