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Building a Multi-Layered Network of Intellectuals 1 February – 8 February 2015

By James Der Derian
Director of the Centre for International Security Studies, University of Sydney
July 04, 2015


By just about any criteria in the area of knowledge exchange and cultural understanding or public diplomacy and personal friendship, I would judge the Japanese study and networking tour to have been a success. From a series of meetings at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Tokyo to the expedition to the JAXA space program in Tsukuba City to our meditation session at the Shunkoin Temple in Kyoto, I believe there were measurable and mutual benefits, many of which I recount below. I certainly benefited personally, with a notable increase in my understanding of Japanese foreign and defense policy as well as domestic politics and cultural practices. This is not entirely surprising, given this was my first visit to Japan and that my professional training and interests hitherto have been largely tilted towards European, US and Middle Eastern affairs.

A full and eclectic schedule exposed our small academic group to a broad range of experts, several political and academic organizations and some iconic cultural figures, all of which resulted in a very rich tapestry of intellectual, cultural, political and social experiences. I think the success of the trip also reflected the care taken in the selection process: interests and backgrounds of both the traveling group and local officials proved to be complementary. We all genuinely enjoyed each other’s company; no small accomplishment in such endeavours. Credit should also go the skill and the patience of our guides on the ground, especially Yasuko Takahashi, for whom no question was too stupid nor request too demanding.

What follows is a brief account of some highlights, take-aways, and in the spirit of improvement as well as suggestions for the next trip! Wearing my other hat as a media-maker, I have also attached a slideshow that I hope will convey the trip in spirit as well as by letter. (For those who might not be Graham Parker fans, the music can be muted)

Day One: Ministry of Foreign Affairs

Our first meeting at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, with Director of Pacific Ocean Division, Yukihiro Wada, and Deputy Director of the Oceania Division, Suguru Minoya, aptly established the central diplomatic and military concerns of Japan, from national as well as from regional and global perspectives.The candour with which they addressed the purpose of our visit, to increase mutual understanding but not to paper over differing views was appreciated. At times the national perspective dominated, as one would expect; but there was a genuine respect - and hearing - of counter-opinions. I thought the open airing by all parties of past history, both positive (like Japan’s navy providing escort of the ANZAC fleet to Gallipoli in WW1) and negative (the experience and legacy of WW2), helped put current issues in a broader perspective. The time allotted for Q and A was a bit short but proved productive, covering important issues such as the benefits of multilateral vs. bilateral relations in the region; the effort by the current regime to shift from a policy of strict self defense to a more flexible position of collective security; the impact on both public opinion and government policy of the recent killing by ISIS of the two Japanese hostages; and the prospect for more collaborative relationships among regional allies in cyberspace, intelligence sharing and other non-kinetic areas of security. Setting a pattern for the next few days, two specific issues came to dominate the conversation: the potential sale of Japanese submarines to Australia; and the maritime and territorial disputes with China.

The next meeting, with Kosuke Amiya, Principal Deputy Director of the Northeast Asia Division, and Shunichi Inoue, Deputy Director of China and Mongolia Division got off to a good start, when lengthy talking notes - the ‘propaganda’ as it were - was dispensed for a more free-wheeling conversation. No topic was taboo, starting with a very frank conversation on the history of ‘comfort women’, its impact on Japanese-Korean relations, the role of transnational, non-governmental actors in the debate, and how or whether China was playing this political card to its own benefit. North Korea was discussed in considerable detail, as still the primary and least predictable threat facing Japan today. A conversation about hairstyles (son following father) and movies (The Interview, 2014) provided some insight on the increasingly important role of the media and popular culture in foreign policy and global opinion.

I raised the issue of wargames, exercises and simulations, and how they can lead to accidents and threatescalation.There seemed to be some awareness but not a great deal of action being taken to mitigate the negative potential of such activities, with greater importance placed on the immediate benefits of alliancebonding and deterrence-signalling. The need to ‘hedge’ against rising Chinese power for the next 15-20 years was given as the primary rationale for a more forward-leaning and forward-based foreign and defense policy. I invoked the shadow of the WW1 centenary, sharing my concern that there appeared to be an under-appreciation of how military preparations and simulations can produce misperceptions and accidents, precipitating what they are designed only to anticipate.

Day Two: Ministry of Defense and Foreign Affairs

Our meetings got more granular and specific the next day, with sessions lead by Yuichi Oda, Deputy Director of Defense Policy Division, Shingo Yamagami, Ambassador for Policy Planning and International Security, and several other officials. The first session began with an overview of Japan’s formal National Security Strategy policy, which to my mind seemed to be following the US model of threat assessment and strategic response - with budgetary concerns often being the tail wagging the dog.In the Japanese version, this took the form of a new policy guidance for a Dynamic Joint Defense Force,which unlike previous ones based on minimum force necessary for self defense, now appeared to be transforming (my interpretation) towards new strategies of collective dissuasion and prevention. The strategic response, in turn, entails the maintenance of air and sea superiority, more flexible joint command and training (allied interoperability) and increased capacity for a rapid response (that looked to be a marine corps equivalent?). The trope of ‘power vacuum’ was repeated more than once, as the rationale and risk should a more forward-leaning defense posture not be taken. I noted that the language of‘threats’ and ‘contingencies’ was squeezing out earlier defense-speak of ‘disaster relief’ and ‘stability’.Interestingly, outer space and cyberspace were presented as new and linked security issues, critical not just for Japan but for its allies, perhaps even more so than North Korea (and natural disasters). In one of the more revealing and frank moments, the 2009 Australia Defense White Paper was described as‘clumsy’, in the sense of unnecessarily ruffling the feathers of the Chinese (in the hope that the next one will be less so?).

