The Debate

Is Japan Truly a Powerful Country?

Japan’s true power can only emerge if other countries, including the United States, require it.

Is Japan Truly a Powerful Country?
Credit: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Matthew R. Cole

Japan’s largest warship, JS Izumo, left the country’s shores on May 1, 2017. The ship is expected to call at ports in many countries across Southeast and South Asia through the summer of 2017. The visits in many cases will mark the first occasion that Japan has dispatched such a huge helicopter carrier to another country; Japan has four large helicopter carriers. Ultimately, these ships are a symbol of Japan’s power.

However, is Japan a truly powerful country beyond mere symbols? For at least two reasons, people should want to ask this question. First, although Japan has a strong economy, it has not shown its presence in the domain of global security in the post-Second World War era. Second, Japan has defensive capabilities but no offensive capabilities. In the past, the United States and countries around Japan did not want Tokyo to become truly powerful.

During the last decade, however, the circumstances have changed. Instead of concern about Japan, countries surrounding China have shown widening concern about Beijing’s assertiveness. More recently, we have seen reports that Japan is also interested in acquiring the Tomahawk land attack cruise missile from the United States. The question of Japan’s power status today arises thus from different anxieties and beckons for a different sort of analysis.

Whether Japan is powerful or not is a psychological question primarily. When the Obama administration hesitated to attack Syria despite its “red line” promise on chemical weapons in 2013, it seemed that the U.S. had retreated from power. When Russia succeeded in Crimea, Ukraine, and Syria from 2014 to 2016, it seemed that Putin’s Russia was powerful, despite Russia’s far weaker military than that of the United States. When the U.S. under President Donald Trump attacked Syria in 2017, it seemed that the U.S. was powerful again. A country that can address its security needs properly and head-on, thus, is regarded as “powerful.”

In this light, three questions must be posed to elicit an answer as to whether Japan is powerful or powerless. What are Japan’s security needs in the Indo-Pacific? Does Japan have the will and capability to respond to its needs? And, finally, will Japan change to become a truly powerful country in the near future?

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First, what are Japan’s security needs in the Indo-Pacific region? Taking China’s maritime assertiveness as an example can highlight these security needs. Currently, although the Permanent Court of Arbitration rejected China’s ownership claim to 90 percent of the South China Sea in 2016, Beijing is ignoring the verdict and carrying on with its seven artificial islands in the Spratly group in the South China Sea.

If history is any guide, the tendency of China’s maritime expansion has been based on military balance. Remember that the military balance between the U.S. and China also changed after the Cold War. Furthermore, during the period between 2000–2016, the United States commissioned 14 new submarines. During that same period, China commissioned at least 43 submarines.

What needs does Japan have under this new security situation? U.S. allies and partners, including Japan, need to fill the power vacuum against China. First, Japan should bear a greater burden in its own defense. Second, it is important for Japan to enhance security cooperation with other U.S. allies and like-minded partners such as India, Australia, the United Kingdom, and France. A third role for Japan is building the capacity of Southeast Asian defense forces.

Does Japan have the will and capabilities to respond to its needs today? Japan has already realized the importance of the three matters above. For instance, Japan has already decided to establish a new “Marine” type amphibious force to defend and take back islands. The National Security Strategy of Japan published in 2013 has described the importance of security cooperation with India, Australia, and Southeast Asian countries. The possibility exists that Japan will export used P-3C patrol planes to Vietnam, Malaysia, and Sri Lanka too.

Nevertheless, it is also true that Japan’s own defense capability has not included offensive capabilities. Despite Japan’s export of patrol planes, sensors, and radars, there is no indication that Japan has the will to export anti-ship and anti-surface missile systems to Southeast Asian countries. In the case of artificial islands in the South China Sea, China cannot use airfields on these artificial islands safely if coastal countries have missiles with which to attack and deny access. For that reason, Vietnam has started to acquire Club S missiles, and potentially even the BrahMos cruise missile from Russia and India. Does Japan have powerful influence in such a case? Viewed from this perspective, to show its powerful influence using arms exports, Japan requires collaboration with other countries that can provide offensive capabilities that Tokyo cannot itself provide.

Will Japan become a truly powerful country in the near future then? Although Japan’s influence is limited today, it is also true that Japan is changing. Japan has started air-to-air missile joint development projects with the UK. The possibility exists, moreover, that Japan and the UK will export missiles in the near future if the project will be completed. Furthermore, to defend against missile attacks from North Korea, Japan is planning to hold a limited offensive capability with cruise missiles to destroy North Korean missile bases.

In the end, will the United States at last allow Japan to transform itself? For Japan, relations with the United States are the priority. Japan and the U.S. have created a trustworthy relationship through close diplomatic coordination during their more than 65 years of allied history. Furthermore, the U.S. is the only foreign country to have occupied Japan during its 2000 year history. Japan will not possess offensive capabilities if the U.S. will not allow it. Signs have pointed to changes in U.S. policy in this regard. Recently, Kyodo News agency reported, according to a Japanese Defense Ministry source, that the “United States, Japan’s security ally, was cautious about Tokyo acquiring cruise missiles but has since moderated its stance in light of tensions on the Korean Peninsula.”

Is Japan powerful then, in the end? Japan has been increasing its influence by responding to its needs. However, to show its powerful influence through arms exports, Japan requires collaboration with other countries that can provide offensive capabilities that it cannot provide by itself. To possess these offensive capabilities, Japan must seek permission from the United States. These facts indicate that Japan itself does not seek to become an independently powerful country with offensive capabilities. Japan will be a powerful country only when the U.S., its allies, and countries friendly to the U.S. including India, Australia, and Southeast Asian countries strongly demand that Japan become a powerful country.

Satoru Nagao is a research fellow at the Institute for Future Engineering (He was a research fellow at the Tokyo Foundation) and he is also a visiting research fellow at Gakushuin University (email: [email protected]).