Aiming for Middle Power Status?

Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) is nosediving in the polls, its gaffe-prone prime minister Taro Aso has acquired a reputation as his party’s funeral director, and a pivotal election may transform the Japanese political landscape before September.

Particularly at stake is the country’s military and foreign policy. Currently, Japan is caught between its “peace constitution” and a much more assertive military policy envisioned by the conservative wing of the LDP.

With the country dealing with economic decline and political uncertainty, some scholars are trying to find another way for Japan to relate to the world. Yoshihide Soeya, a professor of political science at Keio University and a member of several government councils, has been one of the leading proponents of a middle way for Japan.

Speaking at a seminar in Washington, DC on Nov. 20, sponsored by the Sasakawa Peace Foundation, Soeya outlined his vision of Japan as a middle power staking out terrain between the great powers of the United States and China.

Central to his argument is the assertion that Japan itself is not and does not want to be a great power. The country’s constitution and its alliance with the United States — which Soeya argued had not changed in the last half century and would not likely change in the near future — constrained such ambitions, even if they sometimes crop up on the popular debate.

“Particularly in the domain of traditional security, where the military plays an important role, Japan’s role has not been that of a great power,” Soeya maintained. “And there is nothing to suggest that Japan is moving in that direction. Some discourses in Japan might give you the impression that that is happening. But it is not taking place at the policy level.”

To illustrate this point, Soeya identified elements of middle-power diplomacy in Japan’s postwar policy. It provided economic assistance to Southeast Asia and China. It emphasized the concept of human security, which expands traditional definitions of security to include human needs such as food and shelter. And it labored long and hard within multilateral institutions such as the United Nations.

That tradition continues today, he pointed out. “Japan and Australia signed a joint security declaration last year,” Soeya related.

“If you look at the substance of the declaration, it’s a typical middle-power security declaration: capacity building, peacekeeping, disaster relief. There are no elements of traditional military cooperation. That’s natural for Japan and Australia, as middle powers. My dream as a realist — and I know that this will not happen during my lifetime — is that the same thing can be repeated between Japan and South Korea. That would be a sea change in the security landscape in Northeast Asia.”

Soeya translated such middle-power diplomacy into a specific regional strategy in which Japan worked with other countries in the region to carve out a more autonomous space between China and the United States. “Imagine Japan ganging up with Australians, Koreans, and Southeast Asian people and saying to America, ‘we like this, we don’t like this.’ They would create a regional order, and say to the Americans and Chinese, ‘that’s how we want to live and you’ll have to live with it.’”

Even as Japan articulates this middle-power diplomacy, however, it has been acquiring new military capabilities. U.S. instructors have trained Japanese pilots in air-to-air refueling procedures in preparation for Japan to receive new KC-767 refueling and strategic transport aircraft, which will considerably extend the distance Japanese fighter planes can fly.

It has acquired Aegis ballistic missile defense systems, the F-2 Attack Fighter, and top-of-the-line battleships. It is developing a light air craft carrier. And it persuaded the Bush administration to sell the advanced F-22 Raptor stealth planes until Congress nixed the deal in August 2007.

“The Japanese security force has been steadily increasing its capability over time,” observed Michael Auslin, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. “It has been gaining capabilities that put it at a qualitatively different level. It can carry out strike operations and reach out beyond the Japanese homeland with refueling and other Self Defense Forces capabilities.”

Auslin noted that these new capabilities not only change the nature of Japan’s military but the alliance with the U.S. as well. “When those capabilities outstrip the structures, over time they accrete and create a fundamentally different condition in the alliance and in what the alliance can feel that it can do,” they said.

Soeya disagreed. “Japan’s defense budgets have been decreasing, not increasing over the years,” he noted. “What’s happening is the readjustment of resource allocations among self-defense forces not the acquisition of long-distance bombing capabilities. It’s the further integration of Japanese military preparedness in overall regional planning.”

Japan’s future security path depends not only on domestic political calculations but external factors as well. Primary among these is the U.S.

Auslin pointed out that a crisis might take place in the region that could put an immediate strain on the U.S.-Japan alliance. It might “strip away the veneer of our supposed willingness to act together,” he said. “Unmet expectations and satisfactions are suddenly brought to the fore. That can cripple an alliance. There are serious people on both sides of the Pacific thinking about that, about a North Korean contingency that would lay bare whether Japan wants to be right next to the U.S. nd whether the U.S. wants to be next to Japan.”

“If the U.S. commitment changes, both its general reliability and its extended nuclear deterrent, then Japan would have to face some very important choices,” Alan Romberg, distinguished fellow at the Henry L. Stimson Center, concurred. “It would be a potentially revolutionising event. But I don’t see any indication anywhere in the policy community in the U.S. that would call into question the U.S. commitment to the alliance with Japan and the maintenance of peace in the region.”

“The cost of the breakup of the alliance would be disastrous,” Romberg added. “And that would make the alliance continue.”

Some politicians in Japan’s ruling party have advocated changes in the Japanese constitution, particularly the pacifist Article 9, in order to facilitate an overall beefing up of military capabilities and expansion of doctrine. Although Soeya pointed out that the Japanese constitution has not been amended since it was enacted in 1946, it has nonetheless been reinterpreted to give greater leeway for Japanese military exports or Japanese participation in ballistic missile defense.

One key element of this debate hinges on the notion of “collective self-defense,” which the Japan constitution currently rejects.

“There is an increasing argument calling for the right of collective self-defense as part of Japanese security policy,” Soeya noted. “But the extent to which this is part of a larger strategic debate is questionable. There have been maybe public opinion makers, but not political actors, who have argued for the right of collective self-defense.’’

‘’Simultaneously they have talked about what the future would look like if Japan had that right,’’ Soeya said. ‘’For me, that would mean Japan fighting an American war, just as other middle powers like Australia and South Korea have fought America’s wars.”

But that, Soeya continued, would be a step Japan would have to take. Becoming a middle power, in his conception, would require constitutional revision. “Without changing Article 9,” he argued, “Japan can’t become a full-fledged middle power. It can’t become part of peacekeeping or multilateral forces like Canadian forces in Afghanistan.”

But Soeya was skeptical that such a change was in the works. “Japan has to start thinking about a post-revision strategy,” he concluded. “At that point, Japan will become a country that can fight in an American war. But I really doubt whether the Japanese public is ready for that.”

John Feffer is co-director of Foreign Policy In Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies.