Is Japan a great power or a middle power?

opinion July 03, 2017 01:00

By Kavi Chongkittavorn
The Nation

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WHILE THE BELEAGUERED President Donald Trump continues to blow hot and cold over the United States’ global role, Asian countries must get their acts together. Sooner or later, his “America First” policy will hit home with a high toll. After all,



Trump’s mantra has quickly embedded in the Middle East. This temptation must be resisted and rejected in totality over here, otherwise it could become the world’s next epidemic.

Given the current international fluidity, major Asian powers have to come to grips with the fact that the US might not be willing to fulfil its role, turning a blind eye to this region for unpredictable reasons. 

The latest survey by the Pew Research Center found that there was a sharp decline in America’s image around the world, with its favourability rating dropping from 64 per cent during the Obama administration to 49 per cent under Trump this spring. There is no confidence that the US would do the right thing regarding world affairs.

It is not surprising that Japan, the world’s No. 3 economy, is now preparing for exactly such an eventuality. As it is the most dependable and reliable ally of the US, the stakes are extremely high for Japan. The outcome, whatever it might be, would also greatly effect Japan and the region as a whole.

Therefore, it is incumbent on Tokyo to reach out to its neighbours, especially the Asean countries, to recalibrate existing cooperation in ways that encompass more comprehensive strategic thinking and planning.

After the return of prime minister Shinzo Abe in 2012, one nagging question remains central to Japanese policy makers: how to situate and identify Japan’s real power in the world? Is Japan a great power or a middle power? Whatever the perception is, it will impact on the land of rising sun’s long-term profile and positioning.

Strictly speaking, the Japanese government sees itself as a great power with economic clout as well as being an enforcer of international rules and regulations.

After the country moved up the scale as the world’s second largest economy in 1968, Japan has been treated as the only Asian economic powerhouse. It was only recently that China surpassed Japan. However, due to US-imposed constitutional restrictions, Japan does not possess the kind of military might that other major powers have enjoyed. 

So far, that has served the country well by allowing it to concentrate on economic development, spreading investment, and generating growth both in the region and beyond. However, the Western countries often view Japan as a political midget. Japan is not a member of the United Nations Security Council. In the security realm, it is completely dependent on US protection. Without normal defence forces, Japan’s international role is still confined within its borders – despite a series of constitutional amendments allowing its self-defence forces to defend themselves and protect allies if they are attacked.

Most importantly, the perception of ordinary Japanese people is rather mixed. 

They generally think Japan is a great power, even though its economic ranking has slipped to No. 3. They are also used to the country’s pacifism after the horrible experiences, untold suffering and calamities brought by the imperial army during World War II. While they do not want to see the revival of militarism, they strongly want Japan to play a bigger international role in protecting the liberal world order, which has benefited Japan’s economic performance and brought prosperity to the region.

Strange but true, within Asean, Japan is considered a great power even though it is without military might. Its generosity and its high-value technology advancement in all fields are Japan’s strongest assets. 

Japan has played the role of peacekeeper in Cambodia and Mindanao. However, in Myanmar, Japan has gone a bit further and is also helping the national reconciliation process between armed ethnic groups and the government. 

Now Japan wants to increase cooperation in security and strategic matters with regional countries – especially in the areas in which it has expertise, such as maritime security cooperation and the transfer of technology. 

Vietnam, the Philippines and Indonesia have received patrol boats from Japan. In the future, there will be more exchanges of defence equipment between Japan and Asean members. Thailand and the Philippines will be the main beneficiaries of this new approach because of their US-manufactured weapon systems.

There will be more frequent visits between senior officials from Japan and Asean nations. There will be some military technology transfers from Japan to Asean countries as well.

Prof Hosoya Yuichi, of Keio University, summed up the importance of Asean saying that Japan has been the most consistent in support of Asean centrality since the group’s establishment. He reiterated that Asean is the core of Japan’s approach to Asian regional cooperation.

In its latest move to promote the integration of the Asean community and to assist it beyond the current official development assistance (ODA), the Japan International Cooperation Agency will provide technical assistance to Asean members next year in three major areas: economic revitalisation, conflict 

prevention, and bridging the income gap between old and new members.

By pivoting towards Asean, Japan is hoping to create a new balance outside the US-Japan defence nexus. Japan needs to consult more frequently with the Asean countries regarding the emerging regional architecture. Consequently, Japan can build up an alternative coalition of the willing among the middle powers and Asean.