The views expressed here are the author's own, and do not necessarily represent those of National Institute for Defense Studies or the Japanese Ministry of Defense.

I am inspired by the recent debate on The Interpreter about the trajectory of Japan's security strategy. Brad Glosserman's Washington Quarterly article, which prompted the debate, sketches the contemporary discourse in Japan. Many do indeed appear to accept the decline of Japan rather comfortably, which, Glosserman suggests, explains why Japan does not go beyond picking 'low-hanging fruit' in economic and security policy. Although I personally wouldn't use this expression, I agree with Brad's underlying message that the series of recently announced policy initiatives do not constitute a radical change in Japan's strategic posture.

Building on Brad's explanation, which focuses on Japan's domestic discussion, I would add another key factor which accounts for why Japan is not changing as fast or as dramatically as a number of external observers, including Hugh White, anticipate. That is: despite the hot debate about the end of the US unipolar moment, the Japanese Government continues to place a high degree of confidence in the leadership of the US, and indeed in the alliance. In other words, from a Japanese perspective, changes in the external environment have not yet reached the point where Tokyo is forced to fundamentally reconsider its post-war strategy, founded upon its alliance with the US.

The Abe Government's National Security Strategy (NSS) captures this perception: 'though its relative influence in the international community is changing, the US remains the country that has the world's largest power'.

Japan's confidence is also underscored by America's repeated commitment to the alliance, powerfully demonstrated by flying B-52s through China's so-called air defence identification zone in November 2013 and President Obama's affirmation of the US treaty obligation to defend the Senkaku Islands. The Abe Government's confidence is also widely shared by the public. According to a recent poll by the Japan Broadcasting Corporation (NHK), 70% of respondents believe the alliance should be maintained or even further reinforced. I am sure this widely shared confidence in the Japan-US alliance shapes opinions and discourses within Japan and encourages many to feel comfortable with the status quo.

Of course, this does not mean the Japanese Government is blind to some of the challenges facing the US both on its international and domestic fronts.

In order to support the US in this difficult time, Japan's policy aims to strengthen and further support the alliance rather than switching to any alternative strategy. This is, at minimum, a fourfold initiative: (1) reforming Japan's security policy and system by establishing the National Security Council, amending some long-standing self-imposed restraints and building a 'Dynamic Joint Defense Force'; (2) adjusting the alliance infrastructure, including the defence cooperation guidelines, in line with China's 'gray-zone' activities and Japan's constitutional reinterpretation; (3) reaching out to third parties who share Japan's interests and values, including most prominently Australia; and (4) attempting to manage the relationship with China.

As Malcolm Cook rightly argues, Japan's policy moves are largely consistent with what the US is trying to do in Asia. Perhaps the only existing discrepancy between Japan and the US is how successful each has been at engaging China. While the US institutionalises its relations with China through the Strategic and Economic Dialogue and regular summit meetings, so far Japan's engagement vis-à-vis China remains stagnant, despite the Japanese Government's consistent calls for dialogue.

The current status of Japan's engagement with China is a concern for the alliance. It is more difficult for regional partners to cooperate with Japan if Sino-Japanese relations remain strained. It may also slow the US-Japan initiative to work with third countries (eg. a Japan-Australia-US or Japan-Korea-US framework). Furthermore, a functioning and healthy Sino-Japanese relationship is clearly advantageous to the alliance. For example, creating a Sino-Japanese maritime communication mechanism (a key agenda of Japan's China engagement) would help Japan and China avoid accidental or inadvertent escalations and hence prevent the US from having to make a difficult decision about how to respond. This is the key reason why the US vocally supports Japan's China engagement.

The past few weeks have seen some positive signs in the Japan-China relationship. On the sidelines of this year's ASEAN Regional Forum ministerial meeting, the Japanese and Chinese foreign ministers held a dialogue for the first time since the Abe Government came to power. In addition, speaking to a visiting Japanese parliamentary delegation on 18 August, Chinese Vice-Present Li Yuan Chao made some positive remarks about the possibility of an Abe-Xi summit meeting when Prime Minister Abe visits China for APEC in November.

How effectively and quickly Japan's engagement with China is restored is still an open question. But there is no question that any progress in Japan's engagement with China will support the US-Japan alliance and thus further strengthen Japan's confidence in the alliance. 

Image courtesy of the White House.