The narrow latitude of Japan’s security policy

by Haruaki Deguchi

As animals, the most important thing for human beings is that they have sufficient clothing, enough food, and can sleep well. In this sense, for any country, economic growth and national security are the basis of its policy. Here are some of my thoughts about Japan’s national security.

Japan is the world’s third-largest economy in terms of nominal gross domestic product. Only a country that is more powerful than Japan can guarantee its safety — much like an ordinary businessperson cannot possibly serve as a joint guarantor for a billionaire. In that respect, the only candidates to which Japan can entrust its security are the United States, China and the European Union, whose economic power roughly matches that of the U.S. or China. What if we are allowed to comparatively weigh the three candidates from scratch?

As far as their current military power is concerned, the U.S. should be counted as No. 1, followed by China and then the EU. With regard to economic power measured in terms of purchasing power parity, it would be safe to say that the three are approximately equal. Geopolitically speaking, combining Japan and China has an advantage in that they are physically close to each other.

But also Japan and the U.S. can be fairly well matched because the Japanese archipelago is located in a position suited to serving as a barrier to attempts by continental powers like China and Russia to advance into the Pacific. Pairing Japan and the EU does not seem to carry geopolitical benefits.

In terms of the popular sentiment of Japanese people, who today are wary of China, the order of best candidates will the U.S., followed by the EU and China. Given these factors, it stands to reason that at present, the U.S. is the best candidate to serve as Japan’s security partner.

In practical terms, historical development is more important than any other factor. There have been very few cases in which alliances were suddenly formed in the absence of any historical or other connections between the partners. Since Japan has been a party to the security treaty with the U.S. through much of the postwar years, very few citizens will think of launching negotiations for creating a security tie-up with China or the EU from square one. As it is, it should be logical to think that Japan has no other choice than maintaining the security treaty with the U.S.

A worrying development in this country is that, as if influenced by U.S. President Donald Trump’s “America first” policy, some people, albeit in small numbers, are starting to advocate “Japan first.” A country rich in fossil fuel, iron ore and rubber — the three most important factors that helped establish advanced industrial society in modern history — will be able to pursue an “our country first” policy over the short term because such a nation can engage in barter trade — although I do not think it is the right policy.

It is amply possible for the U.S., which boasts the world’s largest crude oil production, to pursue such a policy. But we need to firmly recognize that Japan, which has none of the three resources on its own, has no other means to maintain its current living standard except by upholding free trade and getting along well with other countries throughout the world. Through its history, humankind has built affluent societies through free and open trade. Japan is a developed country that has greatly benefited from free trade.

Another source of concern is the rise of groups of people who loudly call for beefing up Japan’s defense capability by pointing to provocations by North Korea with its nuclear weapons and missile development, and China’s military buildup. Let’s assume that Japan follows such calls. Then what is needed? As Roman politician Cicero declared, “the sinews of war are infinite money.” Defense buildup requires money, that is, economic power, which necessitates high GDP growth. To achieve this, radical deregulation, population growth and rises in tax revenue are needed. Reinforcing defense capability goes well with such policies as deregulation, accepting more immigration and tax hikes.

But in Japan, groups that call for defense buildup often advocate just the opposite of these policies. They oppose consumption tax hikes, say deregulation in general is good but reject concrete deregulatory measures, and are either opposed to or cautious toward immigration. Their policies lack consistency. What it signifies is a deterioration of politics. They merely advocate policies that are pleasing to people’s ears but mutually contradictory, giving up on a feasible policy package.

It would be easy to denounce that as populism. But history shows that a society in which realism is lost from policy discussions and a groundless idealism prevails all too often runs wild in an uncontrollable manner.

As it is, it seems that Japan has little leeway in its foreign policy. What’s essential first is to maintain the Japan-U.S. security alliance. Then to enlarge its policy leeway, Japan needs more than anything else to boost the growth of its economy. Over the past quarter century, Japan’s GDP growth has been lower than either that of the U.S. or the EU. Among these advanced economies, Japan also has the fastest graying population and declining births — which means that its medical and nursing care expenses will soar in the future.

Low growth and mushrooming expenses mean that Japan has its hands tied and has little room to carry out new policies. For Japan, nothing is more important than achieving higher economic growth.

Haruaki Deguchi is the president of Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University in Beppu, Oita Prefecture. A popular lecturer and the author of more than 30 books, Deguchi worked at Nippon Life Insurance Co. for almost 35 years before founding Lifenet Insurance in 2008.