Asia Policy: “The U.S.-Japan Alliance and Taiwan”

In April 2021, Japan’s then prime minister Yoshihide Suga and U.S. president Joe Biden made global headlines when they jointly “underscored the importance of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait and encouraged the peaceful resolution of cross-Strait issues”—the first such reference in a summit-level statement since 1969. This statement catalyzed a striking degree of public discussion in Japan and expressions of concern about cross-strait stability from Japanese leaders. It also elicited widespread, though often misleading or inaccurate, assertions overseas that Japan’s position vis-à-vis a “Taiwan contingency” had abruptly or radically transformed. Especially given the proximity of Japan (and U.S. military bases in Japan) to Taiwan, soberly appreciating the complexity and incremental evolution of Japan’s nuanced and intentionally ambiguous positions and policies, as well as its unique domestic constraints, is critical. Doing so is especially crucial for policymakers to accurately assess the status quo, manage expectations within and beyond the alliance, and ensure sound decision-making as the cross-strait deterrence challenge seems all but certain to deepen in the years ahead.

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Washington Post: “Has Japan’s policy toward the Taiwan Strait changed?”

Japanese leaders in 2021 have made an unusual series of high-profile statements and comments concerning Taiwan and the Taiwan Strait. These appeared to crescendo last month, when global headlines asserted that July 5 remarks by Japan’s deputy prime minister meant “Japan pledges to defend Taiwan if China attacks” or marked a fundamental change in Japanese policy…

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Brookings: “China, Japan, and the East China Sea: Beijing’s “gray zone” coercion and Tokyo’s response”

“…This paper focuses on the competition between China and Japan over their festering territorial dispute in the East China Sea. Though political frictions over the Senkaku (Diaoyu in Chinese) Islands are decades-old, since a 2012 contretemps over the islands led Beijing to begin regular, provocative deployments of government vessels into the islands’ contiguous zone and territorial seas, the dispute has become the most significant geopolitical flashpoint and locus of security competition between China and Japan today…

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Brookings Foreign Policy Interview: “The Stress Test: Japan in an Era of Great Power Competition”

In September 2019, Brookings Vice President and Director of Foreign Policy Bruce Jones convened seven Brookings scholars and affiliates — Richard Bush, Lindsey Ford, Ryan Hass, Adam Liff, Michael O’Hanlon, Jonathan Pollack, and Mireya Solís — to discuss Japan’s present and future path in this era of great power competition. The edited transcript below reflects their assessment of the current state of Japanese strategic choices.

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Asia Policy: “Policy by Other Means: Collective Self-Defense and the Politics of Japan’s Constitutional Reinterpretation”

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY
This article analyzes Japan’s landmark cabinet decision reinterpreting the constitution to allow the limited exercise of collective self-defense (CSD) in both a historical and a contemporary context and assesses its implications for the conditions under which Japan may use military force.
Main Argument
In July 2014, a historic cabinet decision reinterpreted Article 9 of Japan’s 1947 constitution to allow the use of force to aid an ally under attack, overturning 60 years of authoritative constitutional interpretations categorically prohibiting Japan’s exercise of CSD. The decision was followed by a revision of the U.S.-Japan Defense Guidelines and landmark legislation intended to transform Japan’s security policy. Yet the change is evolutionary rather than revolutionary. Japan’s self-imposed precondition for the use of force by the Japan Self-Defense Forces (JSDF) remains uniquely strict: an armed attack posing an existential threat to Japan’s security. Nor is this the first case of a major reinterpretation of Article 9. Though its original wording remains untouched, the article’s effective policy significance has changed repeatedly over 70 years in accordance with shifting domestic political winds and perceived strategic exigencies. Specific to post-2014 developments, understanding what changed and why—especially how Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his allies’ push for full exercise of CSD failed—elucidates the strategic, political, and normative factors shaping changes to Japan’s security policy and the U.S.-Japan alliance.
Policy Implications
While Japan may now legally exercise “limited” collective self-defense, unique, self-imposed conditions appear so strict that the use of force in support of allies or partners outside a defense-of-Japan scenario seems unlikely.
Security legislation in effect since 2016 opens up space for more expansive JSDF logistical support for U.S. military operations, bilateral planning, and exercises, as well as new authorities that somewhat resemble collective security or CSD operations in peacetime, including use of small arms during UN peacekeeping operations and protection of foreign militaries engaged in activities contributing to Japan’s defense.
Without formal constitutional revision (at a minimum), however, more ambitious efforts to fundamentally transform Article 9’s interpretation or the scope of scenarios in which Japan can use force overseas are unlikely without major domestic political realignments.

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The Washington Quarterly: “Japan’s Defense Policy: Abe the Evolutionary”

Far from constituting an abrupt transformation of Japan’s defense policy, recent measures adopted during the Abe era to large extent continue long-term trends initiated by previous governments from both his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and the leading opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ). They reflect a significant, but evolutionary, rationalization of defense policy driven by growing concerns about regional security because of perceived threats from North Korea’s increasingly advanced nuclear and missile programs, a shifting regional military balance, and China’s maritime advancement and efforts to assert its sovereignty claims in the South and East China Seas. Other important factors include lessons learned from two decades of the Japan’s Self-Defense Forces’ (JSDF) gradually expanding regional and global missions and a desire to maximize efficiencies in response to the changing nature and rising costs of military technology, fiscal constraints, a shrinking and aging population, and the Japanese public’s persistent, deep-seated skepticism about military power. In response to these challenges, Abe and his predecessors have pursued incremental changes to bolster deterrence, to deepen cooperation and interoperability with the United States as well as other partners, and to facilitate a more rapid, flexible, and effective response to a range of perceived traditional and non-traditional security threats.
Furthermore, a flawed yet widespread focus exclusively on changes to Japan’s security policy overlooks the persistence of strict, long-standing, and self-imposed constraints within which political leaders pursue these reforms. Rumors of their demise to the contrary, recent developments have stretched, but not removed, core principles that for decades have defined Japan’s self-restraint. As cases-in-point, political leaders still prohibit the JSDF from using military force outside a singular, narrow interpretation of self-defense, or developing—much less employing—offensive power projection or nuclear weapons. Though practically significant and historic in a Japanese context, recent reforms—up to and including collective self-defense—are, at most, reactive realism within strict normative bounds. Seventy years after Japan’s surrender, the public remains deeply skeptical about the employment of military power as a tool of foreign policy.
Recent developments have stretched, but not removed, Japan’s core principles of self-restraint.

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