Japan Institute for National Fundamentals

Speaking out

Brahma Chellaney

【#708】Japan Must Flex Its Foreign-Policy Muscle

Brahma Chellaney / 2020.08.11 (Tue)

Special Contribution
August 11, 2020

The international spotlight on Japan’s prolonged economic woes has helped obscure one of the most important but least-noticed developments — the political rise of the world’s third largest economy. By initiating national-security reforms and seeking a more active role in shaping the evolving balance of power in Asia, Japan under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is displaying a determination to stop punching below its weight and take its rightful place in the world.

In a way, Japan, the “Land of the Rising Sun,” is seeking to regain the role it has long held in history. Japan historically punched above its weight — a record punctured only by its World War II defeat. Japan’s trailblazing role in modern history often inspired other Asian states. This is because it had the distinction of mostly staying ahead of the rest of Asia.

Confront Chinese expansionism

During the 1868-1912 Meiji era, Japan became Asia’s first modern economic success story. It then went on to become the first Asian country to emerge as a global military power when, between 1895 and 1905, it defeated Manchu-ruled China and Tsarist Russia in separate wars. With much of Asia colonized by Europeans, Russia’s military rout at the hands of the Japanese came as a shot in the arm to Asian independence movements. After Japan’s crushing defeat in World War II, Japan rose from the ashes rapidly to emerge as Asia’s first global economic powerhouse by the 1980s, an industrial dynamo the likes of which Asia had never seen.

Specializing in the highest-value links of global supply chains, Japan today ranks among the world’s richest countries. It boasts the lowest income inequality in Asia, even though income inequality is now rising within its national borders. Despite being overtaken by China in economic size, Japan’s per capita GDP is still much higher than China’s and Japanese remain wealthier than Chinese.

In fact, real per-capita income has increased faster in this century in Japan than in the U.S. and Britain, while Japan’s unemployment rate has long remained one of the lowest among the OECD economies. Japan enjoys the highest life expectancy of any large country in the world.

To be sure, Japan faces pressing challenges today, including population aging and sluggish economic growth. But similar problems now haunt South Korea, Taiwan and Hong Kong, while China has been forced to loosen its one-child policy and unveil measures to reverse slowing economic growth.

Japan, Asia’s oldest liberal democracy, also faces pressing security challenges due to China’s muscular expansionism. China has sought to police the waters off the Japanese-administered Senkaku Islands, with the aim of weakening Japan’s control and strengthening Chinese claims of sovereignty over them.

Japan faces a stark choice today: bolster its security or come under siege. Japan has no option but to become more secure. It is time for Tokyo to turn the tables on China’s machinations by responding assertively, including sinking or disabling Chinese state ships and detaining their crews when they engage in provocative activities, such as chasing Japanese fishing vessels. Otherwise, Japan will increasingly find itself at the receiving end of China’s expansionism.

Japan has right to reemerge as a great power

As one American scholar, Dan Twining, has written, “Imperial Japan was subjected to nuclear attack, defeated in war, disarmed, occupied, and transformed into the first nation in modern history without the right to defend itself under its own laws. The Japanese have spent more than 70 years atoning for the sins of their forefathers and embracing a culture of pacifism that neutered the power of the world’s third-largest economy. Japan threatens no country.”

In fact, Japan has an enviable record: It has not fired a single shot against an outside party since World War II. And as a major donor of economic and humanitarian aid, Japan for many decades has been a vital contributor to regional and international peace and security.

Japan has every right to reemerge as a great power. A strong, assertive Japan that can defend itself on its own will significantly contribute to peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific region.

Brahma Chellaney is a professor of strategic studies at Center for Policy Research, New Delhi.