Japan's Middle-Power Diplomacy

Soeya Yoshihide, a respected Keio University professor specializing in Japanese and Asia-Pacific political and security issues, recently delivered a presentation at the Tokyo Foundation in which he argued that Japan should adopt an autonomous grand strategy as a "middle power."

Professor Soeya delivered his presentation on January 15, 2009, during the 14 th session of the Japan-US future leaders policy dialogue (the Tokyo-Reischauer Group) . The dialogue, co-organized by the Tokyo Foundation and the Edwin O. Reischauer Center for East Asian Studies (of The Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, D.C.), aims to build relationships between young professionals who will maintain and strengthen the Japan-US alliance.

Andrew Duff, a member of the Tokyo-Reischauer Group and a researcher at Temple University's Institute of Contemporary Japanese Studies, contributed to this summary.

Summary of Presentation Given by Soeya Yoshihide

Soeya Yoshihide, a respected Keio University professor specializing in Japanese and Asia-Pacific political and security issues, recently delivered a presentation at the Tokyo Foundation in which he argued that Japan should adopt an autonomous grand strategy as a "middle power."

This thesis, which Soeya began to develop about ten years ago, was presented in 2005 in his book, Japan's . The professor defines middle powers as those nations that are influential economically or in terms of certain strategic aspects, but that do not aspire to rival the major nations such as the U.S. and China in terms of hard power capabilities.

In his presentation, Soeya noted that while the term "middle power" has provoked negative reactions from some quarters, his intention is not to inflame, but rather to objectively examine the post-Cold War issues facing Japan and suggest a strategy that is realistic and appropriate for the future. (In doing so, Soeya takes as given the continued existence of the U.S.-Japan security relationship.)

Post-War Strategy Lingers on

The professor said that Japan's current internal and external realities are quite different from those of the Cold War, let alone what was assumed immediately after World War II when the U.S. and the Soviet Union - as well as the U.S. and China and what would become North Korea - had not yet fallen out. Thus Soeya views the Japanese peace constitution, adopted in 1946, as somewhat inconsistent with realities almost from the get-go.

The professor said that Japan, following the Yoshida Doctrine, abdicated security to the U.S. and funneled its pent-up ambitions and nationalism into economic activity, with the result being the incredible growth seen during the 1960s. This phenomenon, said Soeya, covered up the "fundamental inconsistencies" between the peace constitution on one hand, and the U.S. alliance on the other.

Soeya noted that even during the Cold War, domestic uncertainty and opposition to Japanese strategy arose, driven primarily by nationalism. From the left came opposition to the alliance, and from the right, initial opposition to the alliance as well as constant challenges to Article 9 of the peace constitution, which renounced war as Japan's sovereign right.

The leftist challenge to Japan's constant strategy has all but disappeared, but calls from the right have grown relatively louder, according to Soeya. However, he noted that those factions have not succeeded in taking over Japanese , and argued that they never will. Rightist agitation is a symptom of, not a solution to, the post-war structure, according to the professor. While such actors will be unable to dictate strategy, their continued agitation might serve to further confuse the policy process and make Japan irrelevant on the regional and world stages.

The professor said it would be difficult and unlikely for Japan to change its peace constitution and security treaty with the U.S. He noted that even if that were to happen, Japan would not be powerful enough to stand on its own militarily (if linear trends continue), and as such, the relationship would perhaps grow even closer. Revising the current security arrangement would also raise the question of when to fight on behalf of America - a point that Soeya said is not discussed by those pushing for a new constitution. Those parties have also egregiously failed to offer a concrete strategy for a new Japan, according to Soeya.

The professor said that attempting to compete with China would be self-defeating, as would be the development of nuclear weapons.

Choosing the Middle Path

Instead of attempting to become a major power, Japan must adopt a viable grand strategy for the future, one that makes sense not only for Japan but also for the countries it interacts with, according to Soeya. He said that it would be good to corral nationalistic energies toward constructive ends, and that the strategy should take global considerations into account.

Soeya offered the middle power concept as a blueprint, noting that Japan's longstanding strategy is essentially that of a middle power, but that today's policymakers should explicitly adopt the framework - or at least elements of it - in order for it to be executed more effectively. One of the problems with the nation's current strategy is that economic clout far outweighs military might (letting Japan weigh in as an overall middleweight), a gap that Soeya says should be narrowed.

The professor laid out a vision in which Japan would still rely on the U.S. for its ultimate security, but would simultaneously pursue a more autonomous strategy that would serve to rectify Japan's economic-security gap. He posited that the U.S. might even welcome a confident Japan that is not afraid to question American policy.

Soeya sees South Korea, Australia and ASEAN as Japan's natural regional partners - they "fall between the U.S. and China" - and said that they should be the focus of the new strategy, one that would build the infrastructure of an "East Asian order." Soeya observed that Japan has already moved closer toward ASEAN, and noted the significance of the Japan-Australia security pact that was signed in 2007.

The professor warned, however, that the vital Japan-South Korea relationship must be managed carefully in light of historical and territorial issues. He said that if the two countries were to sign a security agreement ("logical, but unlikely anytime soon") that it would amount to a sea change in the Northeast Asian security landscape.

He also noted that South Korea seems to view Japan as a great power akin to the U.S., China and Russia, but suggested that this line of thinking is detrimental to the Japan-South Korean relationship, and that Japan would be unable to on its own manage the fallout from a Korean peninsula war as a real great power might.

It should be noted that Soeya cautioned that Japan is unlikely to adopt an autonomous middle power strategy while the current constitution and alliance are still in place. Given this, the professor admitted that his thesis is somewhat academic, but said that discussing practical approaches (regional security cooperation, etc.) to current problems is wise - and that down the road, Japan might be in position to adopt the strategy more completely.

Questions from Tokyo Foundation Participants

When asked the likely associated effects of domestic political realignment and significant changes in the external order, the professor first noted that there could be a major reshuffling of the party landscape, with the DPJ quite possibly taking power. Soeya then said that conservative political forces attentive to overseas threats largely focus on China, but hinted that the Japanese people would be unlikely to get behind a major nationalistic program unless the external threat was severe.

Another participant wondered whether the cost of becoming a middle power would be prohibitively high, and posited that the Yoshida Doctrine is path dependent - meaning that it would be unlikely for Japan to break free of the framework where the U.S. provides security and Japan focuses on economic matters. Professor Soeya admitted that a fundamental shift in strategy is "not likely" given such considerations.

One participant suggested that the middle power approach be modified slightly, to that of a "selective power" strategy. For example, some nations might prefer to focus on being an economic power and forgo hegemonic aspirations. Soeya replied that this concept had merit, adding that Japan is remiss to call itself a great power given that it does not carry the requisite muscle.

As to the question of whether Japan had any desire to actually become a middle power, Soeya noted that there is no consensus within the Japanese bureaucracy. Along the same lines, another participant and Soeya agreed that the low enthusiasm among Japanese for permanent membership at the UN Security Council indicates that the country might be disinclined to launch a concerted effort to become a middle power.

One attendee questioned whether Japan could adopt an internationally focused middle power strategy given that the bureaucracy is low on people with overseas experience, and that Diet members are notoriously focused on their provincial constituencies. Soeya responded by agreeing that self-absorbed nationalism limits Japan to that meager destiny, and that his middle power strategy would require a paradigm shift among decision makers and the bureaucracy.

Yoshihide Soeya

  • Professor, Faculty of Law, Keio University