Japan’s Glacial Ascendance

Almost-great power status is Japan’s sweet spot – so long as the U.S. sticks around.

By: Phillip Orchard


For such a historic transition of power, the handover from Shinzo Abe, Japan’s longest-serving and most powerful postwar prime minister, to Yoshihide Suga was always going to be short on drama. Suga, Abe’s longtime chief of staff, faced only token competition from a handful of other ruling party bigwigs. 

His ruling Liberal Democratic Party commands large majorities in both houses of the Diet and doesn’t need to call for elections right away, diminishing any need to win over the public with platforms calling for sweeping change. 

And there's no real reason to think Suga, a proudly uncharismatic septuagenarian technocrat without an independent power base, is especially interested in or capable of steering the country in a new direction. 

After all, he was instrumental in both crafting and implementing his boss’ agenda for tackling Japan’s biggest problems: its decadeslong economic stagnation, demographic decline and the rapid rise of China. 

This agenda remains unfinished – and bedeviled by constraints that, under Suga, will grow steeper as Japan reels from the economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic.

In other words, continuity is once again the theme of the day in Japan – a fitting fate since the country is basically locked into its geopolitical trajectory. It’s perpetually toeing the line between great ally and great power. 

This makes Japan nothing if not steady, a buttress to a regional order thrown in flux by China’s rise and lingering uncertainty about the U.S.’ strategic direction. 

But it also means Japan is not really on track to break out as East Asia’s foremost economic or military power anytime soon. So for Tokyo, which perpetually craves greater strategic autonomy from the U.S. but fears being abandoned by it, continuity will mean doing everything possible to avoid the latter.

More Latitude

The pace of Japan’s revival as a major power tends to be gauged through the prism of its revival as a military power – and this tends to be gauged through the prism of its endless debate over its war-renouncing constitution. 

Article 9 of the charter – which the U.S. wrote in 1947 but which much of Japanese society has embraced – explicitly forbids the use of force by Japan as a means to settle international disputes and strictly disallows Japan from having a military. 

But Japan has a very robust military, of course, even if an intentionally limited one, making the practical effect of the constitution on Japan’s defense posture often poorly understood.

The article itself isn’t an immovable legal constraint on Japanese remilitarization. Tokyo has routinely “reinterpreted” the clause to meet its defense requirements, beginning in 1954 when the military was reestablished as a “self-defense force” and an extension of the national police. 

By the 1990s, Japan had the world’s third-largest military budget. More recently, in 2015, Abe’s administration pushed another “reinterpretation” through parliament to allow Japanese forces to come to the aid of an ally in foreign conflicts. 

Under Abe, Japan’s weapons purchases increasingly blurred the lines between offense and defense, most notably its new fleet of “helicopter destroyers,” which are actually flat-decked amphibious assault ships capable of functioning as aircraft carriers. 

The latest debate over reinterpreting the charter concerns missile threats from China and North Korea, with Abe and Suga this summer abruptly canceling plans for the U.S.’ Aegis Ashore anti-missile system on grounds that the money should be spent instead on its own missiles capable of striking enemy launch sites.

By the logic of military deterrence, just about any weapons system can be deemed “defensive” if you try hard enough. (Japan doesn’t even see nuclear weapons as covered by Article 9.) 

For Tokyo, national defense cannot start at the edge of the country’s territorial waters. Since the country is almost entirely bereft of natural resources, it must maintain access to sea lanes through the South China Sea and Western Pacific – even ones as far away as the Persian Gulf, where Japan's deployment of minesweepers in 1991 marked a watershed moment in Tokyo’s return to military activities far from home.

And yet, the fact that Abe was determined to amend Article 9 to give Tokyo more latitude over the shape and use of military force – along with the fact that, despite the LDP’s supermajorities, Abe left office without doing so – illustrates that the pacifist constitution still matters, as do the political and strategic constraints it represents.

The Same Constraints

Throughout the Cold War, the goals of Japan’s remilitarization were twofold: One was to deter communist aggression, particularly by the Soviets. This meant a heavy emphasis on land-based forces that Japan no longer really needs and on elite maritime surveillance capabilities that have remained invaluable in service of its second goal: making itself an indispensable part of the U.S. alliance structure in the Western Pacific. 

