Twenty-first century Japan has yet to experience a social and political “earthquake” on par with those that have defined modern Japanese history, from the Meiji Restoration of 1868 to Japan’s defeat in World War II in 1945. But the tectonic plates of Japanese geopolitics are moving—and fast.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced a resolution Tuesday that will enable the government to sidestep Japan’s 60-year-old constitutional ban on maintaining armed forces and waging war, thus laying the legal basis for a revival of Japanese military power that, in practice, is already well underway. One week ago, Abe outlined a set of structural economic reforms on which his administration hopes to ground the long-term revival of Japan’s economic power. These developments, viewed against a backdrop of renewed diplomatic outreach to Southeast Asia, North Korea, India, Russia, the Middle East and Africa in the two years since Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party regained power in 2012, suggest Japan is starting to operate differently at home and abroad.
After decades of relative political introversion, Tokyo now seems to be entering a more extroverted phase. It appears to be preparing for a revival of Japanese international heft through a rejuvenation of the country’s economic, military and political power. The outstanding question is whether such a revival can be achieved from within the current order, that is, the post-World War II social, political and economic edifice. That structure was grounded in the stabilizing forces of the Liberal Democratic Party, the Keiretsu (major industrial and financial conglomerates with close ties, both formal and informal, to the government) and Japan’s pacifist stance within the larger American security umbrella. As in the past, however, changing Japan’s geopolitical course might require a break with the old order.
It is impossible to say what specifically would precipitate such a break. It is also impossible to say whether such a break would manifest itself, as before, in a sudden eruption from Japanese society and politics, i.e., the “earthquakes” of Meiji and other periods. Nonetheless, all spheres of Japanese geopolitics—politics, economics and military affairs—show signs of tensions that will have to be addressed before Japan achieves the revival it seeks. In politics, the rare political cohesion and momentum surrounding Abe’s and the Liberal Democratic Party’s return to power in 2012 belie a far more fractured and uncertain domestic political landscape. The right-wing regionalist parties that appeared on the ascent in 2011 and early 2012 have faded from view, but they will likely return. They could even return with a vengeance, and probably with a different face as the current upswing in support for the Liberal Democrats runs its course. Economically, Japan faces both near—and long-term challenges. Most notable among these is demographic decline, which poses perhaps the single greatest internal structural constraint on Japan’s national revitalization.
Militarily, Japan is still in a fairly secure and strategically advantageous position. Chinese military expansion—itself underpinned by deep-seated and for now inexorable needs similar to those that drove Japan in the first half of the 20th century—carries with it potential long-term risks to Japanese security and territorial interests. But in the near term, Chinese aggression in the South and East China seas presents less a direct threat to Japanese interests than an opportunity for Japan. Already seeking to end decades of economic malaise and political deadlock, Tokyo has a chance to reinvent its role within East Asia not simply as a subordinate of the United States but as an increasingly autonomous partner to Washington. Today’s move to “reinterpret” the country’s pacifist constitution to allow Japan to more flexibly deploy forces in situations where its territory is not directly under threat is only the beginning of the country’s reinvention. More than anything, this is an effort to begin acclimating the world and the Japanese public alike to Japan’s shifting role.
What is unclear is just how far Japan will go in its effort to rebuild and reboot its military. To some extent, the answer to this question will depend on what happens in Japanese political and economic life over the coming years and decades, especially as demographic decline genuinely begins to take hold in the 2020s and 2030s. It will also depend on external factors such as the trajectory of China’s military modernization, which will in turn depend on Beijing’s capacity to maintain political and economic stability, by no means a certainty. China’s maritime expansion has given Japan a subtle boon by providing the rationale for Japanese military normalization. For now, this is exactly what Japan and the United States, its patron and partner in the region, want. But as Japanese military normalization goes forward, and especially if China’s focus is drawn inward as Beijing struggles with the effects of slowing economic growth in the late 2010s, the question of Japanese military—and national —revitalization may take on a different nature.
Publishing by The Manila Times of this Geopolitical Diary by George Friedman is with the express permission of STRATFOR.