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Japanese middle-power diplomacy

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In Brief

The concept of a ‘middle power’ embraces three aspects of diplomacy: behaviour, status and strategy.

A typical middle power, such as Australia, has struggled to synthesise these three dimensions to maximise its diplomatic power.


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In the case of Japan, however, both external and domestic observers have largely neglected the fact that an imbalance exists among these three factors; Japan’s diplomatic behaviour has essentially reflected ‘middle-power internationalism’, while its status has been uncertain and its strategy confused or non-existent. Any diplomacy constrained by the war-renouncing Article Nine of Japan’s post-war constitution and the country’s security treaty with the US could not be that of a traditional great power, and on many occasions Japan has even fallen short of behaving like a full-fledged middle power in the domain of international security.

After the Cold War, many analysts argued that Japan would finally cast off the post-war constraints on its security policy that were derived from the ‘peace constitution’ and its alliance with the US. Neo-realists predicted that structural pressure created by the end of the Cold War would force Japan to go nuclear. Many other observers interpreted Japan’s wish to become a ‘normal country’ as an aspiration to play a ‘normal military role’ in the game of power politics. Others came to believe that Japanese security policy had gradually reverted to that of a traditional great power. This understanding of what constitutes a ‘normal’ Japan became conventional wisdom in many parts of the world.

Over the past two decades none of these predictions has come to pass. The US–Japan alliance was strengthened rather than weakened, rendering suggestions about Japan’s military independence virtually meaningless in the evolving structure of strategic interdependence. The fundamental motive behind the participation of Japanese Self-Defence Forces (SDF) in United Nations peace-keeping operations and other international peace activities has been internationalism rather than nationalism, and the SDF’s activities are still guided and constrained by the norms and legal framework embedded in the peace constitution. Japan’s efforts in the domain of national defence have been upgraded but the constitutional constraints remain intact, and many of these military efforts are institutionalised in the US–Japan alliance. If judged according to actual behaviour, then Japanese security policies — including changes in recent years — are still much closer to those of a middle power and hardly reflect the sort of diplomacy conducted by strategically independent great powers, such as the United States and China.

The gap between conventional wisdom about what constitutes a ‘normal’ Japan and the reality of Japanese security policy gives rise to several puzzles. First, why and how has this conventional wisdom been so tenacious despite its obvious failure in explaining changes in Japanese security policy after the end of the Cold War? Second, how have aspects of change and elements of continuity in Japanese security policy balanced out amid significant transformations in the external security environment and domestic politics?

Where the first puzzle is concerned, the psychology of Asian and other victims of past Japanese military aggression has created a complex background. But, most importantly, the rise of regressive nationalism among conservative politicians and opinion makers in Japan has misled many observers, causing them to believe that this nationalist trend has guided many changes in Japanese security policy. As a result, the internationalist elements of Japanese policies have tended to be dismissed, interpreted as cosmetic and as containing ‘hidden’ nationalist intentions.

Unravelling the second puzzle thus becomes all the more important to understanding the substance and nature of Japan’s newly evolving security policy. Here it is important to interpret the meaning and function of regressive nationalism in transforming domestic politics and the policy making process in Japan. In short, this sentiment does have a real influence in helping to confuse domestic politics and external perceptions of Japan, but not in the way implied by the aforementioned conventional wisdom.

Particularly since the second half of the 1990s, a new set of factors has begun to complicate domestic politics and debates over security policy, including the perceived threat of China and North Korea. As a result, Japanese debates and politics have begun to assume a nationalistic tone and have become increasingly detached from a truly strategic debate on security and defence policies.

Many expected that the gap might finally begin to diminish after the Democratic Party of Japan formed government in the summer of 2009, but the confusion has yet to dissipate. The mix of internationalism and regressive nationalism continues to confuse Japan’s domestic politics, as well as external observers of Japanese security policy. Yet the basic parameters of this policy — the peace constitution and the US–Japan alliance — still remain strong. Thus, in reality, Japanese security policy has evolved along the lines of ‘middle-power internationalism’ as if an invisible hand were at work. Policy makers have, in turn, consistently attempted to adjust the country’s security policy in accordance with the shifting external environment through a series of constitutional and legal reinterpretations aimed at relaxing the constraints posed by these basic parameters.

Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda’s recent claim that Japan must revisit the question of its right to collective self-defence is a case in point. The government argues that, as a sovereign nation, Japan has the right to pursue this essential attribute of statehood, but that constitutionally the country cannot exercise it. In essence, this right is an important tool in strengthening Japan’s alliance with the United States, thus consolidating the foundation of Japanese post-war security policy. External observers are often confused by the fact that regressive nationalists also believe that Japan should exercise this right — in so doing it would become a much closer ally of the United States and subsequently move closer to becoming a full-fledged middle power. Recognition of this deep reality is missing in both external perceptions of Japanese security policy and domestic Japanese debates.

The intensifying territorial dispute between Japan and China poses a similar challenge. The value system of Japanese civil society might be termed ‘post-modern’, where territorial integrity is of secondary importance, and this is why the Japanese government has exercised much restraint in dealing with territorial disputes throughout the post-war years. Now regressive nationalists have openly begun to attack this traditional policy of self-restraint, again confusing both external perceptions and the Japanese decision-making process.

In both cases, the trend created by regressive nationalism is a source of confusion rather than an indication of Japan’s new strategic thinking. The critical task for Japan now and in the future is to match its strategy explicitly with typical ‘middle-power internationalism’. This is not a task that Japan alone can tackle. The virtue of middle powers is internationalism, where cooperation with like-minded states in order to strengthen a liberal and open international order is key to any aspect of strategy. Whether one likes it or not, Japan’s status may also be evolving into that of a middle power, in which the creation of a culturally rich welfare society, living in an increasingly interdependent and globalised world, is a natural goal of an aging nation.

Yoshihide Soeya is Professor of Political Science and International Relations at the Faculty of Law, Keio University, and Director of that University’s Institute of East Asia Studies. 

This article appeared in the most recent edition of the East Asia Forum Quarterly, ‘Japan: leading from behind’.

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