How Japan’s global role has been transformed

How Japan’s global role has been transformed

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A major new defense pact signed last week between Japan and Australia highlights  Tokyo’s growing strategic importance as a partner in an emerging international, anti-China alliance.

The reciprocal access agreement, which has been under negotiation since 2014, eases restrictions on the movement of weapons and supplies for joint training and disaster relief operations. It is the first deal of its kind that Japan has struck with another nation since the status of forces agreement with the US more than 60 years ago. Prime Minister Fumio Kishida lauded the agreement as “a landmark instrument which will elevate security cooperation between the nations to new heights.”

The deal, which comes after last year’s 75th anniversary of the Japanese surrender in the Second World War, underlines the importance of Tokyo’s role in the Western alliance.

Japan is a longstanding member of Western clubs such as the G7, plus the Quad, and there is growing speculation that it could be invited to join the so-called “Five Eyes” intelligence alliance. Meanwhile, it has been suggested the latest agreement could become a “template” for other Western nations, such as the UK, seeking to establish a stronger regional presence.

A key part of the rationale for Japan’s growing geopolitical importance is that, just as at the start of the Cold War, it is perceived in the West as a bulwark against the advance of China, and potentially Russia, in the Asia-Pacific. Yet, while considerable emphasis is put on the security pillar of the Japanese-Western alliance, economics is important, too.

Since the end of the Second World War, the transformation of Japan’s world role has stemmed, in part, from its phenomenal business success. This has led to growing calls for Tokyo to match its economic power with a commitment to international political relations. Today, Japan remains one of the world’s three largest economies, and it will be critical to helping rejuvenate global growth after the shock of the coronavirus crisis. 

Outside the US, many other Western countries, including in Europe, welcome Japan’s invigorated commitment to international trade. Tokyo has not only signed a bilateral agreement with Washington in recent years, but also committed to an EU-Japan trade deal covering around a third of global gross domestic product and almost 650 million people. Moreover, Tokyo was at the vanguard of the so-called comprehensive and progressive agreement for trans-Pacific partnership, or CPTPP, which accounts for about 13 percent of global trade and a combined population of around 500 million. 

A key part of the rationale for Japan’s growing geopolitical importance is that, just as at the start of the Cold War, it is perceived in the West as a bulwark against the advance of China, and potentially Russia, in the Asia-Pacific.

Andrew Hammond

Beyond these structural factors driving Japanese international policy, the previous Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe — the longest-serving premier in the nation’s history — proved personally adept at consolidating relationships with Western leaders. These included Donald Trump, who during the 2016 election campaign had been highly critical of Tokyo. 

Abe was one of the few foreign leaders to bring Trump “onside.” This helped to neutralize the former president’s previous criticism of what he characterised as unfair Japanese trade practices regarding car imports and exports, as well as accusations that Tokyo was using monetary policy to devalue its currency and boost exports.

Trump repeatedly highlighted Washington’s commitment to the security of Japan, saying that the relationship is the “cornerstone of peace” in the Asia-Pacific. This despite his 2016 assertions that the bilateral relationship had become too one-sided, and that Japan needed to share more of the financial burden in international security. 

Unquestionably, the major driver in the increasing strength of US-Japan ties is China. Here, Tokyo has been reassured by Washington following earlier worries after the US withdrawal from the CPTPP, which had been originally intended by the Obama administration to lock the US into deeper strategic partnerships in the region.

In this fluid geopolitical landscape, Abe sought to significantly increase defense spending, as well as overturn some legal and political underpinnings of the country’s post-1945 security identity so that it could become more externally engaged.

Among the measures Abe sought to abolish was a clause in Japan’s post-war constitution limiting the country’s military to a strictly defensive role, which means  that defense spending has remained mostly below 1 percent of GDP since 1945. 

However, the two-thirds majority needed in both chambers of the Japanese legislature, plus a simple majority in a national referendum, proved an insuperable obstacle, even for Abe.

Japan is the only country in the world ever to have been attacked with nuclear weapons, and there remains a large body of public opinion that continues to value post-war pacifism. This will continue to act as a restraint on foreign policy, despite the nation’s new willingness to adopt a bigger posture in the region.

Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics.

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