The country has often been characterized as the “shield” to the U.S. “sword,” with Japan’s sophisticated submarine, minesweeping and air forces helping to keep the U.S. from becoming overstretched and to sustain its dominance of the strategically crucial first island chain.

In many ways, almost-great power status is Japan’s sweet spot – at least so long as the U.S. remains close. Its steady but incremental expansion of military capabilities has kept the U.S. invested, while still allowing Tokyo to focus mostly on economic development. 

It allows Japan to enjoy the domestic peace and prosperity of being a great power without having to take on many of the responsibilities and politically contentious costs incurred by great powers. 

It enables Tokyo to navigate domestic political resistance to military expansion and arms it with the credibility to argue that political constraints preclude it from being able to get its hands dirty in U.S. military conflicts in far-off places like the Middle East. 

For much of the region, Japan has enough economic, diplomatic and military influence to be a welcome counterweight to China’s rise but not so much that it distorts the regional balance of power or revives historical fears of Japanese imperialism (except in forever-grudgeful South Korea, of course.) 

Paradoxically, it gives countries like China incentives toward restraint, since provoking Japan too much could make Tokyo abandon the pretense of pacifism. Perhaps most important, it's allowed Japan to put quite a few of the pieces in place for a breakout – for example, in industry and technology and in training and doctrine – if required.

Indeed, Japan has quietly sought to lay the groundwork for a dramatic increase in capabilities if it felt war with China and/or abandonment by the U.S. were imminent. 

Hence the emphasis on weapons systems that blur the lines between offense and defense and on warships that could be transformed into aircraft carriers with a quick retrofit. Hence the steady increases in defense spending. (Suga in late September announced yet another record budget.) 

Hence Japan’s urgency to revive “the Quad” and multilateral economic initiatives in the region aimed at diminishing the risks of the U.S. losing interest in the region or getting tied down elsewhere.

But for Japan to truly break out and be able to stand on its own militarily, continuity isn’t enough. Matching China’s breakneck expansion, or even replacing the bulk of what the U.S. brings to the alliance, would require a staggering increase in defense spending and reorientation of Japanese industry. 

It would probably have to go nuclear. Given its shrinking population, it would have to require a large percentage of its citizens to forget about all that Article 9 stuff and serve in the armed forces And, given how long it takes to build modern ships, develop overseas bases and logistics networks and so on, it wouldn’t be able to wait until a crisis to get started.

This is why the constitution is still a constraint. Japan would need the bulk of the country – voters, the bureaucracy, industry – to be behind the effort. The assumption has always been that if Japan were truly threatened by, say, China or North Korea, the nation would swiftly come around to support an end to Japan's self-imposed pacifism. 

North Korea has been test-launching missiles over the home islands, and China’s ever-expanding naval and air forces have been making incursions into Japanese waters and airspace. 

But the latent public unease represented by the Article 9 debate makes it fairly clear that no such support for nationwide mobilization is forthcoming – particularly during a recession. And though the charter can be carefully and occasionally sidestepped, it still has tremendous influence on the incentives of Japanese politicians and on the country’s powerful bureaucracy. 

If every major reinterpretation requires years of careful staging, bureaucratic wrangling and political and legal risk, the pace of Japan’s military revival will remain incremental.

This is why, for all of Abe’s efforts to get Japan to stop apologizing and start prepping for the day it needs to take full responsibility of its security, his main focus was on more tightly aligning Japan with the U.S. It wasn’t as routine as it sounds. 

The U.S.-Japan alliance has more often than not been an uneasy marriage of convenience, with the two sides routinely at odds over a range of issues, particularly China. Abe’s predecessors from the Democratic Party of Japan even tried to take advantage of a small window opportunity for a Sino-Japanese rapprochement. 

But that window quickly closed because, among other reasons, Chinese ultra-nationalists began seeing the country for the first time in centuries as the stronger of the two, with the long-term trends in its favor. 

Abe saw Beijing as thus having no interest in a grand bargain that wasn’t dictated on its terms. Abe also saw his own country as being unable to reverse the power differential enough to change Beijing’s thinking. 

Neither of these dynamics will be any different under Suga. 

Now as then, preserving the status quo means doubling down on the Americans and hoping continuity will be enough.

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