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Japan’s Geopolitical Assertiveness is an Asian Security Imperative in 2018
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Dr Subhash Kapila | Date:16 Jan , 2018 0 Comments
Dr Subhash Kapila
is a graduate of Royal British Army Staff College Camberley and combines a rich & varied professional experience in Indian Army (Brigadier), Cabinet Secretariat and diplomatic/official assignments in USA, UK, Japan, South Korea, and Bhutan.

Asian security environment plagued with volatility spawned by China’s hegemonistic impulses visible in 2018 places a special call on Japan’s geopolitical assertiveness. Japan is well positioned to do so with its established and credible strategic footings as compared to India which is still positioning itself in the global strategic calculus.

Japan’s established and credible strategic footings in the global strategic calculus arise from it’s a century-old strategic profile of political and military assertiveness beginning from the end of the 19th Century. Japan’s defeat in World War II was only an interlude—a passing phase.

The United States soon after its victory over Japan facilitated only by use of atomic bombings soon realised that United States embedment in the Asia Pacific template then needed American co-option of Japan as a pivotal security partner in Asia.

The advent of the Korean War 1950-53 further reinforced United State conviction that the United States needed and could depend on Japan as an enduring security ally of the United States in the decades to come.

The United States owes immense gratitude for this visionary step of cementing United States embedment in Asia to General Douglass MacArthur through Japan in a pivotal role in post-World War II era.

Japan’s value as a security ally of the United States has never ever wavered after that in the last seven decades. Japan remained steadfast in its commitment despite United States varying the political nuances, if not the security nuances, to serve US political expedient ends of its China Hedging strategies.

In 2018, Japan still stands out as a pivotal security anchor not only of the United States security architecture in the Western Pacific but also as a co-anchor with India of the evolving Indo Pacific Security Coalition that seems to be taking shape potentially as a counterweight to China’s menacing rise endangering Asian security.

In 2018, an Indo Pacific Security Coalition is a trend already visible with all the portents to emerge as a Indo Pacific Treat Organisation recommended by me in an earlier SAAG Paper. A loose coalition already exists when the dots are added to the US-Japan Security Treaty with the Japan-India Global Special Strategic Partnership, the US-India Strategic Partnership, he  US-Japan-India Trilateral and the US-Japan-India-Australia Quadrilateral.

India in the years after 2014 with the Modi Government in place in New Delhi after decades of India’s obsessive fixations with Non Alignment as strategically meaningless policy precept has finally broken out of the Non Alignment straitjacket and adopted more assertive strategic policy formulations in keeping with prevailing geopolitical realities.

India’s strategic centre-pieces in the new policy formulation are United States, Japan, and Australia and followed by Vietnam and Israel. However in 2018 also, India’s dynamic moves towards propelling India into countervailing coalitions as counterweights to balance China and the China-Pakistan Axis are stymied by Indian opposition parties for narrow political gains in terms of domestic politics.

The above limitation sends wrong messages to India’s strategic partners in terms of lack of bipartisan support of Indian geopolitical and strategic formulations and India’s commitments  towards Indian regional security , despite the Modi Government subtle moves in that direction. But then even the Modi Government has to recognise that in terms of balance of power strategies against military adventurism of revisionist powers like China, India needs to send out clear signals as to where India stands.

India under PM Modi has sent out clear signals of its intent but it needs to add more visible and vocal manifestations of its intent to be a proactive strategic partner of the groupings emerging for defending Indo Pacific security and stability. India needs to shed the shibboleths of “strategic autonomy” another euphemism for Non -Alignment. It has no place in balance of power political and strategic policy formulations that India must necessarily adopt in the 21st Century.

In view of the above as India transcends its existing strategic coyness in a transitory period, hopefully short, it is Japan as the other leading Asian global power in contention with China that has to exhibit greater strategic assertiveness as an Asian security imperative.

