US in Asia Pacific

Rebalancing: Implications of Japan’s Response

21 May, 2014    ·   4462

Md Farijuddin Khan says that Japan’s response to rebalancing is motivated by its survival in the changing regional environment

Unlike the US or other great powers that focus on maintaining the ideological status quo or promoting an alternative world order, Japan’s interests in advancing the rebalancing strategy mainly focuses on the Japanese foreign policy of survival in the changing power balance in its vicinity. Thus, the basis of Japan’s rebalancing strategy is one of ‘pragmatic adjustments’ to cope with the changing external environment, rather than pushing an international agenda.

Japan’s 2013 Defense White Paper portrays the regional security environment as not peaceful and one that has grown increasingly severe. Besides concerns about North Korea’s missile development and nuclear weapons, the White Paper mentions the increase in the power of China. The lack of transparency in China’s military modernisation and Japan’s disputes with China over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands are believed to be the main causes of concern for Japan.

The security environment surrounding Japan pushes it towards co-opting the US-led rebalancing strategy. To Japan, the rebalancing provides an opportunity to assert itself strongly to contest any challenge to its sovereignty. This requires a conscious effort on the part of the Japanese government to overhaul the defence policy that has been restricted to self-defence devoid of any deterrence because of its post-war Constitution. Another major task is to cement close ties with like-minded countries across the Asia-Pacific region. 

Japan’s Rebalancing Moves: Changing Defence Policies
In recent years, Japan has taken serious steps to address ‘potential dangers to its security, the most prominent being the continuous assertiveness of China in the maritime domain which has given a new shape to the Japanese threat perception. The ‘National Defense Program Guidelines’ (NDPG), 2010 “set in motion the re-structuring and re-location of Japan’s armed forces,” replacing the decades old ‘Basic Defense Forces Concept’ (BDF) with ‘Dynamic Defense Force’ (DDF). This would mean amending Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution that forbids Japan from maintaining a navy, army or air force of its own which the Constitution considers as exceeding the ‘war potential’. Japan relies on the Self-Defense Force (SDF) as an armed organisation for self-defence under its Constitution.

The plain logic of Japan’s defence policy is to flex its military muscle by re-locating its forces from northern to south western Japan close to mainland China, Taiwan and Taiwan Straits (referred to as the ‘strategic vacuum’ in the new guideline) and re-structuring the country’s armed forces, effecting the ground, air and maritime SDF. However, it also emphasises continuing strong bilateral engagement with China through dialogues supplemented by confidence building measures (CBMS) regularly.

Embracing Regional Allies
Besides responding to the rebalancing through a tough yet pragmatic overhaul of its defence policies, another important policy component in Japan’s changing strategies is its all-out effort to cement ties with regional powers like India and emerging ASEAN powers like Vietnam and Philippines. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to India (the first by a Japanese leader) on the eve of India’s Republic Day 2014 is reflective of these close-knit ties based on a shared threat perception and the willingness to maintain peace and stability in the region without being bullied by a dominant regional power like China.

Japan’s response to the rebalancing was further supplemented by Prime Minister Abe’s visit to Vietnam, Thailand and Indonesia in January 2013 followed by visits to Cambodia and Laos in November the same year. The visits to the first three countries reinforced Japan’s “broad strategic partnerships with the ASEAN” and promptly sowed the seeds of political understanding and support with regard to disputes in the East and South China Seas with China. The visits to Cambodia and Laos were to “build Japan’s influence” over the two which have traditionally been China’s friends in the ASEAN region. The responses from countries like Philippines, Indonesia, Vietnam and Thailand with whom Japan is closing its relations are positive given that all of them have a shared fear of China’s dominance in the region.

These are enduring signs that Japan is going to be a capable actor in the rebalancing strategy in the Asia Pacific. Popular perceptions state that Japan, as a close ally of the US, is merely responding to the US-led rebalancing, or that it wants a big return out of the outcome of rebalancing, if the strategy succeeds. Contrary to these perceptions, Japan’s response to rebalancing is motivated by its survival in the changing external environment, with both short-term and long-term implications. In the short-term, Japan is expected to gain enough clout and praise for its ability to show its strength as a regional power capable of restricting possible Chinese aggressive overtures in the region. In the long-term, Japan’s changing strategies could manage to maintain the status quo with respect to the existing power distributions in the Asia Pacific region and hence ensure its survival. This could be a start for Japan’s all-out effort to channelise the seemingly ‘confusing’ rebalancing strategy as espoused by the US towards a ‘productive’ rebalancing that brings peace, stability and mutual cooperation in the region.