International Relations > Specific Countries
Despite the stagnation that affected it following the 1997 Asian financial crisis, Japan remains a major player in the Asia-Pacific and on the international scene.
Economically, Japan is one of the most developed countries in the world, ranking 3rd in terms of nominal GDP size. Its economy is advanced and sustained by an effective education system, and it counts many firms of international scope and who are on the edge of technological innovation. Moreover, the yen remains an internationally-traded currency included in the IMF reserve basket, the Special Drawing Rights. Its economic prosperity is but one of the main tools that Japan uses in its foreign policy, notably in the form of ODA (Official Development Assistance); and it also allows the country to gain international influence by being one of the top contributors to the UN budget. Still, growth has greatly slowed down in the recent decades, and the country experienced a protracted period of stagflation from which it has recovered only recently. The two main preminent problems in the economic domain are competition from abroad and most of all its huge national debt, which reached a record of 234.7% of GDP in 2016.
In political terms, Japan is a democratic system Having lost WWII, it has a pacifist Constitution, that (in the current interpretation) does not allow it to possess proper armed forces and permits it to exert collctive self-defense only under limited and specific conditions. The Constitutional reinterpretation approved by Abe's government in 2014 has been the cause of protests, and has also concerned Japan's neighbors (notably China) who fear a revival of Japanese militarism and expansionism; even though this appears a remote possibility, since strong legal restrains persit and because the population is largely opposed to similar changes. Still, this modification of the longstanding stance accompanied by the spread of nationalist movements and by the economic troubles of the recent years have resulted into some degree of socio-political turmoil; even though Japan enjoys an overall good level of social stability.
As far as the military is concerned, as its very name indicates (Japanese Self-Defense Forces, JSDF) is not a "true" armed force and (broadly speacking) it can only protect Japan and cannot operate overseas if not with strictly non-combat roles. But in reality, the Japanese military is among the most advanced in the world, especially in its naval branch. Even though the budget still remains (as it was the case for decades) under the threshold of 1% of GDP, given the latter's sheer size this means that Japan has one of the largest defense budgets in the world. And even though the number of operatives has remained unchanged, the JSDF are still experiencing an important reform and modernization effort to make it able to meet the new security challenges that Japan must face.
The most important of them are two. The first is the threat posed by the North Korean nuclear program, which promted Japan to develop and deploy ABM (Anti-Ballistic Missile) systems in cooperation with the US. The second one is the rise of China, as this country and Japan are involved in various historically-motivated controversies and an unresolved territorial disputed over the Senkaku / Diaoyu islands, that are currently under Tokyo's control. Moreover, the Sino-Japanese rivalry is aggravated by the fact that Japan is the United States' main ally in the area. As a matter of fact, Tokyo and Washington are bound by a defense treaty, under whose terms the latter is committed in protecting the former. Japan therefore benefits from America's protection, including in nuclear terms, and hosts significant US forces on its territory; but this concerns the Chinese.
Finally, Japan has many domestic problems to solve. Its population has started declining and is affected by a serious aging problem. Its economy has slowed down, recovery is still sluggish and the national debt is huge. The country is heavily dependent on energy imports which arrive in Japan by sea; therefore, ensuring the safety of the sea lines of communication (SLOC) is of paramount importance for it, also to grant the free flow of trade in general. Its security environment is uncertain, due to North Korea and China; and the risk of being involved in a conflict is real. But in the past Japan showed a very good adapting capability, and it is possible it will find a way to solve its challenges.
Japan is among the countries I know better, due to a combination of personal interest and university courses I attended at UCL. It was also the object of my Master's thesis, focusing on its maritime security in relation to China. Lastly, I have also been studying Japanese for two years, and I now have a good base in that language.
The reports on Japan are posted here below.
Japan’s Rare Earth Mineral Discovery Could be a Geopolitical Game Changer
In April 2018, a study was published online announcing the discovery of "semi-infinite" rare earth deposits in the seabed around Minamitorishima, a tiny Japanese atoll. In spite of the technical difficulties, there is optimism over the possibility of exploiting such reserves. If it were actually the case, this could be a game-changer in the geo-economic order of the Asia-Pacific, with major spillovers in strategic and diplomatic terms. It would allow Japan to greatly reduce its dependence on Chinese rare earths, to attract potential partners and boost its economic and political stance; but the PRC is not going to stand still.
Full article here (only for Geopolitical Monitor subscribers).
Japan’s Energy Challenge - The Impact of Shale Imports from the US & Energy Cooperation with Russia
Energy security is a major concern for Japan, which is a country facing a notable challenge in this regard: since it relies heavily on hydrocarbon imports from the Middle East, it is vulnerable to instability in the area as well as to a disruption of the maritime routes crossing the Indian and Pacific Oceans. But the international energy context is evolving, and this offers great opportunities for Japan. The "shale revolution" in the US is having a major geo-economic impact, making of America a producer and exporter of hydrocarbons. In Russia, the government is working to develop Siberia, notably to extract its rich energy and mineral resources. At the same time, the Arctic ice is melting due to global warning, thus allowing an easier access to its hydrocarbon deposits and to navigate along the Northern Sea Route (NSR).
These are all well-known facts, but their combination can have game-changing effects for Japan. This is what I explore in this paper, where I analyze the opportunities and challenges affecting Japan in relation to shale and to cooperation with Russia; so to assess the potential impact of these developments As a matter of fact, the country is poised to take considerable advantages from both, notably by importing US shale gas & oil and by establishing closer energy ties with Russia so to access the energy resources in Siberia and the Arctic.
Both options may allow Tokyo to reduce its dependency on the Middle East and consequently improve its energy security. Still, there are also significant obstacles that limit Japan's ability to take benefit from both: the economic convenience of importing shale-derived fuel from the US is uncertain, and cooperation with Russia is hampered by unresolved territorial disputes and geopolitical considerations. While it is difficult to evaluate their effect by now, the Japanese authorities are exploring both possibilities; a clear sign of Tokyo's interests in taking advantage from such trends.
Click on this link to read the report.
Photo credit: Breakingenergy.com