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Japan Reawakens?

by Sheila A. Smith
April 27, 2011

Japan's Prime Minister Naoto Kan (L), Australia's Prime Minister Julia Gillard (2nd L), Vietnam's Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung (C), China's Premier Wen Jiabao (2nd R) and India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh join hands during a photo opportunity as part of the 5th East Asia Summit in Hanoi October 30, 2010.

Japan's Prime Minister Naoto Kan (L), Australia's Prime Minister Julia Gillard (2nd L), Vietnam's Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung (C), China's Premier Wen Jiabao (2nd R) and India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh join hands during a photo opportunity as part of the 5th East Asia Summit in Hanoi October 30, 2010. (Christophe Archambault/Pool/Courtesy Reuters)

Over the past year or so, I have been directing a project that brings Japanese and American experts together to discuss how the rise of China and India are affecting the United States and Japan, and if—and how—this shift in global power may alter our alliance agenda. In February, a small CFR team—including my colleagues Elizabeth Economy and Adam Segal—visited Tokyo to meet with Japanese experts from the government, private business, media and academia to hear the range of views in Japan on what exactly this structural shift in world politics means for Japan.  

What we heard from every government ministry was an emphasis on the need for Japan to be more “strategic.” More surprising was that we heard similar language from academics, business leaders and media: Japan’s economic goals, its military development, and its diplomacy were no longer to be discrete sets of policymaking, but ought to be defined in terms of the need to cope with a rising China. For those of us used to a more subtly phrased—and less unified—Japanese commentary on its diplomatic challenges, this was a blunt acknowledgement that the confrontation last fall with China had prompted a new consensus in Tokyo that a rising China was going to be difficult for Japan to manage.   

I recently participated in another excellent effort to examine the impact of newly rising powers. Organized by Henry Nau and Deepa Ollapally at George Washington University, a daylong conference brought together a tremendous group of regional experts to discuss the “schools of thought” that shape foreign policy choices in China, Japan, India, Russia and Iran. Academics and U.S. policymakers—past and present—explored the implications for U.S. foreign policy.    

You can see the entire discussion on C-SPAN. But here are some quick observations from the Japan panel to whet your appetite.

Richard Samuels of MIT and Narushige Michishita of the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies presented a tremendously rich paper on “Hugging and Hedging” that explores how perceptions of China’s rise and U.S. demise are refining Japan’s strategic debate. I cannot do justice to their full argument here, but the discussion on Japan produced the following: 

  • Agreement by all panelists that this is a moment of significant change.
  • Uncertainty still about whether domestic political change in Japan has brought into power a new foreign policy approach.
  • Uncertainty also about whether the Democratic Party of Japan will adjust itself to strategic choices made by its predecessor, the Liberal Democrats.

There was general agreement across the panel that electoral change in Japan opened the possibility for a new conversation in Japan about its strategic options, and a new realization that strategic choices ahead will fundamentally challenge Japan’s past choices of limited armament and strategic dependence on the United States.     

Having spent the past year or more in the Obama administration navigating these changes—both within Japan and in the relations among the powers of Northeast Asia—Michael Schiffer, Deputy Assistant Secretary for East Asia in the Office of the Secretary of Defense for Asian and Pacific Security Affairs, reminded all of us outside of government how immensely important it is to effectively analyze this moment of domestic political change in Japan.        

The impact of the recent devastation on Japan remained too difficult to discuss in terms of the longer term debate over national strategy. Yet, we were all discussing a Japan that was, well, if not rising, at least potentially on the cusp of transformation and perhaps even rebirth. And that was a refreshing and heartening premise for thinking about Japan’s future.

Post a Comment 3 Comments

  • Posted by Yoshihiro Mukaiyama

    What has to be done urgently by Japan, U.S. and their friendlies is to analyze the logic, motive, intention, domestic situation behind China’s increasingly assertive attitude that was typically shown in the Senkaku incident.
    Your insight into this issue will be of great value to every China watchers, as always. Thank you.

  • Posted by John Hildebrand

    I’m going to agree with Yoshihiro who commented before me. This is a great source of information for those of us interested in Sino-Japanese relations, particularly the security aspects. I personally feel that China will move towards ROK as a partner and the US will take side with Japan as a counter-balance. the DPRK is the odd ball out in NE Asian politics.

  • Posted by S. Mahmud Ali

    The historically competitive nature of Sino-Japanese relations has not been dramatically altered by either Japan’s domestic political realignment, however temporary or substantive that shift may turn out to be, or by the devastation wrought by the earthquake-tsunami-nuclear accident triple disaster. However, the context in which that rivalry for the status of the regional top dog will be played out has been changed and is being refashioned by the parallel growth of China’s economic, diplomatic and military capacities and a shared perception of the United States’ relative decline.

    Although perceptions are only half the reality (if that) – after all, China’s steady and linear progression is far from guaranteed; America is resilient enough to recover from its current frailties and reposition itself as the popular choice of the pre-eminent global actor in a few years – the Sino-Japanese relativities are clearer to see than the other factors reshaping the regional security architecture through the fog of transitional fluidity at the systemic level. Japan is unlikely to reduce China to a subsidiary and marginal stature again unless the mainland fissioned in a state of civil war. China’s ruling elite, and possibly a majority of the population, will do all in their power to prevent such a collapse.

    The driving force for these changes appears to be this: relatively skilled workforces and technological innovations are making it possible for China, India and other G77 states such as Brazil, Mexico, South Africa and several ASEAN member-states, to produce and/or assemble goods at costs which the mature and rich economies in Western Europe and North America can no longer do. As production, profits and wealth shift from the trans-Atlantic to the trans-Pacific region, some fungible power, too, will. This does not mean the newcomers are revisionist upstarts; after all, the system got them where they are and will probably help them to get where they wish to be in a couple of decades.

    However, accumulation will naturally change the dynamics in ways that the status quo powers refuse to accept. Since globalisation has gained a momentum of its own and the profit motive (some would call it greed) will drive capital and jobs to where more money can be made more easily, this systemic shift has acquired a measure of inexorability.

    Unless cataclysmic events prevent the processes currently in train, over time, possibly lasting many decades, the world could acquire a degree of economic uniformity. After five centuries of trans-Atlantic domination of global affairs, this would not necessarily be a catastrophe.

    Adaptation and the statesmanship necessary for it, as opposed to domestically focused brinkmanship, are of the essence. Of course, this is just one man’s view.

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