Deep breath. OK…
As the author of “Peak Japan,” for me to give an optimistic take on this country’s future is both difficult and risks undermining my brand. Still, even I can see the opportunity that Japan has to become a national security superpower. It is a long shot, but it is very real, and politicians, the public and policymakers should give it genuine consideration.
This strategy rests on three pillars. The first is the internalization and implementation of a new approach to national security, one that better reflects 21st century geopolitical and geoeconomic realities, as well as Japan’s domestic political constraints. I have long argued that there is a new national security economy, one that is shaped by the great power competition that defines contemporary international relations. Today, countries compete across a variety of interrelated domains — economic, technological, military, cultural and ideological — of which the first two are the most consequential.
In this world, innovation and connectivity are critical. National security must focus on those two areas, addressing their complexities and nuances — and Japan can lead in both areas. Japan is an innovative country, even if those efforts are sometimes misdirected. With the proper incentives and support, those energies can be targeted toward solving problems that matter not just to this country but to the wider world.
This expansive definition of national security fits well within Japanese thinking. Since 1980, Tokyo has been an advocate of comprehensive security and its postwar experience has given it both the mindset and the tools to make that concept a reality. Regional governments admire Japan’s development model and its ability to show leadership without relying on the military. In the 2021 ISEAS Yusof Ishak Institute’s “State of Southeast Asia” survey report, Japan is again the most trusted power in the region.
Japan should be leading diplomacy that spurs and protects connectivity — whether building infrastructure and smart cities or adopting trade and technology standards. Japanese businesses (with government support) should be at the forefront of regional development efforts that put flesh on the bones of those designs. These are crucial components of regional leadership and vital contributions to regional peace, security and prosperity.
Japan showed its ability to shoulder these responsibilities when it revived the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement on Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) after the United States abandoned that project four years ago, when former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe championed the idea of Data Free Flow with Trust as an international standard for data protection and when it developed the Supply Chain Resilience Initiative with Australia and India. Those initiatives are emblematic of the work that is central to the new national security economy and of the role Tokyo can play in forging the multilateral coalitions that will be central to their success.
Second, this approach must be incorporated into the Japan-U.S. alliance and operationalized in its work and planning. While the alliance has addressed regional security concerns, its primary focus — understandably — has been the defense of Japan. Doing more beyond its shores has been difficult because of domestic sensitivities and a lack of capacity (often a product of those political constraints).
Re-conceptualizing national security allows Japan to overcome those inhibitions and do more for the region. Competition is intensifying as all governments face tightening resource constraints; efficiency is more important now than ever. In a multidimensional rivalry, allies should contribute where they can do their best and the most. For Japan, these are the economic, diplomatic and technological arenas.
Japan can make contributions to the military component, but they should be hybrid efforts that strengthen resilience, deterrence and defense. Power projection is not a priority. Tokyo and Washington should use the Pacific Deterrence Initiative (PDI) and the Indo-PACOM combatant commander’s proposal to “Regain the Initiative” to guide Japan’s contributions. Both efforts set priorities to prepare the theater for conflict. Japan would be helping to build infrastructure throughout the region and put logistics in place so that U.S. forces, along with allies and partners, would be ready to fight when necessary. The capacity to fight and defend is the strongest deterrent.
This necessitates a new agreement on how to define Japan’s contributions to the alliance, one that should guide future negotiations over host nation support. Fortunately, “support” is a fungible concept when roles, missions, and responsibilities are being allocated. Creative thinking — and accounting — is required.
The third pillar is a commitment to homeland defense as traditionally conceived. While this new national security strategy largely rejects the idea of and need for Japanese power projection capabilities, Japan must not rely on any other country, even the U.S., to assume a leading role in the defense of the homeland. No country will be taken seriously, nor will it ever be comfortable, in such a position. This will necessitate more spending on defense. A former Japanese official has suggested that Tokyo commit to increasing its defense budget to 1.5% of GDP by 2050, an increase of about $880 million a year, a target that is both realistic and sustainable (politically and economically).
Of course, Japan can and should provide to the region some of the capabilities that it needs for homeland defense, such as maritime domain awareness or antisubmarine capabilities. And Tokyo must be ready to help in a regional crisis. But Tokyo should focus on the things it does best, and not use resources for distant military needs that can either be provided more efficiently by others or for which the marginal utility of those capabilities is low when compared to other contributions by Japan.
This future is improbable, but not unimaginable. It builds upon traditional elements of Japanese national security policy, and while adventurous, builds upon recent developments. These ideas are just an outline; much work must be done to provide details of each endeavor. This project can only succeed if done with the U.S. and under the alliance umbrella, even though multilateralism is an integral part of this strategy.
A new administration in the U.S. is an opportunity for the two governments to adjust their partnership to better reflect geopolitical and geoeconomic realities and the interests and priorities of the two administrations.
Exhale. We now return you to the author’s usual dour outlook.
Brad Glosserman is deputy director of and visiting professor at the Center for Rule-Making Strategies at Tama University as well as senior advisor (nonresident) at Pacific Forum. He is the author of “Peak Japan: The End of Great Ambitions” (Georgetown University Press, 2019).
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