This blog post is part of a series entitled Is Japan in Decline?, in which leading experts analyze Japan’s economy, politics, and society and give their assessment of Japan’s future.
The debate over Japan’s decline overlooks Japan’s long-term strengths and global contributions, focusing instead on current, high visibility factors like GDP growth and military power. In particular, it misses Japan’s continuing strategic importance in both security and diplomatic spheres. While Japan may not be a great military power or no longer the second largest economic power, it is a consequential power.
It is true that Japan’s defense spending has shrunk and constitutional interpretations continue to restrain some actions by the Self-Defense Forces (SDF). Yet none of this has prevented Japan from becoming the most modern military in the region (aside from the United States) and expanding its security role geographically and functionally away from the United States and the defense of Japan.
Consider Japan’s expanding network of security partners. New partnerships with Australia and India enlarge Japan’s regional security role. For example, its partnership with Australia increases military-logistical interoperability, which allows Japan to cooperate globally with Australia on counter-terrorism activities, UN peacekeeping operations, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations, maritime security, and border protection. Its partnership with India, while smaller in scope than that with Australia, allows for greater bilateral cooperation with anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden, disaster management, and joint naval and coast guard exercises aimed at safeguarding sea lanes.
Likewise, Japan has been actively pursuing partnerships with Southeast Asian countries. As a trading state with over 80 percent of its energy imports traversing the Malacca Strait, Japan has long recognized the need to cooperate with Southeast Asian countries to protect freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. It has acted upon this by vigorously promoting a number of security initiatives to build capacity among coastal states, including coast guard training and exercises, anti-piracy training, various forms of equipment and expertise, and a recent trend of strategically using foreign aid to assist states with maritime surveillance systems and communication systems. Importantly, it was Japan that helped organize the creation of ReCAAP (Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery against ships in Asia), which benefits all states that sail through the South China Sea. In recent years, Japan has also actively promoted a rules-based maritime order with Southeast Asian states in various declarations and agreements, including explicit references to the UN Charter on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
Although the term “strategic” is rarely used to describe Japanese security policy, these partnering efforts place Japan at the center of a growing network of strategic partnerships with key regional players. These are important because it empowers Japan to actively shape and respond to regional security trends. They also place Japan in a position of being a critical link amongst these countries, providing it with a unique ability to initiate/promote security-related efforts with partners throughout the region.
Japan has also expanded into new missions, thereby increasing the range of operations in which it can contribute to regional and global security. Prior to the end of the Cold War, Japan’s security policies focused solely on Japan. Since then, not only have SDF units participated in peacekeeping operations worldwide, including regional ones in Cambodia and East Timor, they have participated in reconstruction operations in Iraq and refueling missions in the Indian Ocean to support operations in Afghanistan. Additionally, SDF naval assets continue their anti-piracy mission off the coast of Somalia (which includes Japan’s first overseas base since 1945 in Djibouti). Closer to home, to deal with the threat of WMDs, Japan has become a charter member of the Proliferation Security Initiative, making it an active partner in preventing the illegal movement of WMDs and related technologies.
While Japan’s new partnerships and missions speak volumes about a growing shared awareness of the regional situation among key countries, it also speaks of Japan’s proactive role in Asia-Pacific security affairs. Although some misconstrue Japan’s actions as efforts to contain China, it is more correct to view these as part of a subtle and non-provocative effort at the strategic level to shape the regional environment in a direction conducive to regional stability, which is Japan’s primary national interest.
This is not new. Japan has long been an active diplomatic player working to create a regional architecture to promote regional stability. Toward this end, it has not only funded major initiatives, it has created them. Its most visible effort was its failed proposal to create an Asian Monetary Fund during the Asian Financial Crisis. Yet, Japan has proven to be most successful when it leads in tandem with others, a style best termed “cooperative leadership.” Examples abound of Japan playing the crucial role in developing ideas and then working with other states that take a visible lead. In the economic realm, Japan partnered with Australia to establish the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) and with China and South Korea to establish the Chiang Mai Initiative. In security, Japan partnered with Singapore to create the aforementioned ReCAAP. It also worked closely with Thailand to reach a peace agreement in the Cambodian civil war. Most recently, Japan worked with Australia and India to expand membership in the East Asian Summit to include the United States.
What should be clear is that, despite talk of Japan’s decline, it is actively engaged in the security and diplomatic spheres in an effort to promote regional stability. Continuing this engagement will depend on Japan’s ability to overcome two domestic challenges: demographic implosion and mounting public debt. Both problems will have adverse effects on Japan’s economy and the military, which will constrain defense spending and an ability to fund/expand security and diplomatic initiatives. Both require adept political leadership to rectify. If Japanese leaders can overcome these challenges, it would mean continuing opportunities to provide crucial resources to security partnerships and initiatives as well as leadership toward developing institutions and initiatives. If Japanese leaders fail, however, regional security will suffer as the gap left by the withdrawal of Japanese military capacity, expertise, and resources as well as diplomatic vision and commitment to multilateral institutions/initiatives will be difficult to replace. It is in this light that, if we envision a world without Japan, we can see it as being a consequential power.
Jeffrey W. Hornung is an associate professor at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies (APCSS) in Honolulu, HI, and an adjunct fellow with the Office of the Japan Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, DC. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of APCSS, CSIS, the U.S. Pacific Command, or the U.S. Department of Defense.