Strategic Self-Reliance for Japan

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Normalizing Japan’s military can help revitalize Japanese foreign policy. (Wikimedia Commons)
Normalizing Japan’s military can help revitalize Japanese foreign policy. (Wikimedia Commons)


WASHINGTON — In discussions over the great powers that will shape the 21st century, Japan has been conspicuously left out. Japan was all the rage in the 1980s, and many American commentators then predicted that Japan would overtake the United States. as the world’s foremost economic superpower. But over the last two decades, Japan has experienced a steady but dramatic decline in global influence, a development that is magnified when contrasted with China’s ascension onto the world stage over the same period.

There are structural factors that have contributed to and may continue to lead to Japan’s relative decline, including its aging demographics and lack of sufficient immigration. But one overlooked factor has been the heavy constraints on Japan’s foreign policy resulting from its overwhelming dependence on the United States for security. Newly-elected Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has promised to reassess Japan’s restrictively pacifist military policy to provide the country with greater autonomy and flexibility in strategic issues. Doing so could finally transform Japan into a “normal” strategic state with the same set of foreign policy and diplomatic tools available to the rest of the world, among which a full-fledged military is an essential component.

Japan is the only major developed country that lacks a true military. In the aftermath of Japan’s defeat in World War II and while under U.S. military occupation, Japan adopted a constitution that included a pacifist clause restricting the country’s military capabilities. The constitution itself was drafted largely by American officials under the oversight of General Douglas MacArthur, although the pacifist clause, Article 9, may actually have been written by a Japanese politician. Whatever its true origin, Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution expressly prohibits Japan from waging war or even from maintaining a standing military. It was an overreaction meant to redress Japan’s militarism of the previous half-century. Fortunately, Japan has always maintained a less-than-strict interpretation of this article, and its wholesale utility has been the subject of continuous debate since the constitution’s adoption in 1947.

The danger of giving up all of its military capabilities quickly became evident with the outbreak of the Korean War, and by 1954, Japan had reorganized and expanded its “police” forces into the Japan Self-Defense Forces (SDF), which included a functional but restricted army, navy, and air force. The scope of the SDF, however, has always been restricted to explicit defense of the Japanese homeland. The SDF could not be used for combat operations in any other context. This has hamstrung Japan’s ability to conduct an independent foreign policy without coordination with or assistance from the United States. Japan has been unable to enter any sort of collective or mutual defense arrangements with other countries, which are key tools of international diplomacy. In a sense, Article 9 has forced Japan to partially isolate itself diplomatically from the world on strategic issues.

Last year, the Japanese Cabinet approved a reinterpretation of Article 9 that would allow for some limited forms of collective defense. The constitution itself remains unchanged, but this new interpretation is a step in the right direction. Whether it can win over Japanese public opinion or survive political opposition remains to be seen, and only a constitutional amendment can ensure that the new Japanese outlook will last beyond the current government. Normalization of the military would signal to the world a willingness on Japan’s part to remove itself from its self-imposed diplomatic isolation. Abe seeks to revitalize Japan on all fronts, but especially with respect to the economy. Increased military-to-military ties with other countries can lead to stronger diplomatic ties, which in turn can lead to stronger economic ties.

There are concerns that the Chinese will react to a strengthening of the Japanese military aggressively, triggering an arms race in Northeast Asia. But the truth is that from the perspective in Beijing, China is already in an arms race of sorts—not with Japan, but with the United States. The Chinese military is already undergoing a modernization program at full speed with the intention of narrowing the gap between its own capabilities and those of U.S. forces in the region. Japanese military normalization would be a relatively minor consideration for Chinese military planners already racing to catch up to the United States. Moreover, a stronger and more independent Japanese military is likely to lead to a drawdown of U.S. forces in Japan, which would be a welcome development in Beijing. China’s strategic concerns about U.S. power in the region likely overshadow its longstanding enmity with Japan. From the U.S. perspective, greater Japanese military autonomy would free up U.S. resources to be deployed elsewhere in Asia, which is a key component of the “Pivot to Asia.”

In the long-term, Japan may be interested in developing a broader Asian security system under U.S. leadership that includes other U.S. allies, like Australia and New Zealand. Japan has been increasing its economic ties with India, and Abe has shown a willingness to develop stronger security ties as well. But such far-reaching foreign policy commitments can only be realized with a more normal military policy. Japan is inching towards that goal, but it remains a politically sensitive topic domestically. Abe and his allies in the Liberal Democratic Party should seek to build a broad base of public support for normalization to ensure that Japan’s shift in course is permanent.

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