Walter Hamilton. A Strategy Less Than Grand: Where the ‘New Japan’ Goes Wrong.

In a commentary published by the Lowy Institute entitled “Japan is Back: Unbundling Abe’s Grand Strategy*, Dr. Michael Green (Japan Chair at the Center for Strategic International Studies in Washington, DC) analyses the political and economic policies of Japan’s conservative government under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and concludes that “the overall strategy could be quite effective” in enhancing Japan’s prestige and forcing the cooperation of China.

The article is detailed, wide-ranging and informed by high-level contacts within Japan. The credentials of the author and the forum in which his views were aired suggest they are likely to be consonant with advice that Prime Minister Tony Abbott is receiving from his foreign affairs advisers. The article deserves a close reading because Green’s attempt to give Abe’s policies the status of a “grand strategy” unintentionally exposes their underlying contradictions.

The author begins by arguing that Abe’s strategy does not represent a break with the past: “[His] national security agenda is not, in fact, a departure from the general trajectory established by his predecessors in the post-Cold War era.” Elsewhere, he asserts, “While scholars have emphasised the debate among different strategic schools in Japan, the real debates now are mostly about the timing and scope of change – not its direction.” Green wants to counter any suggestion that Abe is an extremist or maverick politician acting out of step with popular opinion. Later in the article, however, he states: “The policy and legal obstacles that Abe is now busy removing as part of his internal balancing strategy were erected by previous Japanese governments eager to build a buffer against involvement in US military plans in the Pacific.” There is an obvious contradiction. Is Abe building on existing policy frameworks or dismantling them?

Green’s case that Abe’s policies are continuous with the past, on closer examination, is based mainly on the claim that “[his immediate predecessor, Prime Minister] Yoshihiko Noda…began the push for most of the key elements of Abe’s security agenda.” In other words, by “predecessors” he means principally Noda. While it is true the Noda government sought to shore up Japan’s alliance with the United States, this represented a swing of the pendulum back from the failed attempt of a former leader of his ruling Democratic Party of Japan, Yukio Hatoyama, to put a distance between Tokyo and Washington. Noda gave expression to one side of the historical “bi-polar” complex that has characterised Japan’s postwar relationship with the US. Furthermore, the Noda government––deeply unpopular because of its perceived incompetence––took strategic decisions (notably the purchase of the three Senkaku/Diaoyu islands that so enraged China) reactively, under duress and without a clearly articulated policy agenda. To posit a continuum between Abe and the panicked previous administration is curious, to say the least.

Green refers to a former “left-leaning” Prime Minister Takeo Miki’s opposition to arms exports, without identifying him as a leader of the same Liberal Democratic Party Abe now heads. The LDP, like the DJP, has always contained competing views on whether rearmament or disarmament best serves Japan’s national interest, whether a look-to Beijing or a look-to-Washington posture is preferable. The current ascendency of the pro-Washington hawks within the LDP is just that: a phase in a cyclical power play. To suggest, as Green does, that a single continuity of views has existed within Japan’s leadership since the breakup of the Soviet Union is unsupportable. (The recent about-face by former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, coming out against nuclear power and backing a rival to the LDP’s candidate in Tokyo’s gubernatorial election, is a further example of the volatility of Japan’s conservative mainstream.) While it is true that Abe enjoys a high level of support within the electorate––anything over 50% is extraordinary by recent standards––there is little evidence that the so-called “grand strategy” (which Green invests with a spurious coherence) goes more than slogan-deep in terms of public understanding. Indeed it is incapable of being comprehended, I submit, because of its internal contradictions.

Another of the contradictions emerges when Green discusses regional responses to Abe’s policies. He states that the Abe Government “is pursuing foreign and security policies that are welcomed…by most governments in the region.” Yet he also says, correctly, that “the most striking thing about his diplomacy is that it has been focused on the near and far abroad rather than the immediate neighbours South Korea and China.” Given that the other key players in Japan’s region are, of course, China and South Korea, how does Green’s first statement stack up? He seems to believe that Australia, the US and other like-minded nations should support Japan in a diplomacy conducted over the heads of its nearest neighbours: “Abe’s preference for diplomacy with the states around China’s periphery also reflects his view that Japan’s natural partners are the democratic maritime states.” For Australia to automatically support Japan against its neighbours, rather than urge Tokyo to seek an accommodation with nations of vital interest to us, would be foolhardy.

Green identifies within Abe’s diplomacy (correctly, as far as it goes) an attempt to present Japan as a bastion of freedom, rule of law and transparency, and thus a defender of “Western” values, as opposed to the alternative “Pan-Asian” version that defines Japan by cultural and ethnic affinities. Japan, however, has been down a similar path before, in the period 1900-1925, and that, as we know, proved unsustainable. Green concedes that “tensions between Seoul and Tokyo are indirectly hurting broader Japanese influence in Asia and even in Washington” but does not explain how, by facilitating a diplomacy that overlooks South Korea, the US or Australia would benefit. Green treats the disagreements over historical accountability, so damaging to regional relations, as “complications.” This happens to be the prevailing Japanese attitude, based on the calculation that since China and South Korea have not always been as strident about such matters in the past, they can be waited out. The danger of inaction, however, was underlined again recently when the new president of NHK, Japan’s national broadcaster, made light of the “comfort women” issue during a news conference. Every time the Japanese Establishment’s complacency and recalcitrance are exposed, the gulf widens. If Abe wishes to lead a credible world power he must embrace a credible and candid accounting for the nation’s past. More than a complication, right now it is the spanner in the works.

In his discussion of Japan’s defence needs, Greens starts from the proposition that “China’s coercive pressure in the East China Sea…is most likely to spark a larger confrontation.” No evidence is offered for this one-sided view. He considers an increased Japanese military capability, including counterstrike deterrence, the sine qua non of a strategy to prevent Chinese coercion. Green’s account of why the country has lived for so long with a limited military capability is pure revisionism: “Japan’s deterrent capabilities are significantly less efficient and credible because of the numerous legal and bureaucratic constraints that have accumulated in the post-war period.” The language suggests that red tape, rather than a popular aversion to military adventures, has been the main constraint on Japan since 1945. The opposite is true. Japan’s war-renouncing constitution has been the central pillar of the nation’s postwar prosperity, and to dismiss it as a “bureaucratic” encumbrance is quite perverse. Certainly, various governments over the years have reinterpreted the basic law to enable Japan to maintain a modern military establishment but each step on that journey has kept intact a credible commitment to the principle of non-belligerence (though critics of Japan’s support for American military engagements in Asia and elsewhere would, of course, disagree). This is a whole-of-state issue, not a matter for backroom tinkering.

Green reports a “growing interest in Tokyo in the concept that Japan might use the development of counterstrike capability as a source of leverage vis-à-vis the United States.” He argues that as a result of Japan embracing a broader definition of its right to collective self-defense “the SDF will be seen by allies, partners, and potential adversaries as a more effective fighting force within the confines of Japan’s renunciation of war as a means to settle international disputes.” A more effective fighting force, I suggest, is not necessarily the best advertisement for the renunciation of war. For the two to be possibly compatible would require a style of leadership––inclusive, disposed to listen rather than dictate, and sensitive to the concerns of neighbours––that Abe so far has not displayed.

Green describes a view taking shape within the LDP that the government need not move immediately to revise Article 9 of the constitution in order to achieve its military-strategic objectives; it can do so through an administrative measure. But a change to Japan’s military posture to include a significant counterstrike capability, without a full airing of the issues that a debate on the constitution would enable, is not a development Australia should welcome. It runs counter to the very democratic values Abe insists link his nation to “natural partners” like Australia. The centralisation of power under Abe that Green identifies (and approves of), including the creation of supra-parliamentary organs, such as the new National Security Council and National Security Bureau, and the enactment of a wide-ranging state secrets law, might, to some, make Japan a “normal” country, but they seem unlikely to cast more light on the murky process of Japanese policy formation––quite the reverse.

A final contradiction arises in Green’s discussion of the support he says the US, Australia and others should lend Japan in its confrontation with China: “The United States, Australia, and all maritime nations have a stake in Japan not backing down under Chinese military pressure. Ultimately, a modus vivendi might be reached in which Japan finds a way to acknowledge officially that there is a de jure dispute [over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands].” For Japan to acknowledge that a de jure territorial dispute exists, as Green surely knows, would to Abe and his supporters constitute a back down. Such a concession might be desirable; but to argue against backing down to China and, in the same breath, to advocate it is peculiar. Green gets into this pickle by failing to adequately acknowledge that Japan’s actions have contributed to the impasse with China. Japan’s friends would do better to denounce the hardliners on both sides and propose solutions that get beyond fixed positions implied by the term “back down.” Green’s proposal would lead to an untenable situation in which anything Japan says or does must be approved, or else. He writes: “Resisting Japanese requests for joint contingency planning or pressuring Tokyo to compromise in the face of Chinese coercion would do fundamental damage to the credibility of the [US-Japan] alliance and lead to more pronounced hedging by Japan. The result would be less US control over escalation in a crisis in the East China Sea and weakened dissuasion and deterrence all along the offshore island chain.” You can’t have it both ways. Either Japan is a partner who can be resisted and corrected, as well as supported, or it is a liability. The same goes for China.

Green performs a valuable service by articulating issues that Australians should be considering as a matter of urgency. Without a doubt, Abe (who has compared current relations between China and Japan to those between Germany and Britain in 1914) is the strongest, most belligerent Japanese leader to emerge for decades. There are, however, flaws in his “grand strategy.” Diplomacy conducted over the heads of China and South Korea to engage supposedly like-minded democratic maritime partners such as Australia should make any modern Bismarck quaver. Resolving the historical grievances between Japan and its former colonial underlings is essential to future regional security. They will not fix themselves. To demonstrate its commitment to democratic values Japan needs a full-blown debate about the role of its defence forces within the constitution rather than increasingly centralised and elitist decision-making. Australia’s interest in a vibrant and peaceful Japan requires our leaders to oppose all measures that heighten regional tensions and undermine longer-term stability.


Walter Hamilton reported from Japan for the ABC for eleven years. He is the author of “Children of the Occupation: Japan’s Untold Story”.

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