Commentary / Japan

Japan and the Indo-Pacific geopolitical calculus

by Ramesh Thakur

After a resounding victory in the recent general election that had been called earlier than necessary, Shinzo Abe is set to become Japan’s longest serving prime minister should he serve out his full term. After an inglorious 12-month first tenure from 2006-2007, Abe began his second stint as prime minister on Dec. 26, 2012. Among his foreign policy priorities was an early visit to the United States, which duly materialized within two months. Speaking at a function in Washington in February 2013, Abe memorably declared that he was back, Japan was back, and “Japan is not, and will never be, a tier-two country.”

To deal Japan back into the great game of East Asia major power relations, Abe needs to do three things: reverse trend-lines of national decline, leverage ties with Washington to reposition Japan as a consequential actor in the Asia-Pacific, and build an entente cordiale of cooperative dialogues and arrangements with like-minded countries with shared values and convergent interests in the larger strategic frame of the Indo-Pacific region.

A powerful driver of Japan’s social and security policy will be Japan’s changing demographic profile. On the present trend its population could fall below 100 million within 30 years. With close to the world’s highest life expectancy and a fertility rate well below replacement levels, the cohort of elderly keeps rising. Those aged 65 and over will climb from about 24 percent in 2012 to more than 40 percent by 2050. Still rich, Japan will live off its wealth but not create new wealth.

Even Japan’s wealth has been stagnant and indeed declining relative to others. Its per capita income is now 20th on market exchange value and 27th in purchasing power parity dollars (which is a truer measure relative to cost of living). Over the next 15 years household wealth is set to return to levels of 15 years ago. Inevitably, this will cut into Japan’s ability to pursue an activist foreign policy and a muscular military policy, and cost it relative status in Asia and the world.

The only realistic solution to Japan’s aging and falling population is large-scale and sustained immigration. Japan’s traditional attachment to social and cultural cohesion, and suspicions of foreigners have always been effective barriers to liberalizing a highly restrictive immigration policy.

In 2005, as reported in The Japan Times (Oct. 18, 2005) then-Internal Affairs and Communications Minister Taro Aso infamously characterized Japan as uniquely “one nation, one civilization, one language, one culture and one race.” In recent years incidents of social discord and violent extremism linked to migrant groups in Europe will only have cemented Japanese hostility to a more liberal immigration policy. Absent that, only a dramatic increase in prevailing fertility rates can provide the necessary ballast to economic revival.

Second, a healthy alliance with the U.S. is insurance for Japan against the present North Korean and a future China threat (while good relations with China are equally a hedge against an unreliable U.S. ally in the future). Abe was the first world leader to meet with Donald Trump after his election and seems to be in a small minority of global leaders to have established a personal rapport with the volatile and erratic U.S. president. In return Japan was the first stop on Trump’s recent Asia tour and a shared regional outlook was on full public display. The fear of abandonment by the U.S. has abated.

On Nov. 2, the day before leaving for Asia, Trump warned China to rein in North Korea or face “warrior nation” Japan. But it would be a mistake for Japan to take advantage of Trump’s profound strategic illiteracy to move toward an independent nuclear deterrent. It is clear from the president’s previous public statements and musings that Trump’s hawkish base would regard the acquisition of nuclear weapons by Japan and South Korea as a triumph of Trump’s “America first” diplomacy, enabling a pullback of U.S. troops from the region, rather than a nonproliferation setback. But far from improving Japan’s national security outlook, nuclearization would massively degrade the regional and global security landscape, and dramatically escalate nuclear risks and threats to Japan, East Asia and the world.

It must be very gratifying for Tokyo, as for India’s policy elite, that in his first foreign policy speech in Washington on Oct. 18, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson became the first senior U.S. official to switch strategic frames from the traditional “Asia-Pacific” to the “Indo-Pacific.” Tokyo was converted to this some years ago as a useful means of incorporating India into its strategic frame. Tillerson’s speech laid out the defining features of U.S. relations with India “for the next century.” Describing the Indo-Pacific as a region that is “central to our shared history,” he noted that the 2017 trilateral Malabar exercise was the “most complex to date in which the largest vessels from American, Indian, and Japanese navies demonstrated their power together in the Indian Ocean for the first time.”

Even more importantly, Tillerson depicted India and the U.S. as “increasingly global partners with growing strategic convergence” that “stands upon a shared commitment upholding the rule of law, freedom of navigation, universal values and free trade.” Just in case the geopolitical significance had been missed by anyone, Tillerson immediately added that by contrast: “China’s provocative actions in the South China Sea directly challenge the international law and norms that the United States and India both stand for.”

There is also talk of reviving the quadrilateral arrangement to include Australia, which under Prime Minister Kevin Rudd had become nervous about putting China offside and pulled out from the four-way informal security partnership. If South Korea could be pried away from its traditional narrow foreign policy focus, a new entente cordiale of Indo-Pacific democracies would be complete.

History warns us against writing off Japan too hastily. It may not be a traditional great power on conventional criteria but it remains a consequential power in the Indo-Pacific. The most technologically advanced, richest and best educated country in Asia cannot be airbrushed out of the evolving geopolitical equation. If Japan is ignored, if Washington attempts to use its relationship with China to shape the environment into which Japan fades quietly into the sunset (a most unlikely scenario under Trump), Tokyo can play spoiler-cum-saboteur for most regional initiatives and even embrace nuclear weapons. If Asia turns to Sino-U.S. confrontation and conflict, Japan will anchor any U.S. forward strategy for East Asia. If Asia turns to cooperation, Japanese money will be required to underwrite the institutional arrangements and agreed deliverables.

Ramesh Thakur is a professor in the Crawford School of Public Policy at Australian National University.