Written by Lionel Fatton.

Freshly elected for a second term as Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe declared in early 2013, “Japan is back”. The obvious question is: which Japan was he talking about?

Japan disappeared from the ‘chessboard’ of the great power game after its defeat in the Second World War. For more than six decades, the country remained in a state of bounded autonomy, confined to the role of junior partner of the United States. In regard to China, Japan relied on the United States for protection while making regular overtures to accommodate Beijing.

Since the early 2010s, however, Japan has become increasingly independent from its traditional ally and has balanced harder against China. This move toward a more autonomous and resolute security policy could ultimately re-establish Japan as a great power.

Japan’s new strategic orientation is reflected by an unprecedented reform of its armed forces and an increasingly proactive regional policy.

The National Defence Program Guidelines released in December 2013 called for the creation of a “dynamic joint defence force”. The deepening jointness of the Self-Defence Force (SDF) is mirrored at the local level by the development of amphibious warfare capabilities to face the Chinese threat in the East China Sea, a role previously assumed by US Marines.

Until recently, the SDF’s branches had very little direct relation to one another. This was due to historical animosity and institutional dynamics, but also due to the fact that heavy reliance on their American counterparts was not considered prejudicial to national security.

The current process toward deeper jointness is transforming the SDF into an operationally autonomous military, and thus a valuable instrument for Japan to independently guarantee its security.

Japanese leaders are increasingly convinced that China is a revisionist country. Beijing regularly sends vessels and aircraft near the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands and has engaged in massive reclamation works and militarisation in the South China Sea

Japan has also become proactive in the South China Sea and has redoubled efforts to bolster the maritime law enforcement capabilities of Southeast Asian countries. The latest instances of asset transfer include radar technology to Indonesia and five TC-90 patrol aircraft to the Philippines.

Japanese support not only helps these countries protect their waters and uphold the rule of law, it also frees money for greater investments in their navies to face China’s growing capabilities at sea.

Furthermore, Japan has recently become directly involved in the South China Sea. In 2017, the helicopter carrier Izumo made a several-months-long flag-flying tour that included port calls and joint exercises. This was the first Japanese version of freedom of navigation operations, although Tokyo refrained from representing the tour as such.

Lastly, Japan has looked to India for partnership against China. Recently, Tokyo and New Delhi have reinforced their cooperation in domains like defence industry and civil nuclear power. In addition, the two countries launched the Asia-Africa Growth Corridor in May 2017, a move obviously aimed at countering the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative.

What explains Japan’s growing autonomy and balancing tendency after decades of relative apathy? I’d argue that this new strategic orientation is the logical response to unprecedented doubts about its traditional security policy.

In regard to the US-Japan alliance, the credibility of American security commitments is weakening and will continue to weaken regardless of the future shape of Sino-American relations.

If these relations enter a confrontational cycle, Japan would become a frontline state. The United States’ growing inability to project military power in East Asia in the face of China’s anti-access/area denial strategy would affect its credibility as Japan’s protector.

In the event that Sino-American relations improve, Tokyo would be concerned primarily by Washington’s lack of resolve to come to its defence. Japan would lose its strategic value as a balancing partner and the United States would be reluctant to defend its ally against a country with which it wants and needs to cooperate.

Concerning China, Japanese leaders are increasingly convinced that it is a revisionist country. Among other bellicose moves, Beijing regularly sends vessels and aircraft near the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands and has engaged in massive reclamation works and militarisation of some of the islets it controls in the South China Sea.

This makes unattractive, if not unrealistic, the prospect of accommodating Beijing. Under these circumstances, Japan cannot afford to make its national security dependent on the temperance of its giant neighbour.

A more independent and resolute security policy is the only way for Japan to face this unstable triangular relationship with the United States and China. This does not mean that Tokyo will discard the US-Japan alliance. Various domestic hurdles impede the shift towards full-fledged autonomy. Japan thus strengthens the alliance while preparing for the worst with its strategic reorientation.

Japan’s trust in American commitments will inevitably continue to decline. Thus, the behaviour of China is key in preventing Japan from going down the path of a more independent and resolute posture. Beijing should work for rebuilding trust with Japan before it is too late.

Preventing Japan from reaching this default position of autonomy is in China’s interest. Otherwise, it will have to adapt to Japan’s resurgence, a transition likely to exacerbate historical and territorial tensions.

Tokyo’s increasing independence away from Washington may ultimately place Japan back on the board in the great power game. However, if Tokyo wants to move toward strategic autonomy, it will have to review its national security policy in order to navigate its triangular relationship with the United States and China.

Lionel Fatton is a Lecturer at Webster University Geneva. This article was first published on the Asia and Pacific Policy Society blog and can be found here. This piece is based on the author’s article in the Asia & the Pacific Policy Studies journal, ‘Japan is back’: Autonomy and balancing amidst an unstable China-US-Japan triangle‘. All papers in the journal are free to read and download. Image credit: CC by Wikipedia Commons.


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