The Past and Future of Japan's Evolving Role in World Affairs

Published on 17 April 2021 at 12:39

Japan is a country with a long memory and a complicated history. Its relations with its neighbours have long been fraught with tension, oscillating between periods of increased hostility and restrained détente, occasionally punctuated by armed conflict. This complicated history still has a profound effect on the way in which Japan interacts with its East Asian neighbours and how many of them perceive Japan, thus making it worthy of examination.


Before the Edo period (1603-1868), a period of rule under a strict military government, the story of Japan's interactions with its near neighbours was one of cross-cultural exchange, trade, and balance of power machinations. From China, Japan got much of its writing system and an array of strong cultural influences.


From Korea, Japan saw widespread immigration, which in turn had an acute impact on areas as varied as Japanese art, philosophy, and architecture; Korea is also notable as having been the means through which many of China’s cultural influences, such as Confucianism, were transposed. 


This changed in 1603 with the beginning of the Edo period, a time of avowed isolationism by the newly installed Japanese shogunate, during which Japan rejected any and all foreign influences. While this was a period of great creative flourishing in Japan, it grew militarily and technologically weak; this formed the impetus for the Meiji Restoration, the reinstatement of the Japanese Imperial family at the centre of Japanese government, which birthed a period of intense technological and military modernisation.


The Meiji Restoration of 1868, saw the beginning of a much more assertive and often ruthless foreign policy. Some of the worst excesses of this period, characterised by atrocities such as the Nanking Massacre (still euphemistically referred to by some in Japan as the ‘Nanking Incident’), are still a central issue in Japan’s relations with other states, particularly South Korea. This period ended with the calamitous defeat of World War II.


Japan’s humiliation increased with America’s imposition of a new constitution in 1947 (the source of some rancour), an Allied occupation which lasted until 1952, and treaty obligations which limited the nation’s role to that of a lapdog to the United States, with a particular dependence on its military support as the basis for its security. 


Then, a miracle happened. The 50s and 60s saw the Japanese economy take off, encouraged by the weighty financial backing of the Marshall Plan and some clever economic intervention on the part of successive Japanese governments. By 1968, the Japanese economy was the second largest in the world, a position it would occupy until 2011. 


Along with this newfound economic strength, came expectations for an increased role in international affairs. 1954 saw Japan reconstitute its military for the first time in the post-war era; 1956 saw it become a member of the United Nations; 1964 saw Tokyo host the Olympics, further confirming that Japan had returned to the world stage. 


Japan began to consolidate its newfound influence with a revamped foreign aid regime, with the 60s and 70s seeing a sharp uptick in the amount of foreign aid given to nearby developing countries in Southeast Asia, such as Thailand and Indonesia. Despite the end of its economic miracle in the mid-nineties, Japan continued to expand its power-base within the region (with notable successes such as its role in the Cambodian peace process in 1998) while maintaining its traditional close ties with the United States.


The early 00s saw a new generation of nationalist leaders come to the fore, including Junichiro Koizumi and Shinzo Abe, who increased the strength of the military and of the executive branch. These factors have helped Japan play a vital role in the regional affairs of East Asia in the last few decades. 


One example is the role that Japan played in the proliferation of The Trans-Pacific Partnership, alongside the United States. Yet the real test came when, in 2017, the United States withdrew from the deal, raising concerns as to whether the idea, in principle, could endure American absence. Yet, with Japan being the second country to ratify its replacement deal and a key country in marshalling other members of the proposed TPP to follow suit, it managed to do just that. 


The aforementioned spending on foreign aid remains a key part of Japan’s strategy, too, with 2015 seeing the establishment of the Partnership for Quality Infrastructure. From this, India will receive US$15 billion, the Philippines will receive $8.8 billion, and Indonesia will receive $1.2 billion, investments which will have profound effects on Japan’s business relationships with these countries. In 2019, Japan’s total foreign aid was, in absolute terms, the fourth largest in the world totalling $15.5 billion. 


Countries, particularly those belonging to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), seem to be recognising the positive role that Japan is playing. A 2019 poll conducted amongst the ten countries which make up ASEAN saw more than 90% of all respondents describe Japan as a friendly and reliable nation. This bodes extremely well for Japan’s regional standing in the coming years. 


Yet Japan’s desired role as a leader of a liberal East Asian order is not without its challenges and the country is not without its competitors. 


Japan’s previously noted historical baggage still presents a tangible challenge to Japan’s efforts to increase its influence in Asia. Its relationship with South Korea is a case in point. In 2018, South Korea’s Supreme Court ruled that Japanese Companies had to compensate Korean men forced into back-breaking labour during World War II, a decision the Japanese government furiously condemned. 


In 2019, Japan removed South Korea from its list of preferred trading nations and imposed strict controls on the export of semiconductor materials, a blow to the South Korean economy. In retaliation, South Korea threatened to abandon its General Security of Military Information Agreement, or GSOMIA.


While South Korea eventually backed down, it marked the near end of an agreement the United States considers vital to stability in the region. Such tension is not sustainable if the liberal democracies of East Asia are to present a united front against the increasing combativeness of nations such as China and the DPRK.


Japan’s economy is also far from the boon it once was. Indeed, its rapid rise came to a shuddering halt in the 90s, a time now known as Japan’s Lost Decade. Deflation has also presented a seemingly unfixable problem for the Japanese Central Bank, whose quantitative easing strategies have failed to curb the trend.


Large infrastructure packages have contributed to a now staggering National Debt, without having much of an effect on economic growth. Japan’s ageing population and the high cost of raising children will also provide serious problems for a country that has traditionally resisted any large-scale immigration, the only practical solution for such an impending demographic problem.


China, the country that replaced Japan as the second largest economy in the world in 2011, represents the other major barrier to Japan’s leadership. While its much commented upon Belt and Road initiative is an imperfect vehicle for increased influence, particularly with the increased tensions it looks certain to bring with India, it nevertheless remains an important illustration of the sheer economic force that China can muster.


While relations between Japan and China are going through a period of relative cooperation, there is no doubt that Chinese officials would balk at the suggestion of anything short of a Sinocentric economic and political order for East Asia. Overcoming this will present a key challenge for Japanese foreign policymakers.


These concerns make Japan’s future uncertain, yet the recent transfer of power in the United States provides some cause for optimism. Biden has signalled his strong intent to return to international agreements the US has abandoned over the last four years and reassert American global leadership.


Yet a simple return to the status quo will not be enough. The United States must realise the strategic importance of Japan’s leadership in Asia and do everything in its power to support it, including, for example, lending greater economic support to its Partnership for Quality Infrastructure, the closest thing to a rival that the Belt and Road Initiative has.


It must also help to ease the growing tensions between Japan and South Korea, ensuring it can rely on its long-term strategic partners to present a united front during difficult times. If these conditions are met, we may well see Japan being a dominant power in East Asia for many years to come. 

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