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Japan’s security and economic challenges after the U.S. presidential elections

By Dane Rowlands
January 25, 2017

I recently participated in a trip to Japan organized by their Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The visit consisted of several meetings with officials primarily in that Ministry, but also in the Cabinet Secretariat, and with academics and researchers from universities and think tanks. While this is not a random sample of opinion in Japan, it was none the less an informative one, and gave a very coherent and consistent sense of the key concerns of the Japanese regarding regional security and prosperity.
The main overall impression I received is how much more immediate Japan’s security concerns are relative to those that I hear being expressed in Canada. I think that any reasonably aware observer on this side of the Pacific would be able to pick out the key security threats that preoccupy the citizens and government of Japan: North Korea and China would feature large even in Canadian assessments of regional and global security. In Japan, however, the presence of an unpredictable, often provocative, and seemingly brittle nuclear-armed North Korea is more than an abstract concern. Over here North Korea is as likely to catch the attention of comedians as of politicians; in Japan it is a deadly serious matter. North Korean missiles cannot (quite) yet hit Canada, but Japan has to live with the real risk of an unprovoked nuclear attack from a neighbour that is only around 1000 kilometres away, about the same distance as the straight line between Ottawa and Thunder Bay.
Being the only country to have suffered the devastating effects of atomic weapons, Japan is understandably very sensitive and indeed conflicted over the matter of nuclear weapons. While my trip preceded the US elections, I am sure that Mr. Trump’s victory has led to conversations the Japanese had probably hoped they could avoid. During the campaign the President-elect hinted that the American commitment to extend its nuclear deterrence to include threats against Japan – “extended deterrence” in security parlance - is less than rock-solid. A change in American security policy could generate the same concerns in the Republic of Korea as in Japan, potentially creating an even more complicated security dynamic that could provoke a nuclear arms race in the region. Japan has never pursued a nuclear weapons program despite having the technical and financial capacity to do so, and despite the presence of nuclear weapons states in the region. Japan’s decision to not acquire nuclear weapons reflects both civilian opposition as well as the presumed American security guarantee. Depending on how US policy in East Asia develops under the new administration, the government may feel compelled to revisit this decision. The officials I spoke to did not seem to relish the prospects of such a policy discussion, and were loath to consider the circumstances under which the Japanese government would reconsider its current aversion to acquiring nuclear weapons.

Even beyond the nuclear weapons problem, regional security for the Japanese government is already becoming more complicated, and uncertainty over American policy has exacerbated their difficulties. History suggests that an environment of rising powers (China) and fading ones (Russia) greatly complicate regional and global security. China’s growing economic power and (nuclear-tipped) military capability was inevitably going to be a problem for Japan in terms of adjusting to a new regional power balance. Relations between Japan and China have always been prickly due to history, but the presence of a territorial challenge by China over the Senkaku-Diaoyu islands makes the delicate relationship between the two countries even more problematic. The Japanese government has been monitoring with rising alarm the dramatic increases in Chinese naval activity around the islands, and has lodged multiple protests in response. While Canadians might be tempted to view arguments about the ownership of uninhabited islands through the lens of our own light-hearted affair with Denmark over Hans Island, history suggests that disputes over seemingly inconsequential bits of territory have served, or been used, as triggers for far more dangerous conflicts.
Of course China also poses a challenge to Japan’s economic influence. In conjunction with its desire for greater influence in the region and control over the South China Sea, China has been chipping away at the economic bloc of market-oriented economies traditionally oriented towards Japan and the United States. China is enjoying increasingly warm relations with countries such as Thailand, Malaysia, and now the Philippines. While China’s economic growth offers a lot of opportunities to Japan (and other countries) as well, there are growing concerns that its ascendancy represents a challenge and an alternative to the region’s system of open economies loosely based on liberal economic principles. I detected some concern amongst the officials with whom I spoke regarding the potential failure of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). The demise of TPP would not simply be a missed chance to improve trade and investment opportunities in the Pacific region, it might well usher in an era of declining integration and the erosion of liberal market-based economic relations. Japanese officials seemed unequivocal in their support for TPP, and its government has demonstrated considerable courage, and spent some political capital, in proceeding with the ratification of TPP despite fears that the U.S. election results have effectively killed the agreement. Japan’s Prime Minister is now, admirably, leading efforts to keep TPP alive.
While there is not a lot that Canada can do to alleviate any of Japan’s concerns, there are a few options. Canada enjoys good relations with the region’s two big liberal democracies: Japan and the Republic of Korea. Canada could be more active in trying to encourage a more vigorous rapprochement between these two countries. Despite historical differences and some current irritants, they share many regional security challenges and rely on the same security and economic arrangements for their current peace and prosperity. More importantly Canada needs to remind the U.S. whenever possible of the value of current international security arrangements in promoting stable defence and economic relations. Canada should also be actively encouraging the US to remain engaged in the TPP process, and hopefully to ratify it. If TPP is reopened Canada should seek to play a constructive role in those talks, including being open to the need to assist better those who are adversely affected by the accompanying economic adjustments. Building a stronger framework for economic engagement can generate more wealth to be shared and reinforce the system of cooperative economic relations that, while imperfect, has contributed greatly to the peace and prosperity that many of us have been able to enjoy since the end of the Second World War.

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