Last week while I was in Japan I shared a few thoughts about what I heard locally regarding the submarine project ('What the Submarine Contract Means to Japan'). This contract obviously means a great deal to the Japanese Government, and that judgment goes well beyond its economic value. As I said last week, the Japanese side sees this as an opportunity to strengthen ties with a major US ally in an era in which its interests are being threatened by a rising China.
This strategic subtext to the submarine deal was underlined again yesterday when Germany's ambassador to Australia said in a speech that choosing the German design would allow Australia to avoid inflaming tensions with Beijing, which would be the natural outcome if Canberra chose the Japanese design.
As I said last week, the Japanese defence and foreign policy officials I spoke with did not seem to see this strategic dimension as a weakness in their bid, but as a strength. They think Australia shares Japan's anxieties about China (and judging by the Defence White Paper, they are right), and they are betting that Canberra will be prepared to wear some blowback from Beijing in exchange for getting its submarines from Japan, and along with it a much closer, even ally-like, relationship.
Australian observers will be aware that Professor Hugh White has been among the most prominent voices warning against the Japan option, arguing that 'Tokyo expects that in return for its help to build our submarines, it would receive not just many of billions of dollars, but clear understandings that Australia will support Japan politically, strategically and even militarily against China.' White says Australia would be foolish to make such commitments because we are unlikely to honour them, for good national-interest reasons.
White's take on the submarines is tied to a much broader argument about the future strategic order in Asia. He says that a US-led alliance to contain China's rise is not likely to work and that the region needs to create some strategic space for Beijing. Instead of the major powers combining to resist China's rise, all the big Asian states ought to come together as independent powers (Japan included) in a 19th century Europe-style concert of powers, to manage their relations and avoid war among them. It's important to emphasise that, in this schema, Japan would be a much more 'normal' great power, with larger defence forces and more independence from the US. In fact, on The Interpreter Hugh White has argued that Japan may need an independent nuclear deterrent.
So, to be clear, White does not make an argument for pre-emptively caving in to China's demands for more say in the regional order*, but he also argues strongly against the idea of openly resisting China's rise by forming a closer countervailing alliance. White offers a third option.
Why do I explain all this? Because I was told in Tokyo that there is no such 'third option' in the Japanese security debate. Yes, Japan has its old-school multilateralists, generally found on the left and loyal to Japan's post-war peace principles, who would like to strengthen regional institutions, increase cooperation and institute confidence-building measures as ways to defuse tensions between the major powers. Then there is the school which wants to make Japan more muscular, more activist and more assertive on the regional stage. But they don't want to make Japan more independent. In fact, as illustrated by Japan's thinking on the submarine deal, this school is intent on embedding itself more closely with friendly states, most importantly the US but also Australia, India, the Philippines and others. According to my interlocutors, there is no prominent advocacy in Japan for a stronger and more independent national security posture.
That may be because, for reasons laid out by CSIS's Brad Glosserman on this site in 2014, that third option is simply not realistic for Japan:
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.'
* His critics would argue with that summation, but keep in mind, White recommends not only an independent nuclear-armed Japan, but also a substantially beefed up Australian Defence Force.