On October 19th, Japan’s defense minister Iwaya Takeshi revealed Japan’s plan to launch a program for professional airmen between Japan and countries of ASEAN. According to a report by the Associated Press, the program fits in with Tokyo’s vision to raise defense cooperation with the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which has “gained momentum” since it was announced in 2016, and that the program hopes to promote shared values and interoperability among Japan’s Air Self-Defense Force and airmen of ASEAN countries.
This marked the latest effort of Japan’s attempt to spread its political influence, although this time, Japan’s chances are better than ever. A renewed period of tension and contest between the United States and China means a strategic opportunity for Japan’s political ambitions.
Ever since Japan’s surrender and occupation after World War II, the country was reduced to a secondary status in global affairs and stayed away from international politics aside from passive support for America’s Cold War efforts. However, times are changing, and for Japan, there is no better opportunity than now to turn itself away from past strategies of passively aligning itself with the United States, which had dictated Japanese foreign policy for decades after the war.
After Japan’s surrender in World War II, its government continued to function, and the first election was held in 1946 and won by Yoshida Shigeru, who emphasized US-Japan relations and saw the United States as a protector for Japan. According to Yoshida, Japan, which was left in shambles, should focus solely on economic development rather than dealing with external threats, which should be left for the US military. Yoshida’s grand strategy would be known as the Yoshida doctrine and set a foundation for Japan’s postwar diplomacy.
Yoshida was not a pacifist but a realist, as he envisioned Japan’s re-arm after its quick economic recovery, but at the time, even when the United States asked Japan to build up its military in order to counter the Soviet-Chinese threat, Yoshida refused and insisted that the US be solely responsible for Japan’s safety. However, as the Japanese economy took off, members of Japan’s old bureaucracy wanted a series of changes to bring back Japan’s international political influence.
A critical part of Japan’s road to a more significant role on the international stage is the task of making Japan less dependent on the United States for its diplomacy. When Nixon announced his visited China in 1971, Satou Eisaku, then the Prime Minister of Japan, was shocked by this sudden turn of direction by the United States, and immediately asked Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai for a visit to China, only to be refused as Zhou stated “Any successor to Sato is welcomed.” For Japan, such embarrassment should be prevented by more independence in its foreign policy.
For the past few years, Japan had been actively trying to achieve diplomatic independence as well as a build up for its Self-Defense Force, the de-facto military force of Japan. However, Japan’s efforts had been met with stiff resistance from the Asian mainland. Unsurprisingly, China was wary of Japanese global ambition and its wartime past. Now, China’s opinion toward Japan is entirely different from a few years ago. In September, when it was revealed that Japan’s Prime Minister Abe donated funds toward the Yasukuni Shrine, China’s official media used the word “urge Japan to reflect on its history of invasion,” rather than the more usual and the more serious “solemn protest.”
This kind of attitude shown by the Chinese authorities is a signal that China is softening its stance against Japan to improve bilateral relations between the two countries, and that China is willing not to focus its attention on historical issues or territorial disputes but instead cooperate with Japan on trade and technology. Meanwhile, Japan’s longtime ally, the United States, is also supportive of Japan’s global expansion.
The Trump administration had long expressed its intent to let Japan “share the burden” of America’s military role on its home soil and in the rest of Asia and the Pacific. With the United States adopting a more nationalistic and unilateral approach in its foreign affairs, Japan could move forward and take the US’s spot as Asia’s leading advocate of freedom and multilateralism. Japan has just done that, by upholding the TPP-11, and at the same time holding trade talks with China.
Whether or not Japan can become a truly great power or not, it had sought to remedy its problem of being an economic giant and a political dwarf for decades after its economic miracle remains unclear, as the Japan authorities are still mired by domestic opposition, and had fundamental differences with its East Asian neighbors. Nonetheless, if Japan wants to achieve a breakthrough in its hard and soft power, the best time to do it is now.