Written by Alex Calvo.

When discussing Japan’s ‘normalization’ as a military power, one of the aspects we need to consider is Tokyo’s growing range of security and defence agreements with countries other than the United States. While not a replacement for the US-Japan Alliance, which remains the cornerstone of the country’s foreign and defence policy, they are first of all evidence of how far Japan has moved forward since the end of the Cold War. Second, they reflect the dangerous neighbourhood which Tokyo inhabits, together with Japan’s determination to seize the initiative and avoid excessive reliance on Washington while preventing China’s might from concentrating on a single front. This latter concern is most visible in the case of Vietnam and the Philippines, where Japan is labouring to help improve coastguard capabilities. Japan is aware that should China succeed in turning the South China Sea into ‘Lake Beijing’, she would then be free to increase pressure in the East China Sea. It thus makes sense for Tokyo to help ensure that there are no weak links in the chain of countries facing maritime claims in the region.

It is important to note that a regional security and defence strategy cannot rely only on military assistance. Weapons may be necessary to wage war (and the no-man’s land between peace and war prevalent in the Pacific) but this also requires a narrative, a set of values and ideas to present to domestic publics and to partners and allies, going beyond one’s national interest. Tokyo is aware that this is going to be a long conflict, spanning decades perhaps generations, perhaps with no decisive battles, but rather a regular stream of incidents in parallel with diplomatic intercourse and tensions. It is thus necessary to clearly articulate what is a stake, why Japan is fighting, why not simply give in to territorial demands and hope that they will not be followed by further claims. It is here that relations with the United Kingdom are essential, being a key component of Tokyo’s narrative. Japan cannot realistically hope to mobilize world public opinion if she either appears as an aggressive power or the conflict is portrayed in terms of a mere territorial dispute. Instead, it is necessary to refer to higher principles and ensure that Japan is seen as championing them, over and above the strict defence of national interests.

Tighter relations with London can help Tokyo reinforce a historical narrative based first of all on the Anglo-Japanese Alliance, a period during which Japan did not just gain recognition as an equal to Western powers but was portrayed as a force for stability in East Asia. The way in which her military behaved in the Russo-Japanese War also offers a welcome contrast with the widespread abuse and war crimes prevalent in the Second Sino-Japanese War and Second World War. Another historical dimension of the Anglo-Japanese Alliance useful to Tokyo at this juncture is the country’s contribution to the Allied victory in the Great War, which again offers a welcome contrast to events during the Second World War. In addition to these historical factors, the British connection helps visualize Japan’s commitment to the rule of law at sea, presenting it as a universal value which Tokyo is keen to contribute to, thereby favouring not only her national interest but that of ‘maritime democracies’, a favourite expression of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and cornerstone of Japan’s narrative. There are many countries falling under the label of maritime democracies, including key partners for Japan like Australia and India, but the United Kingdom offers an added bonus: London went to war in 1982 to confront aggression. The shadow of the Falklands looms large in Tokyo, and it is no coincidence to see the Islands present in Shinzo Abe’s public narrative. Japan fears a Chinese miscalculation, an invasion of the Senkaku Islands based on the notion that the country would not react, or that Washington would prevent Tokyo from doing so. Referring to the Falklands is a way to send the message that Japan does not just wish to appear as a bulwark of values such as the rule of law at sea and the peaceful resolution of disputes in accordance with international law, but that, just like the United Kingdom, stands ready to defend them if necessary, putting her military where her mouth is.

It is important not to forget, concerning relations with London, that the gradual opening up of the Arctic to navigation provides a further incentive for closer security and defence relations. This is one of the factors, together with a shared mistrust of China and the energy trade, also pushing Tokyo toward cooperation with Moscow, despite an outstanding territorial dispute and the current crisis between Russia and NATO. While we cannot call Russia an ally of Japan, we should note how the Southern Kuriles / Northern Territories are one of the few territorial disputes in Asia where resort to force seems unlikely.

Moving to Japan’s Southern flank, a look at the map makes it clear why relations with Taiwan are of the utmost importance. Actually, the stress on retaining control over the Senkaku Islands is posited on the assumption that Formosa will remain out of hostile hands. Although the narrative from Taipei in recent years may be pan-Chinese, reality on the ground offers a more nuanced picture. The fisheries agreement with Tokyo is important not only as a possible template for other territorial disputes and a practical illustration of the principles behind President Ma’s East China Sea Peace Initiative, but also as proof that there is scope for pragmatic engagement between Japan and Taiwan. Recent proposals for stock exchange links and President Ma’s appeals for greater tourist inflows from Japan also point in the same direction, while the possibility that Japan may develop her own fighter could give Taiwan more room for manoeuvre in terms of military procurement. Japan may also play the history card, pointing at the relatively benign nature of her rule on the Island, but this could backfire given differing views in Taiwan, and it may be better for Tokyo to contribute to the reinforcement of a civic identity providing the foundation for the Islands’ defence.

We could conclude by saying that, in addition to country-specific factors, the fate of this range of relationships may depend on Tokyo’s progress in opening the door to a limited measure of collective self-defence, her willingness to co-produce and supply weapons systems, the ability to overcome opposition by domestic lobbies in pushing for greater trade liberalization, overcoming the historical legacy of the Second World War, Washington’s posture, and the degree to which both Japan and her partners may be tempted to appease China in the hope she will drop or at least tone down her demands. The recent visit to Japan by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi confirms that Tokyo remains committed to the development of this wide range of alliances, while at the same time serves as a reminder that more concrete actions need to follow warm words for them to result in their full potential.

Alex Calvo is a guest professor at Nagoya University (Japan). He tweets @Alex__Calvo