Japan, a Sleeping Giant of Global Affairs, Is Waking Up
Japan, a Sleeping Giant of Global Affairs, Is Waking Up
Three times in the modern era, Japan has reacted to profound international shifts with a sweeping remake of its foreign policy — in ways that drastically altered global history.
The nation is now undergoing a leadership transition, as the job of prime minister passes from Yoshihide Suga to Fumio Kishida. This may seem like “more of the same,” as both men — like nearly all of Japan’s postwar prime ministers — represent the Liberal Democratic Party. But the bigger story is that Japan is also tentatively approaching a fourth foreign policy revolution, thanks to the combined shock of an aggressive China and an uncertain US.
All three of Japan’s prior revolutions followed epic geopolitical disruptions. The first came after the forced opening of the country by the West in the 1850s. The result was the Meiji restoration, the construction of a modern economy and strong military, and the emergence of Japan as a great power that thrashed China and then Russia in major wars.
The second revolution occurred during the 1930s. The collapse of the world economy and rising challenges to Japanese objectives in China led Japan to embrace militarism, violent expansion and the quest for economic autarky in Asia — thereby helping to spark World War II.
The third revolution followed Japan’s crushing defeat and occupation by American forces. Japan’s postwar leaders responded by renouncing an independent foreign policy and outsourcing security to the US. That allowed Japan’s reconstruction as an engine of regional prosperity and helped propel East Asia into an era of relative stability and peace.
The era of Japanese quiescence is ending, however, and the primary reason is China’s bellicosity. Beijing is challenging Tokyo’s control of the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, and it is menacing Taiwan, which shields Japan’s southern flank. China is building naval and air capabilities designed to overawe Tokyo and other US allies; its leadership gives every indication that it would love to teach Japan, which ravaged China during World War II, a painful lesson.
Japanese security is simultaneously being challenged by an unreliable US.
President Donald Trump withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade deal intended in large part to keep China from dominating the region economically, and periodically threatened to blow up the bilateral alliance.
President Joe Biden has restored a more normal rhythm in US-Japanese relations, but has not yet brought America into a major Pacific trade deal or found a formula for reversing a deteriorating regional military balance. Also looming is the fear that Biden’s presidency may simply be an interlude between Trump’s abrasive unilateralism and a return to “America First.”
Japan isn’t sitting by as threats gather. In 2016, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government originated the concept of a “free and open Indo-Pacific.” Japan was a central player in reviving the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or Quad, with Australia, India and the US For years, Tokyo has been slowly unwinding constitutional constraints on its ability to project military power. The US-Japan alliance has taken on an anti-Chinese character, as Japanese air and naval forces help American forces patrol potential maritime flashpoints.
Perhaps most notably, Japanese leaders have begun hinting that Tokyo might assist the US in a regional war to defend Taiwan, or otherwise beat back Chinese aggression. Japan is placing antiship missiles on the Ryukyu Islands, an archipelago running south nearly to Taiwan, and making plans to use its submarines to choke off China’s access to the open Pacific in case of war.
All of this is happening as Tokyo works with Washington to secure supply chains and speed innovation by democratic countries in key technologies such as semiconductors; offer high-quality infrastructure assistance to developing nations, and otherwise contest Chinese influence. In response to China’s rise, Japan has quietly begun its own resurgence as a great power.
Yet as Japan hopes for US revival, it is also hedging against American retrenchment. Abe’s government held TPP together after the US withdrawal (a scaled-down version, the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, was launched in 2018). Kishida now faces the challenge of keeping China out of that pact while perhaps bringing Taiwan in. Tokyo has inked a major trade deal with the European Union and inaugurated a supply chain alliance with Australia and India, to decrease economic reliance on China at a time when US foreign economic policy still looks doubtful.
So far, the changes are more evolutionary than revolutionary, as the scholar Adam Liff observes. Defense spending is still capped around 1% of gross domestic product. Open talk of developing a nuclear arsenal remains taboo. But the trendline runs, unmistakably, toward a more “normal” Japanese foreign policy — which is to say, toward a larger and less abashed role in the world.
There’s great opportunity here, from America’s perspective. Due to its geographic position, economic and military strength, technological sophistication, and democratic values, Japan could be as important an ally in this century as Britain was in the last.
Yet getting the most out of the alliance will require the US to demonstrate its staying power in the Pacific, whether through creative security arrangements such as the recent Aukus pact with Australia and the UK, or through economic initiatives, such as a regional digital trade agreement, that can give Washington a central role in the region’s future prosperity.
For the Chinese, by contrast, Japan’s resurgence looks ominous. One hyperbolic Chinese propaganda video promised that Beijing would “continuously” strike the country with nuclear weapons if it joined a war over Taiwan. Chinese officials warn of a newly aggressive, militaristic Japan; the irony is that a democratic Japan is mostly responding defensively to Chinese threats.
Beijing’s belligerence is making it more likely that Japan will experience another foreign policy revolution — which would, once again, come at China’s expense.