After the opening speech by U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel at the Shangri-La Dialogue of Indo-Pacific defense ministers last weekend, many delegates left the room for a cup of coffee in the foyer. They should have stayed, for they missed some surprising remarks moments later by Japanese Minister of Defense Itsunori Onodera.
Over the past few years, presentations by Japanese delegates have tended toward the anodyne and predictable. But Mr. Onodera presented a radically new view of Japan’s military position, and its role in the region. While affirming that Japan remains a “pacifist” country, he indicated that Tokyo is now redefining what this means. Under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, pacifism will no longer imply passivity. Tokyo is nurturing an ambition, if not yet the means, to significantly alter the regional military balance and strategic environment.
The minister pledged that a “strong Japan will play a responsible role in the area of regional security” as well as “leading the international community economically.” He said it is “essential to build up a defense posture that will contribute to the enhancement of regional peace and security . . . as expected by the international community.”
Mr. Onodera’s comments put in perspective some of Tokyo’s other recent defense moves. Officials have said they want to forge new security relations with America and allies such as Australia, possibly including the development of joint anti-ballistic-missile systems. Tokyo also says it will deepen military ties with countries such as India and Singapore. Japan is set to increase the size of its military for the first time in six years, and its defense budget for the first time in 11 years (though the rise is only a symbolic 0.8% and overall defense spending remains just under the self-imposed cap of 1% of GDP).
There are some caveats, of course. First, for a country whose debts already amount to well over 200% of GDP, financing all this will require a return to sustained economic growth. In this respect, the new security thinking Mr. Onodera outlined is tied to Mr. Abe’s “Abenomics” program of economic revival and reform. If Abenomics fails, the national appetite for renewal will weaken. Opposition will grow from the powerful and risk-averse bureaucracy, and from within the ruling Liberal Democratic Party itself.
All that lies in the future, however. For now, Washington may welcome such talk, since the U.S. has long hoped its allies would take on a greater share of the security burden in Asia. To American ears, there is nothing menacing about Mr. Onodera’s statement that Tokyo wants to play an enhanced role in ensuring peace and stability, upholding the norms of democracy, policing freedom of navigation and ensuring rule of law. But other governments in the region will be both intrigued and anxious about an awakening Japan, and Beijing may be downright irate.
So Tokyo must work at reassuring its neighbors about its new strategy. For a start, it is critical that Japan receive America’s blessing for enhancing its strategic role. Japanese military renewal has to be seen as one part of an integrated strategy of cooperation with Washington, since the U.S. is widely recognized (at least by every major regional player except China) as the primary force for stability in the region. Any perception of a unilateral Japanese bid for greater influence—driven by a dormant but still virulent nationalism—will be resisted by wary Southeast Asian countries.
Tokyo must likewise ensure that smaller countries such as Indonesia, Singapore and Australia help promote the greater Japanese role. Although these countries cannot alter the regional balance of power, they are important for offering diplomatic approval of good strategic citizenship in the region.
In this regard, Tokyo could learn a thing or two from Beijing. Chinese diplomats put enormous effort into wooing Southeast Asian capitals during the last decade of “smile diplomacy” designed to lower regional resistance to its rise. Learning that one catches more flies with honey, Beijing used a combination of multilateral and bilateral activism—in combination with economic inducements such as loans, aid and investment—to build credibility for its self-proclaimed peaceful rise.
Japan’s well-publicized decision to forgive nearly $5 billion of debt owed to it by Burma, and to offer the Burmese $500 million worth of loans for their fledging economy, represent a belated but good start. Tokyo could still direct more investment into the Greater Mekong region and weaken Chinese levers that could be used for economic inducement or coercion. Although Japan is already a major source of investment and aid donor in the region, Tokyo receives far less prestige and kudos than a country obsessed by economic statecraft such as China. Unlike Beijing, Tokyo appears to neither intimidate nor seduce. Explicitly linking economic activity and largesse as evidence of the Japanese desire to reinvent itself as a regional leader will help.
Tokyo also needs to realize that growing wariness of China’s rise won’t automatically translate into regional support for a stronger Japanese role. Many countries still remember the brutal history of 20th-century Japanese domination, and they remain unconvinced that successive Japanese leaders feel genuine sorrow for this history. Mr. Onodera’s acknowledgement of this at Shangri-La is a small step in the right direction. But Mr. Abe’s own recent controversial statements on Japan’s wartime history have hurt Tokyo’s cause immensely.
Japan has punched beneath its strategic weight for decades. Perhaps the ambition of Mr. Abe’s government means that it can emerge from its malaise. The broader hope is that Japan can do so constructively and humbly.