Tokyo’s Drift

Comment: Written by Joseph Byrne.
In April Japan launched its only naval destroyer for the first time to assist the US warship USS Carl Vinson while crossing the Korean peninsula. This may not seem like a strong show of military force. Armies all around the world conduct joint operations frequently for mutual co-operation and security purposes, especially the USA. However, this action is part of a symbolic trend in recent years that puts Japanese Foreign Policy on a more offensive stance.

Since 1945 Japan has been a pacifist nation. It has no nuclear weapons and its military spending was capped at 1%. Since 2015 however Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has removed this 1% cap and increased defence spending to a record level to almost 2.4% GDP while pushing for constitutional reform on defence. The Diet (Japanese parliament) also recognised a landmark re-interpretation of the pacifist Japanese constitution stating retaliation when under threat was acceptable form of aggression, something previously unthinkable.

All these signs point to a Japan that is uncertain of its once peaceful and stable place in the Liberal Democratic Order. But why is this? In an international system that is ever affected by other states actions Japan find itself adrift with its role in the world order. Besides America, Japan and Germany are seen to be the last vanguard of liberal democracy in 2017, yet find themselves with some distinct foreign policy challenges to secure its global standing in the world. These uncertainties come down to two main foreign policy issues. Increased aggression from North Korea and China and the possibility of a receding US presence in supporting the current liberal international order.

Most prominently, North Korea is Japan’s major worry. A seemingly reactionary nation hell-bent on producing a long range nuclear weapon would worry any nearby state but can be put down to smart international tactics by Kim-Jong-Un and he knows how to ramp up tension in the region. In mid-may (15th) a missile was launched landing in the Japanese sea, a rocket was also fired into the same region as Mike Pence was visiting Tokyo in April 2017 and these actions make Japan constantly aware that there is an aggressive power on their doorstep. But an important question all nations are asking is does Kim-Jong-Un know how to reduce pressure in the region when it is needed? Increasing tension between powers such as the US and North Korea are a worry for Japanese officials. Mainly because matters are increasingly being taken out of their hands while North Korea has continually motioned toward having South Korean capital Seoul as-well as Tokyo set in its sights if there ever was a conflict.

Amongst this major development is also the issue of Chinese territorial aggression in the Spratley Islands. Disputed waters, that have been built upon, now carry naval and military bases for Chinese forces close to Japanese territory and an increase in Chinese military capacity is ever-present. Adding to this is another long-running island dispute between Japan and Russia. A rapprochement that has been soured by Russia now naming the islands in late 2016, goes to show that good relations on the surface still may carry cause for concern.

So with China’s increasing military presence across the East China Sea, and North Korea shouting about nuclear capacity from over the Sea of Japan, can you blame Abe for being nervous? The dilemma that is faced is how then does Japan combat these local powers in an ever increasing unipolar international system?

In a bid to tackle issues such as North Korean aggression, diplomatic pragmatism has led to Japan hedging its bets in its international diplomacy. Interaction and affiliation with regimes that have deplorable human rights violations such as Duterte’s Philippines and Putin’s Russia have led to claims of damage to Japan’s moral standing in international affairs. Yet this is symptomatic of an increasingly common trend of states ‘hedging’. In recent years, accelerated by the role of President Trumps isolationist rhetoric, the US is longer seen as the only viable world power in an increasingly multipolar system.

Examples can be clearly seen, such as the US administration’s failure to keep up Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPS) in the South China Sea to challenge China’s internationally illegal claims of Spratly island ownership, with only one FONOP since Trump took office. This is significant as if the US becomes acquiescent to these claims, they become more legitimate, as no other power has the military capacity and ability to carry out FONOPS.

Furthermore, some states have begun to ‘hedge’ their bets to other increasingly powerful states such as Russia, China and Iran in the case that US power declines in East Asia. Japan, America’s greatest Asian ally, is a key example of this in practice. The uncertainty of the US role in sustaining the liberal international order, especially in Asia after the Obama administration’s policy ‘pivot’, could be unsettling for the region. This theory does have traction, as can be seen in the previous examples such as increasing cooperation with Russia. However, many of these current foreign policy worries are increasingly out of Japanese hands, and hedging is seemingly an example of tactics being used to rebalance the scales. Preparing for changes in the international system by building relationships that may have not been viable before.

The result of these developments can be seen as a challenge for the two main strands of Foreign Policy; diplomacy and military matters. 

Militarily, the factors mentioned above have led to a large increase in defence expenditure by Japan relative to previous years. Possible re-interpretation of the constitution combined with an increase in military spending is a significant change to a nearly 70-year norm. There is even speculation of the legitimacy of preemptive strikes against North Korea for self-defence. This shift presents a significant change for Japanese foreign policy from a previously pacifist nation to one that recognises the dangers and volatility of the international state system that is changing around them. Options are available for Japan to even acquire a nuclear weapon and could do so extremely quickly due to the US giving Japan ‘special’ treatment when dealing with fissile material. Overall this is Japan’s measured reaction not to be caught in a current of other states action, but be prepared to define its own place in a changing the world order.  

On the other hand, Japan can also re-invigorate its diplomatic legitimacy.
There are many avenues that could strengthen Japan’s position in the global order, for example if relations between Russia and US do become worse, Japan could be placed to be an ideal arbiter considering the recent Russian rapprochement and longstanding US alliance. The damaging effect that Abe’s pragmatism could have on Japanese diplomacy should not be overstated, but Japan should promote democratic liberal values, and speak out against nations whose human rights records are poor. It could also attempt to increase co-operation with China and Seoul economically and even exert pressure on a reluctant China against North Korea to push for a peaceful option, to ease the fears of Asian states and beyond.

Yet the need for policy to be robust in these uncertain times has led to a different policy from Shinzo Abe. The increase in defence spending is uncharacteristic but understandable, and with uncertainties in from Pyongyang and Washington on-going, Japan is set to continue hedging its bets hoping for more certainty in the future.



Haass , R. N., 2017. World Order 2.0. Foreign Affairs , 96(1).

Le, T., March 23rd 2017. The Price of Abe’s Pragmatism. Foreign Affairs .

Miller, J. B., March 15th 2017. Japan’s North Korea. Foreign Affairs.

Rapp-Hooper, M. & Edel, C., May 18th 2017. Adrift in the South China Sea. Foreign Affairs.

Walker , J. W. & Azuma , H., December 15th 2016. Mr Putin Goes to Japan. Foreign Affairs.


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