Japan seems to be very much alive to China’s potential to endanger Japanese security both by direct action, coercive political and military brinkmanship and through proxy use of North Korea. Japan’s security postures have been realigned in relation to the China Threat. Japan has embarked on a graduated military buildup without giving the images of an arms race. PM Abe like PM Modi is very much cognizant of the China Threat is seeking to transform the provisions of the Japanese Constitution to position Japan to effectively counter both the China Threat and the North Korea Threat.

Japan is very much in a position to be the pivot for a North East Asia security grouping but is held back by South Korea’s clinging to historical mindsets against Japan, very much like China. Since the United States enjoys mutual security relationships with both Japan and South Korea, the United States needs to make special persistent pressures on South Korea and evolve a Japan-South Korea-United States Security Trilateral.

Japan has already initiated proactive moves towards putting in place a naval profile in the South China Sea under illegal occupation of China, by associating in Joint Naval Patrols with the United States. Australia is also ready to join-in in the same effort. Besides the preceding, Japan and Australia enjoy strong political and strategic bonds.

The South China Sea maritime expanse is one region where all the countries wishing to forestall China’s hegemonistic designs in the Indo Pacific can pool in their naval resources to affect an international naval presence in this vital global commons. Regionally, Japan is in a position both technologically and financially to build-up the military capacities of Vietnam and the Philippines subjected to Chinese illegal occupation of their islands in the South China Sea.

Noteworthy is the recent strategic understanding arrived at by Japan with Britain where British Navy would be exercising in the region. Japan needs to expand such strategic understandings with other major European countries like France and Germany. These moves would not go unnoticed in Beijing. With Chinese economy in a slow-down and thus with a lower attraction to European economies, China is in no position to dictate terms to European majors.

However, where Japan has to fast-rack its military capacities is in the areas of ballistic missiles interceptors, ballistic missiles shields, and cyberwarfare and space warfare capabilities. Japan has the requisite technological production capability indigenously available in Japan to make significant advances, even faster than India.

Short of war and in peacetime too, Japan should it achieve significant advances in the above mentioned fields, can significantly affect and narrow the gap that China has already achieved here. Japan should be well aware that it is in these fields that China is attempting to reduce its differentials with its asymmetries with the United States.

China while it may not admit openly does have serious fears and concerns on the Japanese Navy with battle-tested heritage against the most powerful Navies of the world. Japanese naval traditions coupled with Japan’s state of the art indigenous production of large Navy battleships, submarines and combat helicopter carriers ships. Japan has the most potent Navy in Asia.

Japan must also implement plans to materialise a greater naval profile in the Indian Ocean to checkmate China’s increasing intrusions in this vital Ocean so vital for Japan’s prosperity. Such a Japanese move could greatly supplement the Indian Navy presence in the Indian Ocean, with similar intentions. It is heartening to note that a Japanese task force on security has recommended to the Japanese Government that in the ultimate analysis, Japan’s security against the implicit China Threat would rest on the creation of significant oceanic naval profile

Rounding off the assertive role of Japan as an imperative for Asian security, what needs to be pointed out in this direction is that Japan has also to be more vocally assertive in Asian security affairs. Japan has nothing to be apologetic about in defending its own security against the China Threat and also partaking in regional and global security initiatives towards this end.

Concluding, the following observations would be in order in relation to the main theme of this Paper:

  • Asian security is definitely overshadowed and Indo Pacific security specifically threatened by China’s ongoing power tussle with the United States which so far has shouldered these responsibilities.
  • Japan and India as the two leading Asian powers need to shoulder responsibilities of Indo Pacific security as indigenous Asian powers and recognised as global leading powers.
  • Japan and India can together provide an existential counterweight to China’s unrestrained military and geopolitical moves without an overt arms race.
  • Japan is more comprehensively well positioned in 2018 than India in this direction as India breaks out of its archaic strategic policy straitjacket to assume the joint responsibilities with Japan.

In 2018, therefore, Japan’s geopolitical and strategic assertiveness emerges as a strong Asian imperative.


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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

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