Japan’s Choice: Foreign Policy at a Turning Point: Confrontation or Coexistence?


With tensions rising in Asia, and global problems only becoming more pronounced, what sort of foreign and defense policies should Japan adopt? This is the critical question in the upcoming House of Representatives election.

The Liberal Democratic Party has loudly proclaimed a policy of “power diplomacy.” It has announced that it will consider raising defense expenditures above 2% of Japan’s gross domestic product, and place new importance on economic security amid competition over advanced technologies, emphasizing that the party will take a confrontational stance.

The Constitutional Democratic Party is promoting “soft power diplomacy,” and basing its approach on the unique Japanese principles of pacifism and nonaggressive defense. While it also places emphasis on economic security, it paints its goal as one of coexistence, rather than confrontation.

While the government and the opposition have different approaches, they both are wary of China. There is no doubt that China is the biggest challenge facing Japanese foreign policy.

Rising Tensions in Asia

Relations between America and China are strained. Both sides have conducted military exercises with respect to defending and attacking Taiwan. America, Britain and other countries deployed three aircraft carriers to the area; China has responded by repeatedly deploying dozens of bombers capable of carrying nuclear weapons.

Following its withdrawal from Afghanistan, America has reinvigorated its military and diplomatic efforts in the Indo-Pacific, with the aim of confronting the rising power of China.

Japan’s China strategy has been to coordinate with America to strengthen deterrence, and to prevent conflict. At this point, however, a more independent strategy is required.

Most political parties agree that the American-Japanese alliance should form the basis of any foreign policy. Where they differ is in considering what sort of military role Japan should play. The LDP promotes the idea that Japan should be able to attack far-flung foreign military bases. The CDP has cast doubt on that policy for reasons of cost and effectiveness.

It will be necessary to respond firmly to China, which continually engages in military provocation and attempts to change the status quo. Even if this must be done, that does not mean we should simply engage in military buildup and rely on power to solve this problem.

In the former security regime, Japan served as the “shield” (or defense), while America has been the “lance” (or offense). If Japan assumes the role of the lance, there is no doubt that our neighbors in the region will look on warily.

Japan’s ability to conceive of a unique approach to diplomacy is being called into question. How can it promote stability in this region while also confronting China? The debate over how to solve this difficult problem is presently lacking in substance.

It goes without saying that improving relations with China will lead to greater stability in Asia. By finding common ground as a first step to dialogue and through regular discussion, we can carry out a leadership diplomacy. We must find a way to pursue this path.

America has begun talks with China to avoid a clash over Taiwan, and has restarted dialogue at the Cabinet level to resolve outstanding trade issues between the two countries. It has also agreed to hold a summit between the leaders of the two countries by the end of the year.

Is Japan making this kind of effort to start a dialogue?

Globalization has increased interdependence among countries; policies that attempt to isolate China are impractical. There will be no break in the deadlock by attempting to contain and confront China. If America and China bypass Japan to rebuild their relationship, it will be Japan that loses out.

Japan’s Role: Maintaining Stability in the International Order

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has asserted that he believes in a diplomacy that is rooted in “trust,” and often emphasizes his ability to listen. If so, there must be an attempt to advance dialogue. Next year marks 50 years of normalized relations between Japan and China. There is nothing wrong with taking advantage of the auspicious nature of this anniversary.

There is also a lack of vision in seeing Japan as part of the broader world.

Every party recognizes the importance of tackling the critical problems the international community faces, including climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic. However, there is no clear, concrete plan of action.

The reason why America repeatedly attempts to approach China on the matter of climate change is because it presents a security risk in that it could potentially lead to famine or war.

Global problems cannot be solved without leadership from the great economic powers like America, China and Japan.

Japan can especially make its presence known on the subject of nuclear disarmament.

Both the opposition CDP and Komeito,* part of the governing coalition, have urged Japan to participate as an observer in a meeting of the signatories of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons next March. The LDP, however, has continued its opposition. There is surely meaning in Japan’s offer to serve as an intermediary between nuclear and non-nuclear countries.

Global problems include the arenas of cyberspace and outer space. It will be possible for Japan to lead the development of new rules to regulate these fields. By working in the international community to tackle these problems, the region’s trust in Japan could only grow.

Filling a party’s manifesto with words that appeal to its base does not mean much unless it includes detailed strategies to implement the relevant policies.

*Editor’s note: Komeito is a conservative political party in Japan.

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About Max Guerrera-Sapone 15 Articles
Max has a degree in Japanese studies from University of Edinburgh. His research is focused on Japanese internet politics and media studies. He also has a deep interest in Japanese linguistics, and specifically, the Japanese writing system.

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