Sunday, February 24, 2013

Japan's Cautious Hawks

In Japan's Cautious Hawks: Why Tokyo Is Unlikely to Pursue an Aggressive Foreign Policy published in the March/April 2013 issue of Foreign Affairs, APP member and Columbia University Professor Gerald L. Curtis argues that even the ideological Prime Minister Abe will be pragmatic in his relations with China and the United States. He cannot afford, materially or politically, to do otherwise.

Here is the conclusion to his excellent piece:


In assessing the current Japanese political scene and the possible strategic course that Tokyo might chart, it is important to remember that a right-of-center government and a polarized debate over foreign policy are nothing new in Japan's postwar history. Abe is one of the most ideological of Japan's postwar prime ministers, but so was his grandfather Nobusuke Kishi, who was a cabinet minister during World War II and prime minister from 1957 to 1960. Kishi wanted to revise the U.S.-imposed constitution and to undo other postwar reforms; these are his grandson's goals more than half a century later.

But Kishi was also a pragmatist who distinguished between the desirable and the possible. As prime minister, he focused his energies on the latter, negotiating with the Eisenhower administration a revised security treaty that remains the framework for the U.S.-Japanese alliance today. For Abe as well, ideology will not likely trump pragmatism. The key question to ask about Japan's future is not what kind of world Abe would like to see but what he and other Japanese leaders believe the country must do to survive in the world as they find it.

If Tokyo's foreign policy moves off in a new direction, what will drive it there is not an irrepressible Japanese desire to be a great power. Although some Japanese politicians voice that aspiration, they will gain the support of the public only if it becomes convinced that changes in the international situation require Japan to take a dramatically different approach from the one that has brought it peace and prosperity for decades.

The Japanese public remains risk averse; nearly 70 years after World War II, it has not forgotten the lessons of that era any more than other Asian nations have. And despite changes in the region, the realities of Japanese politics and of American power still favor a continuation of Japan's current strategy: maintaining the alliance with the United States; gradually expanding Japan's contribution to regional security; developing security dialogues with Australia, India, South Korea, and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations; and deepening its engagement with China. China's growing economic clout and military power do present new challenges for Tokyo and Washington, but these challenges can be met without dividing Asia into two hostile camps. If Japanese policy changes in anything more than an incremental manner, it will be due to the failure of Washington to evolve a policy that sustains U.S. leadership while accommodating Chinese power.

Will the Abe government chart a new course for Japanese foreign policy? Only if the public comes to believe that the threat from China is so grave and the credibility of the United States' commitment to contain it is so weakened that Japan's survival is at stake. But if rational thinking prevails in Beijing, Tokyo, and Washington, the approach that has made Japan the linchpin of the United States' security strategy in Asia, stabilized the region, and brought Japan peace and prosperity is likely to persist.

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