Japanese Foreign Policy in the XXI Century: A True Global Leadership

By Julio Espinoza, Staff Writer

If U.S. Commodore Matthew Perry’s mid-19th century black ships were the symbolic incentives that eventually propelled the Meiji Restoration, then now 9/11, the Second Gulf War, the rise of China and Russia, the North Korean nuclear program, and the overall uncertainty in both regional and global power balances are the new black ships that will urge Tokyo to reform its domestic and foreign policies. Japan now faces the challenge of revamping its foreign and defense policies while simultaneously taking on a truly global leadership position without being perceived as a threat to the status quo.

Incumbent Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his political Party, the Liberal Democratic Party, have been seeking a restoration of Japanese sovereignty and the ability to conduct self-defense policy (not, to be clear, war) via more robust National Defense Forces (not Self-Defense Forces) in foreign relations. Under the existing constitution, Japan relinquished its sovereign right to wage war and sustain armed forces. Japan has sustained a historical 1% of its GDP for defensive purposes and has fostered cooperation between the Japanese Self-Defense Forces and the U.S. armed forces, relying on the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security between the United States and Japan.

Courtesy of cesran.org
Courtesy of cesran.org

Certainly, Japanese foreign policy could move from a low to high profile status if—taking advantage of the global and regional uncertainty—Tokyo reinforced Japanese national power, increased its role in international security affairs, reconsidered the U.S.-Japan alliance in terms of equality, and utilized its economic power as a means of political influence. In the future, Japanese foreign policy will become more realistic and strive to achieve peace, prosperity, and leadership, as the recent initiatives of the Liberal Democratic Party have illustrated during the prime-ministerships of Junichiro Koizumi and Shinzo Abe. What are the areas Tokyo can tap into to increase Japan’s international stature? My recommendations for Japan to seize a new global leadership are as follows:

The Japanese and the world should understand that Japan is a great power with global interests and responsibilities. The Empire of Japan is now history, and for the Japanese to overcome their imperialistic past, they must own their mistakes (war crimes and exploitation of their Asian neighbors) and get rid of their historically selective amnesia through an objective review of their history, particularly since 1945. If Tokyo wants a new influential role in the world, Japan must foster a peaceful leadership by combining their hard power (the size of their economy) with their soft power (the Japanese civilization). Tokyo could take advantage of Japanese business and technological innovation as well as its culture, avoiding being a threat to the global and regional status quo. Western and Asian powers must recognize Japan’s national power and leadership. If Japanese aspirations and opinions are not taken into account, ultra-nationalism might rise again, causing Tokyo to consider the possibility of going at it alone.

Tokyo must approach Japan’s neighbors with a conciliatory tone. Asian people affected by Japanese imperialism deserve a sincere apology. If Japan does not stop the current historical revisionism, it will not be able to influence its neighbors effectively and rather than cooperation, Tokyo will receive opposition. Japan must guide Asia to an era of postmodernism; i.e., Japan should help build a region oriented towards peace, prosperity, and cooperation. Moreover, Tokyo could become a broker between Asia and the rest of the world before Beijing claims that seat. Otherwise, Japan runs the risk of isolation from the other Asian powers and will face a diplomatic “lost century” in comparison to China.

japan_history_1Japan must rethink its special alliance with the United States and become a normal nation-state. For Tokyo to gain more political independence in relation to Washington D.C., Japan must understand that defensive cooperation is not a synonym for limited political autonomy and influence. Tokyo must convince Washington D.C. that since both the U.S. and Japan share common values and interests, Tokyo deserves a political leadership equivalent to its economic size and cultural charm. Currently, the uncertainty and instability in Asia offer a window of opportunity to create domestic and foreign consensus for establishing powerful and legitimate full-fledged armed forces and exercising the legal rights of belligerency and collective defense.

Tokyo must use the power of Japanese multinational companies to earn influence. A key influence of Japanese foreign and security policy formulation is the Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI) that serves as a communication channel between Tokyo and the private sector of Japan. MITI’s agenda and policies could only be better understood if we track down their economic interests beyond the national security discourse and back to the to Japanese companies that operate overseas and constantly lobby Tokyo for free trade opportunities. A clear example of Japanese pressure groups is the Japan-Mexico Economic Partnership Association, which entered into force on April 1 2005, after Japanese companies had lobbied Tokyo to start negotiations with Mexico City on how to strengthen the bilateral economic relationship. Japan had been a strong proponent of global trade mechanisms, like the WTO, but Tokyo shifted their policy to a more regional approach in order to recover from the lost economic decade (1990) and regain competitiveness in the U.S. market by creating supply chains in Mexico for Japanese companies operating in the NAFTA region. Now Japan is perceived as a peace and trade loving nation-state with limited defense capabilities and limited global political influence, but as Japan shifts towards a more assertive foreign policy and national security stand, the role of the Japanese private sector to help Tokyo take a global leadership stand will be significant.  While we can expect Tokyo’s further support for Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) and the Transpacific Partnership (TPP) as a measure to counter Chinese influence in the Pacific Rim, the foreseeable reaction of major Japanese conglomerates to the new era of mercantilism and protectionism that the U.K. and the U.S. are proposing and leading, mostly in the Pacific Basin and North America, would be demanding Tokyo to negotiate regional free trade areas.

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