A very detailed analysis of the Senkaku/Diayou Island debate was presented, from the ‘terra nullus’policies of the late 19th century to the San Francisco Peace Treaty of 1952 to the Japan-China Summit Meeting in November 2014: highly informative but not terribly convincing because of its black/white,good guy/bad guy style of presentation.

Based on impressions left from these session, the position of the current regime could be summarized as:1) Global interdependence produces new opportunities as well as vulnerabilities; which means 2) No nation can maintain its own peace and security alone; 3) a proactive contribution to peace must be based on the principle of international cooperation; 4) and the right of collective self defense must be asserted; but 5) in a limited manner when Japan faces an existential threat; and 6) that this does not necessarily entail a reciprocal obligation when an ally faces a similar existential threat; and 5) Japan will never become a country that would wage war again.

There were obviously some ambiguities and contradictions in these positions, which were pointed out in the Q and A. Discussion also included: the legacy of anti-colonialism on Chinese and Japanese foreign policy (as source of affinity or enmity); whether the lesson of WW2 was not to fight - or not ever to fight and lose again; and whether Japan and China were engaged in a ‘beauty pageant’ with the US. The overall impression left by this session was that Japan was at a crossroads and some critical decisions and strategic transformations were needed to avoid what were perceived as possibly catastrophic outcomes.

Day Three: Tsukuba Space Centre

The visit to the Tsukuba Space Centre and the briefing at JAXA, the Japanese Space Program, were highlights of the trip for me.The Centre for International Security Studies(CISS), the program that I direct at the University of Sydney, is in the process of initiating a new project on space, or –‘Astrosecurity’ as we call it. This trip presented an opportunity to discover how Japan, a middle power (like Australia) with two to three space launches a year and as a partner of the International Space Station, has managed to create a successful civilian space program (unlike Australia). We were provided highly informative briefings along with riveting visuals from Masafumi Yamamoto (Deputy Director), Masanobu Tsuji (Manager for International Cooperation) and Shigeru Usuki (Senior Engineer).

Space transportation as well as human space activities were covered in the context of ongoing satellite, aviation, science, lunar and planetary exploration programs. The emphasis on disaster prevention and relief, climate change and natural resources, debris observation and collision avoidance as well as communications and global positioning were placed in stark relief to the usual military applications of other national space programs. This visit provided rich material for my own research and I hope to return to collect more information and data at a future date. The tour of the space museum center was also informative and proved amusing(especially for the national defense correspondent of The Australian, see above).

Day Four: National Institute for Defense Studies

The session at NIDS was easily the most illuminating, largely because of the open format, an interesting convergence of topical issues and the intellectual firepower that had been assembled, including Yoshio Katayama, Katsuya Tsukamoto, Tomohiko Satake and Iida Masafumi, among others. That day it had been announced, hard on the heels of the killing of two Japanese hostages by of ISIS, that a referendum would be held on Article 9 of the Japanese constitution for the possible extension of self- to a collectivedefense.The question on everyone’s mind was whether public opinion would support the change in the face of a volatile global situation, indeed, of new vulnerability for allies of the US. Opinion was split in the room on whether the constitution needed amendment to meet Japan’s current security needs, with the division pivoting on the concept of a ‘normalized policy’, and what this meant, not only for the use and level of force that could be used in other countries, but on more banal matters like joint training with other countries. The examples of cyberspace and outer space were brought up again, this time in the context of Article 9: what constitutes offensive and defensive behaviour in these realms?

Questions were also raised on whether the transition from the post-war defense system would cause tensions not only with China and Korea but the US and Australia. My query on how Japan would rank or prioritize security threats also produced something of a consensus in the room if not a total alignment with the worldview of present and potential allies/partners. The rise of China and the persistent and unpredictable threat of North Koreas topped the rankings; but this did beg the question of what kind of China might rise, especially if facing what it perceived to be encirclement by non-friendly powers; and how the build-up of missile defense against Korea would be interpreted by China.

Submarines once again punctuated the session, this time on the numbers needed, and whether an increase from 16 to 22 would increase their deterrent value or provoke an increase in spending and more aggressive anti-submarine capability by China. This triggered an interesting debate on the substantial vs. symbolic value of a potential Australian-Japanese submarine agreement, and how it would play in Australian politics as the prime minister faced growing opposition both inside and outside the party.

Day Five: Kyoto

The expedition to Kyoto provided an appealing mix of mindfulness, first from Hiroshi Nakanishi,Professor of International Politics, at the University of Kyoto, and then from Takafumi Kawakami,Deputy Head Priest of the Zen Buddhist Shunkoin Temple.

Professor Nakanishi provided an analytical appraisal of current Japanese defense and foreign policies,which he described as a strategic shift - as much subconscious and as conscious - from the Northeast toward the Southwest, with both a geopolitical impetus (the retreat of a Russian threat from East Asia with the rise of Korean and Chinese power) as well as an ideological rationale (presented not as‘historical revisionism’ but as a nationalist rivalry). This was complemented if not offset by an increasing engagement in the Pacific and Southeast Asia and pan-Indian Ocean areas, with a focus on humanitarian security, maritime defense, defense equipment sales, and development cooperation. This might not amount to a new ‘grand strategy’ but it does suggest a conscious understanding of where Japan’s strategy should go over the next decade or so. This view enjoys, evidently, the tacit consent of the public. Interestingly, Nakanishi interpreted Abe’s ‘two seas’ position as representing (more than in the past) an Indo-Pacific shift (not unlike Australia’s) even if Asia and the US still dominate current Japanese trade and strategic interests.

After the high-speed travel and intellectual intensity of the week, the trip to the Shunkoin Temple and a meditation session with Takafumi Kawakami provided a welcome respite. I intend to return.

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