Japan: The Sleeping, Shrinking Dragon

By Matthew Edwin Carpenter


In the face of shifting domestic culture, a shrinking population, and an untested alliance with the United States, Japan is increasingly taking its security into its own hands.


East Asia’s security environment is in flux. The rise of China and the apparent retreat of American leadership are destabilizing the region. As a result, Japan has sought to establish independence in its military and foreign policies through robust international action: Japan is organizing the TPP Plus 11 after the US withdrawal; it has rigorously worked to maintain a positive relationship with the divisive President Trump to preserve the pivotal U.S.-Japan alliance; it has launched development projects throughout the world to counter Chinese influence; and just recently, Japan and the EU agreed to a massive trade deal. Japan has made significant changes at home as well, augmenting the pacifist Article 9 in Japan’s constitution, increasing Japan’s military spending and weaponization, and cultivating a military-industrial complex focused on exports with the aim of giving a spark to Japan’s dormant economy. It is clear that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe intends a more robust foreign policy for Japan.


These cultural shifts, coupled with demographic changes that result from its shrinking population, influence Japan’s economic policies and strategies. Japan is investing in robot technology, AI technology, and even crypto currencies to maintain its competitive advantage in cutting-edge technologies. These investments also have the benefit of supporting an aging population reluctant to bring in foreign labor despite a shrinking labor force.


The fact that these domestic changes are occurring within the context of the Trump presidency provides greater urgency to Abe’s new security strategies. Despite Abe’s frequent rounds of golf with President Donald Trump, among other diplomatic initiatives to maintain the alliance, in the end Japan is on its own — and Abe knows it.


In international relations there are no friends: only rivals and allies, which can change overnight. The U.S.-Japan military alliance, equipped with a security guarantee in case of an attack on Japan, has yet to be tested. Given that the West (i.e. America) could not stop Russia from invading Georgia in 2008, annexing Crimea in 2014, and invading eastern Ukraine, also in 2014, Japanese decision makers will not be counting on this untested alliance solely for its security guarantees. Abe’s repeated overtures to the controversial Trump administration showcase Japan’s commitment to a pragmatic foreign policy in the face of a complex and shifting regional security landscape and challenges at home.


The thought of a militarized, psychologically independent Japan may send shivers throughout Asia and areas beyond that harbor harrowing memories of Japanese imperialism; however, surrounded by formidable rivals (China, Russia) and a Korean Peninsula that has been going through seismic shifts in its geostrategic positioning, Japanese leaders are rethinking this strategy and taking security into their own hands.


Throughout its relations with the West, Japan has been consistently underestimated. People seemingly forget that Japan is still the world’s third largest economy with abundant (if shrinking) domestic talent, making seminal contributions in technology, space exploration, and scientific research, among other fields.


In the U.S., university students are more interested in studying Chinese than Japanese, and the U.S. government now values China specialists more than Japan specialists. It is foolish to underestimate Japan, a country with a long history of international success. A century and a half ago, at a time when most of the globe was being colonized, Japan emerged from isolationism to become a formidable imperial power and within a few decades rivaled the West, winning a stunning victory in the Russo-Japanese War of 1905-06. Then from the ashes of World War II, it emerged as an economic giant that threatened the West to such a degree that George Friedman wrote in 1991 of a coming second war with Japan. Japan, a country of abundant volcanoes, tsunamis, and earthquakes, is accustomed to starting from scratch after disasters.


Japan may be shifting its foreign policy to one of greater independence, but to underestimate it yet again would be a mistake.


The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the views of their employer or Young Professionals in Foreign Policy.