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Japan’s pivot in Asia

The 2016 Brexit vote and Donald J. Trump’s election as president of the United States were shocking to those in the West complacent about the sustainability of the liberal international order.

In East Asia, the Brexit vote served as a reminder of how abruptly the improbable could become entirely possible. Could the unwinding of long-taken-for-granted assumptions about regional order and its supporting institutions also take place in Asia? Trump’s election, not even five months later – and then his overture to Pyongyang – made these prospects even more tangible.

Tokyo is wary of Trump’s treatment of traditional American allies in Europe and Asia, and it is apprehensive about what compromises Trump might make in search of a ‘deal’ with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK.) Trump’s foreign policy behaviour makes strategic autonomy for some in Japan even more attractive.

In Tokyo, apprehension regarding how the different trajectories of China and the United States might affect Japan—muted somewhat by the Obama administration’s reassurances of a US “pivot” to Asia—is more apparent than ever.

Tokyo’s complex relations with China and the United States—its two most important bilateral relationships—were already fraught with knotty, albeit different, problems. Relations with China, the rapidly emerging power just offshore, were often characterized as “economically hot, but politically cold,” while the United States, Japan’s longstanding security guarantor, was bogged down in—and distracted by—wars in the Middle East.

Even before Trump’s election, Japanese strategists wondered openly how long the United States, its population tiring of foreign wars and operating under fiscal constraints, would continue to be willing and able to maintain its commitments to Japan.

These concerns are manifest in four policy domains: institutional change at home; diplomacy; the economy; and military balancing. Japan’s domestic institutions for foreign and security policy making have been adapted and enhanced. With intelligence reform, the creation of a new National Security Council, a reorganisation of procurement processes and arms export regulations under the Acquisition Technology and Logistics Agency, as well as changes to parliamentary oversight of the Self-Defence Force, Japan is looking to enhance its capacity to respond to geopolitical events through a “whole of government” approach. Building on enhanced institutional focus, the Japanese government has pursued bolder foreign policy initiatives to diversify Japan’s economic, diplomatic, and security relations in the form of a Japanese “pivot within Asia.”

Prime Minister Shinzō Abe and President Donald Trump holding a Joint Press Conference by Cabinet Public Relations Office (内閣官房内閣広報室). CC-BY-4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Economically, Japan is looking to reorient the regional centre of economic gravity away from China by pursuing new dependence-mitigating relationships with countries in Southeast Asia, Bay of Bengal, and East African subregions. Economic diversification throughout the ‘Indo-Pacific’ will also serve as the basis for new diplomatic and security partnerships. The Japanese government has attempted to strengthen diplomatic ties and align its geopolitical interests with important regional powers such as Russia, Australia, India, and the Republic of Korea – albeit with varying degrees of success. Such cooperation also allows the diversification of Japan’s security relationships for the purpose of enhanced external balancing.

Japan has not, however, given up on the United States’ capability and commitment to provide security and stability in the region. More than ever, Tokyo recognizes that it needs to step up as a US partner in Asia and ensure the alliance remains robust and fit for purpose in an age of new military challenges.

We acknowledge that US relative decline and the inevitability of Chinese regional pre-eminence may be oversold by some observers, and that Japanese strategic autonomy is less imminent than some in Tokyo would prefer. After all, Japan is in even faster decline vis-à-vis China than the United States, domestic political constraints on enhanced Japanese muscularity do persist, and Japan’s defence budget is well short of what would be required of an autonomous power.

This is why we view the Japanese pivot not as a radical overhaul of Japan’s grand strategy, but as a down payment on future autonomy. It is a posture designed to ensure the alliance commitment remains firm enough for Tokyo to benefit from Washington’s network of security partners, while it deepens other relationships and sharpens its own military capabilities. Tokyo continues to accumulate strategic resources that will improve its flexibility to adjust to potential regional crises or to a rapid deterioration in its security.

All this is happening at a time and place where decades and even centuries of hierarchy are melting away, where the new order is uncertain, where unprecedented wealth is being created, and where the consequences of change are welcome to some, feared by others, and—we have to be honest—unknown to us all.

Japan has been faced with this kind of uncertainty more than once since the end of World War II, and has managed to adapt its grand strategy mostly without major disruption to its society or regional stability. However, whether Japan can repeat its success again through incremental adjustment is an open question. Japan may well need to be bolder than it has been at any point in the post-war era.

Featured image credit: fuji mount pagoda japan mountain by oadtz. Public domain via Pixabay.

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