Hugh White graciously flags my assessment of Japan as he tries to make sense of Chinese policy toward Tokyo. He is right: my 'analysis does lend support to the idea that Japan would accept a subordinate status in a Chinese-led Asia.'

I wouldn't reach that conclusion, however.

Nor for that matter do I think Japan will rally to any call from Abe to (in Hugh's words) 're-establish itself as a great power in Asia, with nuclear weapons and all.' As I weigh the options, Japan's best bet is the status quo: alliance with the US. A nuclear-armed Japan is possible, but it would be shorn of great power ambitions – and this is a much inferior second-best alternative. Only in the end (and it would not be a choice so much as a fait accompli) would Japan play number two to China, unless China were to radically transform itself.

The rhetoric out of Tokyo in recent years (even before Shinzo Abe returned to the Kantei) has been increasingly hardline toward China. Beijing is seen as a direct threat to Japanese national interests, a destabilising force in regional affairs, and a challenger to the norms and institutions that have underwritten regional order in Asia. The most recent Defense White Paper, issued just last month, was explicit: 'Japan has great concerns over such Chinese military activities, etc, together with the lack of transparency in its military affairs and security issues, and needs to pay utmost attention to them. These activities also raise security concerns for the region and the international community.'

A darkening assessment of Chinese aims and ambitions has driven Japan's defence policy. Focus has shifted from the frigid Northwest to the Southwest Islands, and security planners are shoring up the maritime approaches and sea lines of communication. The Abe Cabinet's reinterpretation of the exercise of the right of collective self-defence is part of this transition, even if this change is far less than meets the eye. Also notable are the creation of a National Security Council, the articulation of a National Security Strategy, the passage of the National Secrets Law, and changes in rules regarding Overseas Development Assistance and export controls.

All of this (and the list is not complete) is also part of an alliance modernisation process that aims to strengthen the US-Japan security partnership to deal with new political, economic and security realities. While Prime Minister Abe may chafe about Japan's place in the post-war order, his rhetoric frames the changes in Japan's security policy as being in service of the alliance. Abe wants to reassert Japan's status as a 'first-tier nation', but this is also so that it can be a better partner to the US.

Here, Hugh and I part ways. Abe may hanker for great-power status, but most Japanese do not. My study of Japan after the triple disaster of 11 March 2011 reveals a country fatigued by such ambitions. Japanese are tired of competing, and see little reward from the struggle to catch up or keep up. Japanese are comfortable with their place in the world and profoundly sceptical about the changes required for them to re-energise their economy, the essential first step in the process of (re)assuming a higher international profile.

These attitudinal constraints to a renewed and re-vitalised Japan are the most compelling and least understood, but they are only part of the problem Abe and fellow internationalists face. Japan's demographic profile and its growing debt also profoundly constrict Japanese choices. Most acutely, an aging population is unlikely to choose to devote increasingly scarce resources to the military, a prerequisite to the claim of 'great power status.'

Given this context, Japan's choices become:

  1. The status quo, or alliance with the US: this allows Japan to balance psychological and structural constraints and maintain maximum freedom of maneuver. In truth, however, even this could push the Japanese public to the edge of its comfort zone.
  2. A nuclear power, without great power ambitions: this would be a practically impossible choice, given anti-nuclear sentiment in Japan. Pursuit of the nuclear option would isolate Japan and offer little security, which its strategic planners acknowledge. The public would never stomach an offensive posture, so any nuclear stance would be a poison pill, purely defensive in nature. (If I wanted to be as provocative as possible, I'd call this the 'North Korean option.') This undercuts Hugh's thesis of a nuclear-armed Japan striving to become a great power (add the cost of such a policy and the likelihood plunges even further).
  3. A junior partner to China: Japanese may not want to compete with China but they are too proud and too unsettled by China to accept subordinate status either. Even junior partner status within the alliance can be irritating, but the US uses the right language when discussing Japan to relieve that pressure. Japan could only accept a subordinate status to China when China is so transformed that it is no longer a threat to Japan (about the same time that Taiwan would vote to reunite with the mainland) and when Beijing offers a relationship that affords Japan the status it demands.

My article argues that Japan could pursue a fourth alternative, one that eschews great power status to become 'a problem solving country.' This is a radical option that I teased out of interviews even though no one I talked to explicitly endorsed it. It is Soeya Yoshihide’s 'middle power diplomacy' on steroids, a concept that Lowy has done some fine work on. It would likely exist within the alliance framework, so it could just be a variant on the first choice.

I've got my money on number one, although there are nuances to be teased out. As always, though, we owe Hugh a thanks for forcing us to think hard about these questions.

Photo by Flickr user federica Intorcia.