In the face of Chinese expansionism and a shifting geopolitical terrain, Japan must rethink its role on the world stage.
The Japan dilemma is acute, as is the dilemma for almost every major nation facing the unfamiliar challenges of a substantially rearranged world order.
The simplicities of the post-Second World War half of the 20th century have melted away, and the necessary re-positioning on a new and constantly shifting world stage is intensely difficult, highly controversial and very disruptive.
After 1945 the challenge was huge but straightforward. America the victor had become America the indispensable ally, as well as the architect and overseer of national reconstruction from the ruins. Security, such as was needed, could be left to them.
While other powers, such as Britain, wrestled with the agonies of imperial wind-down, war-induced bankruptcy and bitter ideological legacies, for Japan that had all gone up in the smoke and horror of defeat and Hiroshima. This left Japan free to rebuild - from the ground up - a new economy, a substantially (although not totally) new social structure and a kind of democracy which suited the Japanese penchant for mixing tradition with unceasing innovation very well. A staggeringly vigorous new industrial power arose, which for a time even fazed the Americans themselves.
Fast forward to the 2020s and it all looks different. The big neighbour China, which for decades after the War was obsessed and paralysed by internal conflict, emerges as an uncomfortably assertive economic giant, with uncomfortably advanced technology and uncomfortably large defence spending, and talking about its “historic mission” to re-absorb Taiwan into the motherland.
Across the Pacific, America begins to grapple with “post-primacy”, as the concept of world leadership becomes far harder to hang on to in a networked world, and the digitally-empowered march of populism divides and distracts internally. The power shift to Asia which seemed purely economic begins to turn geopolitical and intertwined with global security.
How does Japan take its place in this new multipolar and hyper-connected global landscape? Pacifist Japan, which had taken such a deep hold after the disasters of militarism and world war, and could survive happily under the American umbrella, has now to adjust to a Japan in the front line of defence cooperation against China’s expansionism.
This is a task far removed from the simplicities of the Cold War. Today’s big economies have become woven into a cat’s cradle of supply chains and cross investment on a scale never known before (Japan’s trade and investment links with China being an outstanding example). The whole nature of conflict and the battlefield line-up has moved on from troops and military hardware to cyber warfare, unmanned intrusion, information dominance and distortion, and new kinds of intelligence penetration.
For a generation or more, well-wishers have been urging Japan’s return to being ‘a normal country’. Has that journey at last got under way?
It is true that these mainly China-driven security dilemmas confront Europe, too, where Sinophobic and Sinophile impulses and interests battle out which way to go. But for Japan, what seems a faraway geopolitical conundrum is a right-next-door everyday challenge. Missiles over Japanese waters from the maverick Kim Jong-un add to the immediacy of the threat.
For a generation or more, well-wishers have been urging Japan’s return to being “a normal country”. Has that journey at last, after three quarters of a century, truly got under way? It depends of course what is meant by “normal”. If it means becoming a nuclear power - as is technologically achievable - of that there is zero chance.
If it means giving up all pacificist inclinations, and changing the “self-defence” character of the constitution radically, that too may still be too much to expect of the Japanese nation.
But if it means a much greater readiness to join in security pacts in practical ways, and take a far more forward role in global institutions generally, then that is already happening. Japan has been quietly branching out with new security arrangements with Australia, India, Germany and the UK. Its self-defence warships have been escorting and working with, for the first time since 1945, non-American vessels. Its participation in weapons development and trade has been growing fast.
So while big constitutional change may be out, smaller step-by-step adjustments and removal of some of the sillier and more obviously outdated Japanese restraints on global security cooperation can be, or have already been, circumvented. The normalcy role becomes the only option.
It means, too, that Japan can no longer stand back from the complexities, and the agonies, of Middle East politics, leaving problems to frustrated and baffled Western allies. Nor can it avoid taking a much more forward role, commensurate with its industrial and economic weight, not just in development in Africa and the emerging world, but in active promotion of stability and freedom from Chinese domination, all too easily slipped into by smaller nations.
All this is good news for the rest of us.
European nations - including Britain - have a lot to learn from Japan, a distinctly ageing nation that has somehow turned this aspect into a positive and socially binding force. For instance, clearer thinking is to be found in Tokyo than in many other developed countries on the management of overseas aid, as the emerging age of “Africa beyond aid” sets the whole endeavour, and its decades of patchy success, in a new context.
We could be entering a different era, one in which the middle-sized nations (in population terms) all play an increasing geopolitical and linked role in stabilising the planet and addressing its key concerns, notably preparing for the oncoming climate change impact and the ever-mounting mass migration of peoples. Japan is set to be a key player in this brave new world.
Lord Howell is a British Conservative member of the House of Lords. He is the author of The Japan Affair, which tells the story of the evolving relationship between the UK and Japan.