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Japan’s Grand Strategy and New Strategic Partnerships

Tags: National Security , International Affairs , Security Cooperation , Asia-Pacific , Abe

Wilkins, Thomas S.

May 28, 2014

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In a paper outlining Australian perspectives on Prime Minister Abe’s security policy, Thomas Wilkins,[1] a security and strategic studies expert at the University of Sydney, describes Japan’s external and internal balancing policies in reaction to China’s rising power and how these measures constitute a new Japanese “grand strategy.”

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From a security point of view “Japan is back.” As promised, the LDP government under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is mobilizing Japan’s economic and diplomatic resources to recover lost ground and better advance its national interests in an increasingly unforgiving international environment. In addition to the much touted “three arrows” of “Abenomics,” which appear to have registered (limited) success, it is on the security front that Japan has been particularly active, and upon which this article shall concentrate.

Increasingly Harsh Security Environment

The stimulus for the initiatives described below can be traced to mounting external pressures since the end of the Cold War. As Kenneth Pyle has suggested, Japan has been historically sensitive to shifts in its external environment, and this is especially so in this current era of power shift in the Asia Pacific.[2] In 2012, then Defense Minister Satoshi Morimoto asserted that “the security environment surrounding our country is becoming increasingly harsh.”[3] It is characterized inter alia by a rising China, hostile nuclear-armed North Korea, a plethora of territorial disputes, as well as a whole range of “gray zone” danger spots.

Some of the most acute threats are identified in the 2010 National Defense Program Guidelines as: “security of sea and airspace surrounding Japan”; “attacks on offshore islands”; “cyber attacks”; “attacks by guerrillas and special operations forces”; “ballistic missile attacks”; or other “complex contingencies.”[4] In order to deter and respond effectively against such risks, Japan has begun to mobilize on both the domestic and international fronts (what Michael Green has dubbed—from an international relations realist perspective—internal and external “balancing”).[5] Taken together, these efforts appear to constitute a meaningful blueprint that might be dubbed a new “grand strategy” for Japan.

On the domestic front, the 2013 National Security Strategy avers that “To ensure national security, Japan needs to first and foremost strengthen its own capabilities and the foundation for exercising those capabilities.”[6] In this respect Richard Samuels has drawn attention to the administration’s strong efforts to revise current legislation and create new legislation as a means to facilitate a greater security, even military, role, for Japan.[7]

The slow “salami-slicing” of the restrictions imposed by the Japanese constitution and other self-impositions related to Japan’s ability to use military force have been part of ongoing efforts to make it a more “normal country,” better able to defend itself and its allies. This continues a process begun after the end of the Cold War and reenergized by the need to participate in the US war on terror, and includes such landmark legislation as the Peace Cooperation Law (1992), wartime preparedness legislation (yuji hosei 2003), and Anti-Terrorism Special Measures Law (2005), which allow greater latitude for overseas deployments.

While the power to revise the constitution (in order to amend the Article 9 renunciation of war) will likely remain beyond the reach of the Abe administration, adjusting the National Referendum Law (Article 96 of the constitution)—to make it easier to amend the constitution by overturning the current 2/3 majority required to make constitutional adjustments—may be possible. This is combined with a favorable “reinterpretation” of Japan’s right to “collective self-defense” and symbolic moves like renaming the Self Defense Forces a “real military” (kokugun).

Legal and Institutional Initiatives

In order to effect these objectives power has been drawn away from the bureaucracy —though the Ministry of Defense seems to have gained in confidence—and concentrated more within the Prime Minister’s Office (Kantei). The Cabinet Legislative Bureau (CLB), previously responsible for stringent interpretations of the constitution has been tamed and is now headed by Ichiro Komatsu, an appointee sympathetic to Abe’s aims in interpreting the right to collective self-defense.

These efforts at adapting the legislative environment are supplemented with major developments on the institutional front. The creation of a National Security Council, consisting of a key minister’s meeting and supported by a Secretariat, headed by a national security advisor (currently Shotaro Yachi), brings decision-making power under closer control of the Prime Minister’s Office and improves the government’s ability to respond to crises. Furthermore, over the winter of 2013-14 Tokyo released its new National Defense Program Guidelines, and most significantly, its first dedicated National Security Strategy document, modeled on that of the United States. The NSS serves to highlight many of the developments, activities, and objectives that together form a national “grand strategy.”[8]

Many of these developments have probably only been made possible by the determined leadership of Prime Minister Abe. Since the departure of LDP Premier Junichiro Koizumi in 2006, the country has been lacking strong direction from the top. No more. Abe is riding high popular support at home (approval ratings of near 60%),[9] even as he touches raw nerves in Korea and China over his recent visit to the Yasukuni Shrine and somewhat controversial private views on history.

