Welcome to the second installation of a two-part series on Japan’s grand strategy and future as a great power. The first part can be found here.
The rise of China explains Japan’s increasingly assertive foreign policy for the next few years, as I detailed in my first part. The receding role of America in maintaining liberal hegemony is the main factor that guarantees not only this increased emphasis on defense but also possible military expansionism in the far abroad. Since the end of World War II, the United States has been acting as the guarantor of global trade. But this is ending, especially with relation to Japan due to the shale revolution, which decreased America’s dependence on foreign energy sources, rendering the Middle East less relevant in the long run to American interests.
This will have immense ripple effects; reduced American influence in the Middle East has already rendered other oil supply chains, which depend on the Strait of Hormuz, vulnerable to partial, if not total, disruptions, as indicated by Iran’s seizure of a South Korean tanker last year, which the United States did not rescue. This contrasts its more immediate response to an attack on a Japanese-owned, Panamanian-flagged tanker in 2019.
In terms of Japan, the most obvious military impacts have already been put into motion; in 2019, Japan assigned an escort ship to the Arabian Sea for the first time to protect merchant vessels. As a nation dependent on oil from the Middle East, this trend is likely to continue, except that as global trade becomes ever more uncertain, Japan will send more escort ships for longer periods of time, and they will not be there to defend the merchant vessels of anyone but Japan.
Given Japan’s lack of oil and gas resources on the homeland, they must choose between expansionism or a severe degradation of living standards in Japan, and the choice from a state’s perspective is obvious. This is also likely to play out in Southeast Asia, where Japan will maintain secure supply routes in order to benefit from oil and gas deposits.
Finally, depending on the extent to which future demographic and trade crises degrade the power of the Chinese state, Japan may establish a patronage situation with coastal China from Shanghai to Hainan. These regions are isolated from the rest of China and are outward facing, with large populations which would provide a commercial market for Japanese exports. They are already relatively inclined against the central government, with a history of varying degrees of support for independence from Hong Kong to Shanghai.
Japan’s strategic positioning along the First Island Chain, together with its access to a long-reach, blue-water navy that can project power wherever it needs to, will allow Japan to take advantage of the coming disorder and maintain its influence on these regions of the world.
So far, I’ve discussed reasons for why Japan is likely to adopt a more assertive approach to foreign policy soon, including its geography predisposing it to favor this approach. But what about other challenges it faces? Japan admittedly has the largest proportion of elderly citizens in the world and still refuses to accept many immigrants (other than Ukrainians, as of late), presenting it with a demographic crisis that would, in any other case, be debilitating to great power ambitions.
Nevertheless, Japan has become the master of automation and has modified its industrial base accordingly. This allows for market gaps in manufacturing and even geriatric care, created by a refusal to admit foreign health workers, to be taken care of by automation and AI, which can certainly apply to other industries.
With all this in mind, Japan is absolutely primed to take advantage of the future and reestablish itself as a significant world power with a complicated series of networks ranging from suzerainty to partnerships within East Asia and the Middle East.