Japan’s Geopolitics: Stepping Stones
Japan’s geopolitical situation is in many ways similar to Britain’s. Two very old and formerly great imperial powers, part of larger continents but apart, sitting in oceans, coming to terms with their positions in the world and dependent on a much more powerful ally overseas.
However, while Europe is less stable than it has been in the past, it is nothing compared to the dramatic changes occurring north, south and west of Japan, changes which will force it to adapt in order to manage, one way or another.
We will examine the advantages and constraints offered by Japan’s unique geography and position through the lens of its geopolitics, its neighbours, international relations further afield, and future trends likely to affect it.
There is one vital fact of Japan’s geography, and therefore its history: Japan is hard country. Though larger than Britain or Germany, only one quarter of it is suitable for dense human settlement. Though the same size as California, only 12% of Japan is cultivatable, compared to California’s 28%.
Previously these shortcomings led to fierce competition among different Japanese groups, particularly for the fertile central Kanto plain. But while Japan has gone through periods of introversion, it has just as often needed to look abroad.
Japan has historically been a great power, often limiting itself rather than being stopped by others. The last major migration to the Japanese islands was in 3000BC, and the country has never been successfully invaded, meaning Japan has been able to build a very specific and enduring civilisation. This civilisation unity has allowed Japan to effectively project power, and geopolitical imperatives have given it the motive to do so.
Need and ability - the need for resources and the ability to go and get them, have informed much of Japan’s foreign policy over the centuries. Conversely, a small group of islands when compared to the states which have ruled the East Asian landmass (the Mongols, various Chinese states), it has also needed to look to its defence.
The Korean Peninsula is the nearest country to Japan. It has, in the past, been used as a foothold, the equivalent of a ladder in a swimming pool, allowing Japan to get out of the sea and into Asia. Korea has been invaded several times by Japan, most recently in the 20th century, but also devastatingly in the late 16th. The last invasion remains a serious point of contention between the Koreas and Japan today, particularly the issue of ‘comfort women’, Korean women raped in en masse by the Japanese army during the Second World War. This goes some way to explaining why Koreans are concerned about Japan’s recent increases in defence spending, despite the fact both South Korea and Japan are close allies of the US, and both are threatened more by China than each other.
North Korea has fired missiles over Japan, and calls back to historical Japanese atrocities on the peninsula as a justification for its bellicosity. Kim-Jong Un recently threatened to ‘sink’ Japan into the sea.
However, the very proximity which has allowed Japan to invade Korea could work against Japan. In the 13th century, Kublai Khan’s Mongols attempted to invade the home islands, and were only defeated by typhoons which destroyed their fleet. The Mongols launched from Korea. Had North Korea won the Korean War, or if a second Korean war results in Chinese peninsular control, Japan would be faced with a hostile power with the resources of a continent only a few hundred miles away. What happens on the Korean Peninsula is of profound geopolitical concern to the Japanese.
Most maps have Japan at the far right edge, at the end of the world. But east of Japan, and a day behind, is the United States of America. Rival, enemy, then ally and defender of Japan, the much younger country was instrumental in violently opening Japan up to the modern world in the late 19th century after a period of introversion. Japan then adopted modern industrial and military practices, quickly becoming the first non-Western power to be introduced into the great power club.
This rise to great power status combined with a stagnant China and a chastened Russia, meant Japan only had one credible threat to its imperial ambitions. Again, Japan’s geopolitics drove its actions: it needed resources to maintain its position as a great power. It took these resources by force, conquering Dutch and British imperial holdings, including Singapore, and even threatened India.
Japan understood it could not defeat the US on a level playing field, given America’s vast industrial base and greater access to resources. Therefore it attempted a fait accompli at Pearl Harbour, seeking to wipe out a decisive proportion of the American navy before it could be used. But the US was able to replace its losses and in 1945 had occupied Japan.
The current Japanese constitution was written by the American occupiers. Crucially, article 9 forbade the Japanese from maintaining armed forces beyond a limited self-defence force. Since then, American forces have been based in Japan, ready for action against Russia, North Korea or China. Japan, thanks to its protection by the US, has been able to invest in peaceful endeavours instead of spending its money on guns and bombs.
The two countries share geopolitical concerns. The US, with its alliances with South Korea, Taiwan and Japan, has surround China’s east coast, curtailing its freedom of movement (i.e. a Chinese fleet would struggle to attack Pearl Harbour the way the Japanese did). Japan cannot stand up to China without American aid, and America would struggle to project power across the Pacific without its bases in Okinawa and elsewhere.
Russia suffered a shock defeat by Japan in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-5, when the two powers clashed in Manchuria and, of course, Korea. Russia was routed from the Far East for a generation. However, towards the end of the Second World War Russia, seeing Japan on the ropes, invaded Japanese-held islands north of Japan proper.
As a result, Japan and Russia to this day have ongoing territorial disputes, and the Japanese until recently have kept part of their self-defence forces deployed north, just in case. While conflict is unlikely between the two, ongoing territorial disputes can flare up into violence, which would draw in the US on Japan’s side.
China and Taiwan
China is Japan’s great regional rival. Two great powers, one in gentle decline and one rapidly asserting itself, with a history of conflict and invasion, separated by the East China Sea. We are accustomed to thinking of China and Japan as neighbours, but they are not. If we look at a map, Japan is far nearer the Koreas and Russia than China. A Chinese ship must either sail around the Korean Peninsula or across the open East China Sea. This is good for Japan. In the event of a war, the Chinese do not have easy access to Japanese home territory. As a consequence, any conflict between the two countries would involve control of islands in the Pacific and the East China Sea, as the US discovered during WWII.
But if there is one thing China has been up to recently, it is asserting control over islands in the seas around it. The Senkaku-Diaoyu islands is one such example - a collection of uninhabited rocks in the East China Sea to which both sides lay claim, but Japan administers. Controlling such rocks is important legally speaking, as it extends a nation’s claims to surrounding waters. Both Japan and China are happy to use the islands to gin up nationalist sentiments in their countries, a tactic which can always carry the risk of escalation by popular demand.
Beside the Senkaku-Diaoyu islands, the other key issue is Taiwan. Both Japan and China import huge amounts of energy from the Middle East, and export products, a two-flow through the Straits of Malacca. The fastest route from the Straits to China and Japan is past Taiwan. Both countries depend on Taiwan not opposing their ships.
Taiwan is currently under the protection of the US, in part because it plays the role of a giant unsinkable aircraft carrier off the coast of China, much as Japan does. China wants to reincorporate Taiwan. If it invaded, American troops based in Japan would be called into the war, and it is likely Japanese troops would not be far behind. A Taiwan controlled by China would threaten Japanese access to the raw materials it has historically been dependent on. Geopolitics dictates Japanese support of an independent Taiwan. Practicality dictates Japan cannot support Taiwan without the US.
Following its WWII defeat, and like its former ally Germany, Japan has been reluctant to use military power anywhere other than around the home islands. However, recently Japanese forces have been more active. There is a Japanese military base in Djibouti, along with the Americans, French and Chinese. Djibouti guards the Suez Canal, and is near the Persian Gulf. Japan depends on shipping, and therefore has a geopolitical motive to keep these sealanes clear. It has also participated in anti-piracy operations off Somalia, for similar reasons.
Japan has also, for the first time, contributed ground troops to a peacekeeping operation (in Sudan), though Shinzo Abe, the Japanese prime minister, essentially promised to resign if any of them came to harm.
The rise of China is a cause for concern for many countries around it, and as a result Japan has increased its cooperation with nearby medium-power countries like Australia and India, and smaller countries like Malaysia and Singapore. In great power politics, the rise of one hegemon compels others for form counterbalancing alliances if they don’t bandwagon instead.
Japan also has an opportunity to project soft power around the world with its experience in infrastructure, developed managing a country often struck by earthquake and tsunami. If it can choose its moments, and it has done in India, parts of Africa and South East Asia, it can challenge China’s Belt and Road Initiative and ensure it has access to partners with which it can contain Chinese expansion.
Japan’s population is in decline. It peaked in 2004 and has been diminishing ever since. There are four times as many over-65s as there are under-13s. Japan’s economy has also been growing slowly for the last few decades, something which will not improve as it supports more and more old people (and Japan’s old people are the longest-lived in the world).
Japan has the largest public debt of any country, a title it is unlikely to shed anytime soon. These two factors will hamper a more muscular Japanese foreign and defence policy - for example, the Japanese Self-Defencs Forces struggle to meet their current recruitment levels, let alone being in a position to raise the number of servicemen and women required.
However, while Japan is under strain in certain ways, this does not doom it to passivity. It is a technologically advanced society which can use AI, robotics and other advancements to support its ageing population, improve its economic outlook, and augment a small but professional military. A Japan under pressure might be more willing to use force, e.g. to protect access to the resources its population needs, because it needs them more than ever.
Furthermore, however capable or incapable Japan is of proactive efforts in its sphere of influence, it may not have a choice. Trump, the leader of Japan’s defence provider, presents himself as an unreliable ally, demanding payment for protection and doubting Japan’s commitment to peace in the Pacific, while praising Kim-Jong Un.
If a period of US restraint in the region, due to internal factors or a more powerful China, is an inevitability, Japan will be compelled to either remilitarise or strike a more conciliatory deal with China in order to defend its geopolitical interests. Much like European nations, Japan is coming to terms with a return of the multipolar world and the need to compete with, placate and challenge Russia and China.
Japan’s future will not be smooth sailing. Facing rowdy neighbours, China and Russia, it cannot rest totally secure however blessed its geography. Either revanchiste has the opportunity to ratchet up pressure if diplomatically or domestically convenient. Japan has remained secure by keeping other powers at arms’ length, and has suffered when it has not been able to - witness Admiral Perry’s black ships or American bombing during WWII. Therefore, Japan must be proactive in its defensive posture.
Furthermore, Japan is not the only agent of its future. It is bound to the US, and so a conflict between the US and either North Korea or China would drag Japan into its first war in seventy years, with concomitant lack of domestic support and military experience, as well as a dangerous proximity to theatre the Americans, in the driving seat, may overlook.
Japan is a successful country. A high standard of living, seventy years of peace, allies around the world, with a cultural influence rivalled only by the US and the UK. All these have been achieved in large part thanks to its favourable geography. Close enough for dynamic trade, far enough for physical security, Japan is able to stand off from Eurasia when necessary, and engage when it is profitable to do so. It is largely viewed as a beacon of stability and responsibility (though there is historically justifiable wariness in China and the Koreas), and has the opportunity to be positively engaged in the engine of the global economy, East Asia, as a new international order is shaped. While it is constrained by its geography and its history, it is also empowered by it.
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Report written by Brendan Clifford