In early October 2020, Texas national security review (TSNR) published a comprehensive report of the policy roundtable titled “The Future of Japanese Security and Defence.” The purpose of the roundtable stated in the report is to distil a critical understanding of the evolving and fluctuating nature of the security environment in East Asia and Japan’s role in these increasingly securitized times.

The roundtable brought together scholars and policy practitioners from distinct security intellectual currents to discuss various aspects of the Japanese defence and security in the air, in the land, the sea and space – the global commons– of international security. Their ideas and thoughts contributed to the culmination of the comprehensive report about the role of Japan in its strategic environment.

Most importantly, the moot was interesting because Japan has been a pacifist nation since the end of the war. The state and society emerged after the horrors it wrought upon its immediate neighbours, including China. During the early 20th century, it has left deep scars into the Japanese collective psyche regarding its security identity in the post-war world. Until the past two decades, the pacifism is the most constitutive element in Japanese national identity and dictates its actions regarding its defence.

After World War II’ culmination and the defeat of the axis powers, which includes belligerent Imperial Japan by the allies, the Japanese were compelled to forgo their long-cherished militarism and make a constitution that enshrines the principles of a pacifist nation. Guaranteeing its territorial security, the United States (US) formalized a security alliance with Japan, ensuring that it will protect Japanese territory from external aggression as it will station its troops to the Japanese soil in response to the Japanese commitment in their constitution that they will renounce their right to wage war.

This idea leads to the legislation of article 9 in the Japanese constitution, which explicitly states Japan’s collective desire for the “renunciation of war“. This clause has an ever-lasting impact on Japan’s post-war national identity, leading toward establishing a strategic legacy that prides itself on its economic development and progress while foregoing violence and war-making.

However, since the past two decades, with the advent of a rising China and the increasingly securitized world, the political discourse in Japan with regards to its role in this new world has been increasingly contested, at times by highly opposite perspectives, on the nature of security and defence of modern Japan. Two recent strategic challenges underpin this highly contestable debate within Japan: China’s rise and the wavering of the American commitment to protect Japan from external belligerence in Trump’s era.

Nippon published an interesting article explaining all the major perspectives of all major political parties as well as a public pulse on the nature of Japan’s security as new strategic challenges arise. While Japan does maintain a self-defence force (SDF), maintaining a minimal force posture to strengthen its territorial defence, it does fall short of exercising intellectual labour in first thinking about doctrinal issues and associated constitutionality of any significant security restricting to protect the island nation and its economy from external threats.

As this author noted in these pages, the recently-resigned former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was a dynamic personality in Japanese politics as he envisioned a remaking of Japanese collective defence through the reshaping of Japan’s security framework and amending article 9 of the constitution, providing greater leeway in maintaining a great force posture amidst the turbulent strategic environment. But despite helming Japan’s politics as the longest-serving prime minister of the country, Abe failed to achieve this dramatic remaking as pacifist strategic legacy is deeply embedded in the social nature of the Japanese national character and mind.

The nation is Japan is still reluctant to confront the horrors of the past; the war crimes perpetrated by Imperial Japan and the debt it incurred on Japanese posterity. Even today, Japan’s war crimes intermittently cause a diplomatic crisis, especially within its neighbourhood. The process of normalization and the ability to accept the cruelty of Imperial Japan is an on-going process of absolution.

Such historical national memory compounds Japan’s security challenges. It tries to chart its navigation in the unmerciful waves of international security in East Asia and the broader Indo-Pacific region. In recent years, Japan’s defence and foreign policy establishments produced two strategies predicated upon doctrines that appreciate China’s challenge. The first strategy concerns the concept of Indo-Pacific as a free and open maritime environment in which instability and conflict are discouraged and no single nation could dominate the maritime sphere or establish a singular regional maritime order. The concept titled, “Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP),” was the brainchild of former PM Abe.

The second strategy, which is part of the first one, concerns Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad), an informal strategic dialogue forum among four democracies, namely Australia, Japan, India and the United States. Lately, the informal forum is trying to formalize the arrangement to meet challenges offered as China asserts itself in the region. Despite the floating of these strategic concepts to try to formalize an alliance with the countries of Indo-Pacific who share Japan’s security concerns viz-a-viz China, these concepts remain elusive in substantially asserting its strategic role in Indo-Pacific security affairs.

The Japanese strategic and policymaking communities, along with the public, are reluctant to accept their strategic environment’s new realities. The callousness of Imperial Japan during World War would likely to persist in haunting the Japanese psyche and give its strategic competitors an edge in narrative warfare, yet if the Japanese continue to be evasive regarding their historical memory, they cannot forge new notions regarding their defence and security and thus jeopardizing their collective national self.

The strategic competition in Indo-Pacific will only intensify as China and the US competes in the region. Japan’s national interests lie in forging a new security and defence framework to account for new realities in the region. This accounting is not merely beneficial in the materiality of security protection but to protect trade and commerce and ensure a free and open maritime environment in the region upon which the high-end manufacturing economy of the trading Island nation is very much dependent upon. This understanding of the necessity to protect one’s economy through novel thinking about one’s security would allow Japan to meet strategic challenges as security competition between the US and China takes shape.  

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