What Would a Japanese Remilitarization Mean for the Asian Power Dynamic?

For years, the one constant in Japanese politics has been instability. So perhaps it’s not surprising to see wildly unstable and conflicting statements about the future of Japan’s role in international politics.

Just over the past several months, we have been told that Japan is “flexing its military muscle to counter a rising China,” that it has been “acting more confrontationally in the region than at any time since World War II,” that on foreign policy “the center-right has now prevailed,” and even that changes to Japan’s defense posture “will have profound implications for the balance of power in Asia.”

At the same time those articles were being written, we were also being told that Japan was actually cutting defense spending, that demographic and ideological constraintswere preventing Japan from taking on a larger role, that Japan’s nationalism is a sign of weakness, and that Japan’s response to China’s rise was primarily focused on hugging America closer. Now the Council on Foreign Relations is running a symposium asking whether Japan is in decline.

So what’s really going on here? Is a confident, nationalistic Japan stepping forward to take a larger role in East Asian security, or is a once-great power locked in stagnation and slowly fading away?

In part, partisans of these two points of view are talking past one another. Compared to its defense posture and politics in the past, Japan is growing increasingly nationalistic and militarized. But looking at its economic and technological power, it still punches far below its weight. Talking about a Japan that is more heavily-armed and nationalistic than at any time in the recent past doesn’t say much about how well-equipped Japan is to deal with today’s national security challenges, unless you factor in how militarized Japan has been in the recent past. The answer, of course, is “not very,” which makes looking at comparative Japanese militarization less useful.

It’s true that Japan is rebalancing its defense budget toward naval platforms that would be useful in deterring or defeating the most likely security problem the country faces, Chinese naval encroachment. Still, unless China’s economy collapses, its growth, and commensurate growth in China’s defense spending is going to present serious challenges for Japan—whether or not Tokyo can count on the United States to pay for a significant portion of Japan’s defense.

The important question for Americans is whether Japan is poised to play a leading role on security issues in Asia more independently of the United States. Since the end of World War II, Japan has been one of the “spokes” in Washington’s hub-and-spokes system of alliances throughout Asia, relying largely on Washington for its defense needs.

In Japan’s defense, its free riding was, and to some extent still is, encouraged by the United States. As Victor Cha has demonstrated, Washington’s system of alliances in Asia was designed with what he terms a “powerplay” rationale, in which the United States created asymmetric, bilateral alliances in order, in each case, to “exert maxi-mum control over [its] smaller ally’s actions.” Further, Cha writes, Washington sought to “amplify U.S. control and minimize any collusion among its alliance partners.”

Whatever sense this made in the 1950s and 60s, it has grown to be a particularly bad deal for Americans. Japan’s security is important to Americans, but it is more important to Japanese. Therefore, it doesn’t make sense that Japan spends roughly 1 percent of its GDP on defense when Americans—who face a much less dire threat environment—spend 4 percent. As the U.S. fiscal shortfalls and the political difficulty in fixing them both become clearer, it is irresponsible not to insist allies do more for their own security.

The time has come to urge Japan to take a much more prominent role in East Asian security issues. There are several reasons to start this process immediately.

First is the Damoclean sword of demographics. Japan is likely to have roughly 40 percent fewer citi-zens under 15 and undergo a 30 percent drop in working age population by 2040, placing increasing stress on its economy and its pension and health systems. It will also mean fewer Japanese workers to produce defense articles and serve in the Self-Defense Forces. This makes the need for Japan to do more urgent today.

Also, although over the medium term things appear almost certain to get worse in Japan, its present prowess in defense technologies—specifically naval and anti-submarine warfare platforms—can be parlayed to produce dividends in the future. Investments today yield benefits downstream, and already Japan is contemplating arming and training its neighbors’ navies and coast guards. Immediately enhancing and expanding this program, and considering more systematic arms sales could help stabilize the balance of power.

Historically, the U.S. foreign-policy establishment’s response to suggestions that Japan should develop a more robust and independent defense policy has been to stoke fears of Japanese imperialism. As former policy planning director Anne-Marie Slaughter opaquely put it, Japan is “neither psychologically ready nor suitable for historical reasons” to play a larger role in providing for its own security. The concern is that Japan’s remilitarization would produce dangerous arms racing with China, poisoning Japan-China relations and possibly Japan-US relations.

These fears are overblown. Whatever importance one ascribes to Japanese ideology or the visits of Japanese officials to the Yasukuni shrine, the fact remains that Japan does not (and will not) have the ability to project power on land. This is the upside of Japan’s demographic problem. Even if Tokyo were to re-arm, no one should fear a replay of the 1930s, because Japan simply doesn’t have the fighting age population to project power without wrecking its economy. On the other hand, Japan’s existing naval prowess requires relatively less labor than would ground forces, and does not directly threaten Japan’s neighbors. To suggest an analogy with the invasion of Manchuria is to overlook the material constraints Japan faces.

If Japan does not adjust rapidly and take on a more significant role on security issues in Asia, its demographic profile and resulting fiscal woes could marginalize Japan, making it into a wasting asset in the eyes of Americans. With elections poised to return the Liberal Democratic Party to power, Americans and all those hoping for greater burden sharing in Asia should hope Japan steps up. If it doesn’t do so soon, it may never get another chance.

Justin Logan is director of foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute.