Japan’s foreign policy under Trump: Time to remilitarize?

Comment: By Martin Belchev.

Japan’s foreign policy has long defied the traditional realist security paradigm in regards to its military and hard power capabilities. Indeed, proponents of political realism in foreign affairs like to point out that states who achieve a certain economic development will inevitably develop corresponding hard power capabilities. This may be an attempt to either increase their own defensive posture or obtain greater influence on the international scene.

Japan’s behaviour throughout the second half of the twentieth century, however, has failed to fall in line with such theories, which has often been attributed to the country’s comprehensive defeat during the Second World War. In fact, the signing of the Mutual Security Assistance Pact between Japan and the United States, in which the latter would oversee the security of the former, has become a staple of Tokyo’s restrained foreign policy.

The precarious geopolitical situation of Japan, however, calls for a change. While Chinese claims in the Southern Seas are nothing new, Beijing has become much more assertive in its stance towards the disputed Senkaku (Diaoyutai in Chinese) islands through an increase of its military presence in the region. In fact, the islands have been a source of diplomatic tensions between the People’s Republic of China, Japan and Republic of China (Taiwan) after the signing of the San Francisco Treaty in 1951, which required that Japan relinquish control of some of its minor islands. The discovery of oil and gas in the early 70s has further strained the foreign relations between China and Japan, with Beijing arguing that the islands have been a part of its territory since the 15th century[1].

The Chinese concern has prompted defence experts, such as the former head of the Australian Defence Force Sir Angus Houston, to warn that it might be too late to prevent Beijing from taking ownership of disputed islands and extending its influence. Russian aggression in the Middle East and the Ukraine has further raised concerns amongst Tokyo’s policy-makers that Japan is potentially facing another aggressive actor to its north-west.

Russian actions has served to alarm the Japanese government that a resolution of the disputed Kuril Islands would be virtually impossible to achieve[2]. The islands were conquered by Russia at the end of the Second World War and Moscow has since denied that Japan has any territorial claims over them. As such, the issue has become a prominent issue in Japanese public opinion.

The biggest shock for Japanese foreign policy, however, came only recently with the tumultuous rise of Donald Trump. The new President is quite vocal in his criticism towards previous US foreign policy, expressing reservations about the relevance and current structure of NATO, while also openly condemning Japanese and South Korean reliance on US troops in the region.

Trump’s recent accusations of Japanese monetary policy, arguing that the yen’s value is hurting the United States’ trade balance, and his declared intentions of introducing severe import tariffs on foreign products, has served as a major source of concern for the Japanese export-oriented economy. The President’s often unpredictable rhetoric has left Tokyo confused.  While the initial call with Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe confirmed the United States’ dedication to regional stability, his subsequent comments about the need of Japan and Korea to develop their own nuclear arsenal, and his seeming frustration with the US involvement in the Pacific, casts doubt on his actual geopolitical intentions.

While the latest political developments have undoubtedly put pressure on Japan’s foreign policy, this can also be seen as a rare opportunity for Abe, who has advocated for the abolition of the Japanese legal constraints in regards to foreign interventions, and has called for a reform of the Self-Defence Force into a fully-fledged military[3]. In fact, the Prime Minister has been a vocal advocate of what he himself refers to an “active pacifism”, ever since the Amenas hostage crisis in Algeria, during which 10 Japanese citizens lost their lives in an Al-Qaeda raid on a Tigantourine gas facility[4]. The incident was used as an argument by Abe that Japan must remilitarise and pursue a more active regional foreign policy.

Furthermore, Abe’s government has recognised China’s growing military involvement in the South China Sea and the decreased US regional influence, and has used the In Amenas incident in order to put forward policies that were to reform and centralise the existing security forces. Abe’s policies have, however, met with severe opposition from the public and initially saw protests from activists who saw Abe’s policies as a return to Japan’s imperialist past[5].

It will take time for Western leaders to make sense of Trump’s new rhetoric and foreign policy objectives, yet the US elections might mean that the moment is ripe for Abe to seek a military reform once more. Thus while on previous occasions Japan has been reassured by its military allies that the latter will cooperate in the provision of defence capabilities in the face of numerous external adversaries, Trump’s desire to see increased military spending amongst the allies of the US may serve as a serious argument in favour of Abe’s policies.

Conducting a military reform may also counter Trump’s criticism of US allies and strengthen Japan’s precarious geopolitical position. Such a move must, however, be done in an extremely careful manner, as any attempt on behalf of Japan to remilitarise itself may be seen by China and North Korea as a revival of Japanese territorial ambitions. Abe’s official meeting with Putin in December of 2016 can thus be seen as an attempt by the Japanese Prime Minister to re-establish an active diplomatic engagement with neighbouring powers, while paving the way for more active foreign policy[6].

Trump’s early moves in international affairs have undoubtedly destabilised an already volatile region. US policy-makers must, however, face the fact that Japan is still a critical geopolitical ally and while an reorganisation of US military may indeed be warranted, Trump’s administration must reassure Japan of its own security and pave the way for a more proactive Japanese involvement in the region.


[1] ‘Who Really Owns The Senkaku Islands?’ (The Economist, 2017) <http://www.economist.com/blogs/economist-explains/2013/12/economist-explains-1&gt; accessed 5 February 2017.

[2] Trenin D and Weber Y, ‘RUSSIA’S PACIFIC FUTURE Solving The South Kuril Islands Dispute’ (2012) <http://carnegieendowment.org/files/russia_pacific_future_upd.pdf&gt; accessed 5 February 2017

[3] ‘Abe And A Japanese National Security Council | East Asia Forum’ (East Asia Forum, 2017) <http://www.eastasiaforum.org/2013/07/16/abe-and-a-japanese-national-security-council/&gt; accessed 5 February 2017.

[4] Peter Beaumont and Paul Gallagher, ‘Algeria Hostage Crisis Over After Further Casualties’ (the Guardian, 2017) <https://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/jan/19/algeria-siege-ends-hostages-killed&gt; accessed 5 February 2017.

[5] ‘Huge Protest In Tokyo Rails Against PM Abe’s Security Bills’ (Reuters, 2017) <http://www.reuters.com/article/us-japan-politics-protest-idUSKCN0QZ0C320150830&gt; accessed 5 February 2017

[6] ‘Abe, Putin Agree To Revive Japan-Russia Security Talks, Discuss Syria’ (Reuters, 2017) <http://www.reuters.com/article/us-japan-russia-idUSKBN143332&gt; accessed 5 February 2017.


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