April 15th 2006

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY: Uranium export deal rewards China

EDITORIAL: Globalism: Australia at risk

SPECIAL FEATURE: Sujiatun Camp inmates murdered for their body parts

CANBERRA OBSERVED: What Labor will do about uranium mining

ECONOMICS: Should the Australian dollar fall below US 40 cents . . .

AFTER CYCLONE LARRY: Inadequate infrastructure and disaster insurance

AUSTRALIAN CAPITAL TERRITORY: Bid to elevate status of same-sex unions

TAXATION: NSW Liberal MP calls for tax reform for families

FAMILY LAW: Divorcing dads let down again

STRAWS IN THE WIND: Count your fingers after you shake hands / Dragon's share / Moralists with ghoulish interests

REGIONAL ECONOMIC POLICY: A single currency for East Asia? (Part 1)

JAPAN: Quiet revolution in Japan's strategic thinking

SCIENCE: Scientist calls for death to humanity

Superior tradition of social democracy (letter)

Beazley's downside (letter)

BOOKS: DO NOT DISTURB: Is the media failing Australia?, edited by Robert Manne

BOOKS: SHENANIGANS on the Ovens goldfields: the 1859 election, by Antony O'Brien

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Quiet revolution in Japan's strategic thinking

by Dr Sharif Shuja

News Weekly, April 15, 2006
Japan feels increasingly threatened by China and North Korea, and is now prepared to be far more assertive in its foreign and defence policy, writes Sharif Shuja.

To celebrate the 2006 Australia-Japan Year of Exchange, which commemorates the signing of the Basic Treaty of Friendship between our two countries 30 years ago, it is helpful to examine how Japan's strategic thinking is changing, and its implications for the Asia-Pacific region.

The recent Japanese election - possibly the first in the country fought on the basis of policy rather than personality - delivered a resounding victory for Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and endorsed the next stage of his economic reform agenda. It has also given him an opportunity to reshape Japan's future security policy.

The doctrinal tradition of "realism" has dominated the discipline of international relations and is becoming enormously influential in Japan's foreign policy.


Realism offers four major propositions about global reality:

  • independent sovereign states are the most important actors in global politics and must be the basic unit of "realistic" analysis;

  • the relationship between these states is best understood as ungoverned anarchy;

  • the behaviour of states engaged in anarchical conflict can nevertheless be understood in rational terms - as the utilitarian pursuit of self (state) interest; and

  • even when state actors appear to engage in cooperative activity, and/or when actors other than states engage in integrative behaviour that appears to undermine the power politics premise, this is a transient and ephemeral phenomenon and the structural determinants of (anarchical) global existence still apply.

While there are many variations on this theme, there is general agreement that these propositions are central to realism.

It is the state, rather than culture or civilisation, which continues to be the primary locus of power and identification. It is the state that is the primary source of political power. Despite the influence of transnational corporations and international capital flows, it is the state that remains the primary economic unit.

Japan's Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi has endorsed realism as the theoretical framework in and through which Japan approaches its strategic thinking, and is now adopting its new security and foreign policy.

Today Japan has the third largest defence budget after the US and China, and a quarter of a million men and women under arms.

Its Self-Defence Forces (SDF) are deployed on peace-keeping operations overseas and in support of US-led coalitions of the willing in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Japanese media have recently reported that the troops who are helping to rebuild infrastructure in southern Iraq could return in May.

However, more and more politicians argue that Japan must be more resolute and assertive in defending its vital interests, including taking pre-emptive military action, when necessary.

The quiet revolution in Japanese foreign policy, which allowed it to take on responsibilities in East Timor, Afghanistan and Iraq, is a welcome sign of a more confident Japan assuming its rightful place in the world. Prime Minister Koizumi has declared his desire to see Japan become a "normal" state.

Japan's foreign policy and defence elites envisage their country playing a more constructive role, free of constitutional shackles, in regional and global affairs by building and shaping institutions and norms according to Japanese values and interests. This is what Koizumi means when he talks about Japan becoming a "normal" state.

Under Koizumi's leadership, Japan is moving away from its pacifist past towards an outward-looking security posture characterised by a greater willingness to use the SDF in support of its foreign policy and defence interests.

Tokyo's desire to pursue a more proactive security policy is not an unreasonable response to the more threatening and volatile security environment it faces after 9/11.