As a consequence of the March 2011 “triple disaster” and the response of the JSDF, the military has never enjoyed such popular support as it does now. This combination makes an expanded or enhanced role for the military in Japanese security policy politically feasible. Thus the recent report published by Richard Armitage and Joseph Nye claimed that “Perceptions of the JSDF are changing, and they are viewed as one of the most viable instruments of Japan’s foreign policy.”[10]

In the meantime, Japan has continued a moderate military build-up, with its intent to expand its submarine fleet, acquire additional helicopter destroyers, and perhaps increase its fleet of Aegis destroyers and fifth generation aircraft (from the United States or the recently unveiled indigenous ATD-X shin shin prototype). This continues the gradual process of “remilitarization” tracked by scholar Christopher Hughes since the mid-2000s.[11] A modest increase in defense spending (0.8%), coupled with a new and more proactive “dynamic defense” doctrine, means that Japan’s forces will be shifted to its vulnerable southern flank, with increases in personnel, equipment, and potential new facilities (such as a GSDF garrison and radar station on Yonaguni Island). These concrete changes indicate that internal mobilization is not simply political rhetoric.

Expanding Strategic Horizons

Nor has Japan spared its efforts on the international side. In addition to sharp changes in the domestic arena, Abe has picked up his own—and Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s—efforts to expand Japan’s diplomatic space. The PM avers that “Japan’s top foreign-policy priority must be to expand the country’s strategic horizons.”[12] Certainly, Mr. Abe has been a peripatetic prime minister, especially by Japanese standards. Since his return to office, under the brand of “global diplomacy” (chikyugi gaiko), he has travelled around Europe, the Gulf, South America, and Asia in order to catalyze economic and political relationships. This forms part of a dedicated “networking” strategy whereby Japan seeks to weave a web of international support to buttress its diplomatic, economic, and even security position.

This has occurred along three tracks, or “tiers.” First, Tokyo has sought to deepen its relationship with its traditional US ally (helped by the apparent progress made on the vexatious base relocation issue in Okinawa). The 2013 US-Japan Security Consultative Committee meetings laid the groundwork for the promulgation of new US-Japan Defense Guidelines, expected later in 2014. Second, Japan continues erstwhile efforts to engage in regional multilateral security architectures (such as the ASEAN Regional Forum, ASEAN+ 3, and East Asia Summit). Third, in a more novel development, Japan has sought to acquire new friends and allies to bolster its external mobilization. Abe has enthusiastically pursued the creation and reinforcement of so-called “strategic partnerships”—enhanced bilateral relations—with key countries. These new bilateral partnerships will now be considered in further detail.

The first, and to date most successful of these, has been with Australia. The two countries now engage in unprecedented cooperation in the security, defense, military, and intelligence spheres as well as signing a landmark economic partnership agreement (EPA). Australian premier Tony Abbott met in March 2014 with Mr. Abe and took the opportunity to reaffirm that Japan was “Australia’s closet friend in Asia,” openly speaking of her as an “ally” after a lengthy seven hour series of meetings.

Reports on the uptick in economic and security cooperation (particularly the agreement to submarine military technology just announced) have led the Australian press to employ the word “alliance” (Sydney Morning Herald) to describe the partnership, though this rhetoric outstrips the reality, since neither power is committed to the treaty defense of the other. Notwithstanding mutual disagreement over whaling issues (where Japan has quietly determined to abide by the International Court of Justice ruling successfully brought against it by Canberra), strong mutual diplomatic support has been in evidence throughout, including Australia’s condemnation of China’s provocative ADIZ (air-defense identification zone) declaration.

Deeper “Intra-Spoke” Cooperation?

The strengthened Japan-Australia strategic partnership does represent a significant development, particularly so when it is linked to the shared US alliances in the form of the Trilateral Strategic Dialogue (TSD). When the three allied states met in October 2013, they reached broad agreement on the danger of maritime/territorial disputes (with China) that are a key concern for Japan. This leads Ryo Sahashi to speak of deepening “intra-spoke” cooperation.

Japan has also sought out other strategic partners, notably India. Abe traveled to New Delhi January of 2014 to reaffirm its partnership with Indian PM Manmohan Singh celebrating their shared values—such as democracy, human rights, and rule of law (key aspects of Abe’s so-called “values-diplomacy”), whilst pressing ahead with economic ties and joint strategic concerns about maritime security. The Japan-India strategic partnership has the additional virtue that it can be combined with Australia to secure Japan’s interests in the important “Indo-Pacific” region. Yet while the prospects for this bilateral partnership are promising, progress to date has been disappointing for Tokyo. At one high point in 2007, it was suggested that India (already a strategic partner of the US and Australia) be admitted to the TSD, but this has not been pursued to date, despite Japan’s enthusiasm (though sources indicate that this though sources indicate that some form of "Quadrilateral Strategic Dialogue," or QSD, may be revitalized under a Track II format).

Furthermore, Japan has sought to cultivate strategic partnerships in Southeast Asia, finding common cause with countries that also have maritime/territorial disputes with the PRC and assisting them in “capacity-building” through the provision of equipment, including coast guard vessels (as a result of the loosening of self-imposed limits on arms exports). Finally, Abe has sought and achieved a strategic partnership “over the horizon” with the UK (including sharing of defense technology, again facilitated by the arms exports loosening), in part driven by his alleged historical nostalgia for the Anglo-Japanese Alliance of 1902–22.

There have been some setbacks with the recent policy of creating strategic partnerships, however. Regrettably, such a partnership with the ROK has remained frustrated due to acrimony emanating from Seoul regarding certain still-unresolved historical issues (chiefly “comfort women” and apologies), and Abe’s visit to Yasukuni. These are exacerbated by Seoul’s quarrel with Japan over some small islets claimed as Dok-do, and known as Takeshima in Japan. This is unfortunate, since the two states were on the verge of building a more formalized partnership in 2012, when Seoul reneged at the last minute on signing intelligence (GSOMIA) and logistic sharing (ACSA) agreements.

There is evidence, however, that the ROK has overplayed its “anti-Japan” hand, as both Tokyo and Washington begin to speak of “Korea fatigue,” and President Park Geun-hye’s domestically populist policy seems to have yielded little in the way of concrete policy dividends. The only ray of light on this issue is the maintenance of reputedly strong working-level relationships between Korean and Japanese counterparts. Likewise, initial prospects of rapprochement with Russia—a potentially powerful partner—have now probably been derailed by the latter’s intervention in Ukraine, at least for the time being.

Hedging against China?

Then, there is China. Despite claims that Japan and China enjoy a “mutually beneficial relationship based on common strategic interests,” little real progress has been made in resolving tense relations. In fact, part of the purpose of the array of strategic partnerships Japan has built up is to provide diplomatic and even military counterweight to a China perceived as increasingly threatening (and to “hedge” against putative US decline). When these strategic partnerships can be “networked” through the US “hub and spoke” system to further multiply their capabilities, even if only as a diplomatic front, Tokyo has scored a moderate success at least.

This article has argued that on the basis of the NSS and all the associated developments outlined above, Japan is actively forging a new grand strategy to replace the rudderless state that followed from the expiration of the Yoshida doctrine in the 1990s. Indeed, Hughes has originally (and controversially) identified the genesis of such a strategy under the ill-fated DPJ administration. [13] Employing a “multi-layered approach,”[14] the grand strategy is based on a proactive mobilization of Japan’s internal power resources and external alignments, and seems well-designed to meet the increasingly challenging security environment Japan faces in the Asia-Pacific region. The appearance of “strategic partnerships” as an instrument for creating and coordinating privileged bilateral relationships, such as with Australia, India, and several Southeast Asian states, is a particularly significant development in Japanese security policy, and one that should command greater attention.

The developments described above cannot solely be credited to the Abe administration, for there is a degree of continuity, including with the quest for strategic partnerships, with the former DPJ administration (see Hughes, note 12). The main factor is the zest and determination with which Abe has continued and expanded this agenda in his second term. This will most likely to continue even after his departure, as there is a firm bipartisan consensus in Japan on the challenges and tasks that lie ahead for the country.

Expect further developments both on the domestic and international security front as Japan continues to mobilize its internal and external resources to reconfigure its grand strategy.



[1] The author would like to acknowledge the generous support of the Australia-Japan Foundation and the Tokyo Foundation.

[2] Kenneth Pyle, Japan Rising: The Resurgence of Japanese Power and Purpose (New York: The Century Foundation, 2007).

[3] The Defense of Japan, (Tokyo: Ministry of Defense, 2012), p. i.

[4] National Defense Program Guidelines, Tokyo, 17 December, 2010, pp. 10-11.

[5] Michael Green, Japan's Reluctant Realism: Foreign Policy Challenges In an Era of Uncertain Power, (London: Macmillan, 2003).

[6] National Security Strategy, December 17, 2013, http://www.kantei.go.jp/foreign/96_abe/documents/2013/__icsFiles/afieldfile/2013/12/18/NSS.pdf, p. 14.

[7] Richard Samuels, 3.11: Disaster and Change in Japan, (Ithaca: Cornell university Press, 2013).

[8] Though “national security strategy” is not synonymous with “grand strategy,” it, along with such other documents as The Defense of Japan, exercises influence over the “big picture” of a national grand strategy.

[9] “Shinzo Abe’s Comeback as Prime Minister Drives Japan’s Turnaround,” Washington Post, 9 February 2014.

[10] Richard Armitage and Joseph Nye, “The US-Japan Alliance: Anchoring Stability in Asia,” A Report of the CSIS Japan Chair, August 2012, http://csis.org/files/publication/120810_Armitage_USJapanAlliance_Web.pdf, p. 15.

[11] Christopher Hughes, Japan’s Re-emergence as a Normal Military Power? (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004).

[12] Shinzo Abe, “Asia’s Democratic Security Diamond,” Project Syndicate, 27 December, 2012, http://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/a-strategic-alliance-for-japan-and-india-by-shinzo-abe#7mTls3hq7l6fy7FH.99

[13] Christopher Hughes, “The Democratic Party of Japan’s New (but Failing) Grand Security Strategy: From ‘Reluctant Realism’ to ‘Resentful Realism’?” Journal of Japanese Studies, vol. 38, no. 1, Winter 2012, pp. 109–40.

[14] National Defense Program Guidelines for FY 2014 and Beyond (Summary), 17 December 2013, http://www.kantei.go.jp/foreign/96_abe/documents/2013/__icsFiles/afieldfile/2013/12/17/NDPG(Summary).pdf, p. 5.

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