It might seem like the worst possible time for Tokyo to think big. The global economic crisis is hitting Japan hard. The current government of Taro Aso is scraping the bottom of public opinion polls.

And with the ruling Liberal Democratic Party poised to suffer a game-changing defeat in the upcoming elections, the domestic political environment is chaotic to say the least.

Michael Green, the Japan chair at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, counter-intuitively believes the time is ripe for such grand strategising on Tokyo’s part.

Citing Thucydides, Machiavelli, and Nixon — who all produced grand strategy in the midst of political turmoil — Green told a panel organised by the Sasakawa Peace Foundation in Washington, DC on Tuesday: “I am encouraged by Japanese domestic crisis. I think that a good grand strategy will come out of it.”

One of Japan’s leading grand strategists of the liberal internationalist variety is Takashi Inoguchi, a professor at Chuo University in Tokyo who also believes that in crisis lies the opportunity for governments to craft grand strategies.

“I like to argue that at a time of great uncertainty and prevailing chaos, you have to have a certain strategy to solidify your strengths and alleviate your weaknesses,” Inoguchi says. “Japan has many strengths but has not taken advantage of them. Japan also has many weaknesses, but these are getting worse.”

To guide the Japanese government in its strategising, Inoguchi has issued six commandments.

Because of China’s rise, the potential for a modest decline in U.S. capabilities, and unpredictability on the Korean peninsula, he argues that “it is essential to enhance Japan’s self-defense capabilities.”

This enhancement, Inoguchi hastens to add, should take place within a strengthened U.S.-Japan alliance and according to Japan’s constitution, but it should also include support of U.N.-sanctioned military operations.

Further, Tokyo should focus on bolstering its peaceful engagement with the world through participation in peacekeeping operations, humanitarian missions, and development programs.

This active engagement should be accompanied, Inoguchi argues, by an “aggressive legalism” in which Japan plays a strong role in the development and promulgation of rules in multilateral settings.

Finally, Inoguchi maintains, Japan should be an idea leader in the world. And, as a non-member of the nuclear club, it should work toward the abolition of nuclear weapons.

Tsuyoshi Kawasaki, an associate professor at Canada’s Simon Fraser University, offers a realist counterpoint to Inoguchi’s six commandments. Instead of focusing on how to supply international public goods, Japan should instead evaluate its position according to the global distribution of power.

Looking toward 2025, Kawasaki imagines a multipolar system divided into two major blocs. In the status quo bloc are the United States, the European Union, and Japan. In the bloc of rising powers are China, Russia, and India.

“Japan’s overall objective,” Kawasaki argues, “is to help maintain the global balance of power in favor of the status quo and avoid war with rising powers like China.” In this context, Japan should resist any divisions in the status quo camp, particularly in the alliance with the United States, and simultaneously cultivate better relations with India and Russia.

Finding merit in both camps, Green endorses Japan’s quest for greater soft power. Japan routinely tops the surveys of countries most respected in the world – for its global engagement on diplomacy and development as well as for its commitment to multilateralism.

“Japan is a leading nation on environmental technology and improving energy efficiency, and it can leverage that technology,” Green said citing as example cutting-edge soft power.

However, Green adds, “Japan is most influential when it has money and good people behind its ideas. Japan was influential in the Cambodian peace process because it put money behind it and deployed people to implement policy.”

At the same time, Green urges Japan to strengthen its security policy. But instead of focusing on new military capacities, such as a unilateral counterstrike capability, he prefers that Tokyo team up with neighbors such as Australia to address China’s rising military power.

Green was uncomfortable with Japan resigning itself to middle-power status. “I want an ambitious Japan internationally,” he says. Japan’s grand strategy should be a “marriage of an external balance-of-power view with progressive social policy at home.”

Such progressive social policy — more liberal immigration laws, greater empowerment of women — would begin to address Japan’s significant demographic problems. Japan’s population is expected to drop by 20 percent by 2050.

Not everyone puts a strengthened alliance with the U.S. at the heart of Japan’s grand strategy. Gavan McCormack, emeritus professor at Australian National University and author of ‘Client State: Japan in the American Embrace’, believes that Japan should respond to the current economic and environmental crisis in a fundamentally different way.

“I am convinced that the door to serious grappling with these issues will not be opened till Japan gains independence, grows out of its dependent subservience on the United States, renegotiates that relationship, and attains ‘popular sovereignty’ (shuken zaimin, as the constitution puts it),” McCormack says. “Only then will Japan be able to look seriously at its past, its neighbors, and the world.”

Japan’s grand strategy depends a great deal on leadership. “The leadership doesn’t worry about the long term. They worry about corruption and making mishaps in their statements,” Inoguchi observes. “It is very hard to raise the standard of leadership.”

Many Japanese await the next Junichiro Koizumi, the charismatic prime minister from 2001 to 2006. “In terms of leadership styles, Japan has had strong leaders who haven’t talked at all,” Green notes. “There are many younger politicians on both sides of the aisle who are impressive. Their time will come. But no one will be able to do anything without a mandate and more time in office than one year.”

“It won’t necessarily be a Koizumi,” Green concluded. “And remember, Koizumi in the 1990s was not considered a very serious candidate.”

John Feffer is co-director of Foreign Policy In Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies.

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