It is important, however, that Japan clearly articulate the strategic rationale for its defence modernisation program and changing security policy to avoid any misperceptions about their intent and purpose.

It is necessary for the Japanese to understand that they still carry a great deal of historical baggage in Asia where memories of past Japanese militarism have not completely faded, as continuing Chinese and Korean resentment over Koizumi's visits to the Yasukuni Shrine attest.

The Yasukuni Shrine commemorates the deaths of convicted war criminals as well as thousands of ordinary Japanese soldiers whose lives were lost in combat.

In the meantime, Japan is encountering specific military threats. These include China's military build-up, the violation of Japan's territorial waters by a Chinese nuclear-powered submarine, and China's "anti-separation" law which authorises the use of military force against Taiwan. These incidents are of great concern to Japanese security planners.

Across Japanese society, however, there are differing perceptions of Chinese policies. Public opinion has of late rapidly switched toward viewing China as a threat. A Yomiuri/Gallop poll in March 1997 showed that the percentage of Japanese respondents who named China as a potential threat increased from 18 per cent in 1994 to 39.1 per cent in 1997. Late last year, a poll on the same topic revealed that 76 per cent of Japanese now perceive China as a threat (Yomiuri Shimbun, December 15, 2005).

Many Japanese scholars, however, do not perceive China as posing a direct security threat; but, at the same time, a few of them suggest that the Chinese security policies contain underlying threatening factors. They point out that China's military rise and its lack of transparency in military expenditure pose a threat. Again, China's military power has been growing steadily, and it is only recently that Japan's security establishment has started to focus on it.

What has prompted the change, in the last four to seven years, in Japan's perception of a Chinese threat?

The important issues are Chinese policy in the South China Sea, its nuclear tests and the influence of the military in Chinese politics.

One wonders how the US will interpret its security treaty with Japan in the dispute over the Senkaku Islands, a part of Okinawa with potentially valuable seabed resources.

Nor is China the only concern. There are many other uncertainties and threats. These include North Korea's test-firing of Taepodong ballistic missiles, that country's suspected nuclear weapons program and the intrusion of its spy ships into Japanese waters.

North Korea, which abducted more than 100 Japanese citizens during the Cold War, is developing a nuclear capability and brandishing it as a bargaining chip. It has warned that it would hit Japan with missiles if Tokyo decides to impose economic sanctions, Japan's sole means of leverage.

Leaving aside uncertainty about the accuracy of North Korean missiles, the question of how Japan and the US would respond remains critical.

These regional tensions and uncertainties may finally stimulate Japan to emerge from its futile passivity and become a strong nation willing to accept sacrifices.

At present, in response to the China threat and the intensified threats by North Korea, Japan has transformed its security policy in terms of strengthening Japan-US security cooperation in a regional security smoothing operation involving the SDF and a missile defence program.

We can expect to see a more self-confident Japan in the international arena in the future, a Japan that is not afraid to assert itself in controversial issues.

Signs of this have already emerged. In March 2005, when a number of high officials from Japan met with American counterparts in Washington, they issued a press statement, which stated that Taiwan is a security concern for Japan. It was the first time that Japanese government officials mentioned Taiwan in public and that it was part of Japan's security concern.

Japan clearly wants to be seen as equal in status to other medium powers. To this end, it has been practising aggressive diplomacy in the UN to convince other nations of the need for Japan to gain a permanent seat on the UN Security Council.

The controversial history textbook issue and Koizumi's visits to the Yasukuni Shrine are yet other signs of the new Japanese foreign policy orientation that expresses itself in a forceful manner.

American troops

However, the US will shape Japanese security policy to a large extent. Despite irritations over the presence of American troops, especially those in Okinawa, Japan is expected to continue to depend on the US-Japanese military alliance for its security.

One thing is sure, however: this more assertive Japanese foreign policy will significantly affect US-China relations and Japan-China relations in the future.

Tokyo's alliance with Washington will very likely remain the best security strategy for Japan, provided the US continues its engagement with Asia. When Japan and the United States formulate their policies in concert, Japan's build-up of an autonomous military power will be both limited and defined by a strategic context, and the impact of such a build-up on the rest of Asia will be far less disturbing.

  • Dr Sharif Shuja is an academic staff member of the International Studies Program at Victoria University.

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