Japan: A Superpower Minus Military Power

<i> Paul Kreisberg is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace</i>

For 40 years the United States and the Soviet Union have set new standards for power: military capability to wage war across the globe, to wholly destroy their enemies, to provide virtually unlimited arms to their allies, to “bear any burden” in a prolonged contest for influence and strength. The United States for much of this same period possessed enormous economic resources to influence and affect the economic and political policies of other countries, to dominate world markets and to compete for influence in ways no other country, even the Soviet Union, could match.

But now there is Japan, a new sort of superpower, relying on technological and financial clout to protect increasingly global interests while remaining heavily dependent on the United States for military protection. Can Japan be an active and effective political player in the international community without an independent and powerful military capability?

Japan is the second-largest economy in the world but spends less of its gross national product on defense than Austria, Malta or Jamaica. The Japanese people consistently tell pollsters they want this to continue. Even the current level of expenditure enables Japan to field highly sophisticated conventional forces in its own defense. But its treaty agreement with the United States and its own constitution leave open whether Japan would ever come to the aid of America even if the United States was under attack in the Pacific, so long as Japan itself was not under assault. Nor has Japan taken any part in international peacekeeping activities; this was the first year it contributed funds for such actions.

At the same time Japan underwrites the U.S. budget deficit, buying between 20%-40% of U.S. Treasury securities each month. It is now the largest aid donor to the developing world, also the largest contributor of new capital to the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. The dollar remains the key international reserve currency but the yen is in increasing demand except for those countries committed to propping up the dollar.

Japanese banks and insurance companies are the world’s largest. Japanese investors are the most active in Asia and most other parts of the world. Even the Japanese domestic market, once virtually impenetrable to products from abroad, is rapidly becoming more important not only to other Asian countries (where imports are often manufactured by Japanese companies) but to the West.


Since the early 1970s Japan has gradually accepted its responsibility in discussions on global economic policy, in supporting developing countries and even on some international political issues. It remains uneasy over how to use the political influence and power inevitably attached to economic power but is beginning to adjust to this.

When virtually any international event has an economic cost, the first question now asked is, “Will Japan pay?” This is the ultimate “power” question that was once asked only of the United States. It is forcing Japanese to think about what they want to achieve in more and more situations.

Japan thus far has used its influence primarily to further its own economic interests and objectives, but in recent years it has also taken account--usually under U.S. pressure--of how it can contribute to American or Western interests in Egypt, Jordan, Turkey, Pakistan or the Persian Gulf--or the interests of friendly Asian groups in Cambodia, the Korean peninsula and Burma.

Japanese privately insist that they are particularly sensitive to U.S. views on virtually all political issues; and this generally seems to be true. But there are signs of change and more Japanese legislators privately insist that their government look at Japanese, not U.S. interests. Japan has consistently distanced itself from a number of U.S. positions on the Middle East, including Iran and the Palestine Liberation Organization, because of Tokyo’s dependence on the region for oil and markets. Until recently Japan has declined to alter trading relationships with South Africa despite U.S. pressures and, according to published figures, is still South Africa’s largest trading partner. Japan has its own positions on a wide range of environmental and ecological issues and has almost always resisted joining in international economic sanctions.

But Japan is capable of pursuing a far broader foreign-policy agenda of its own, using the levers of Japanese investment, economic assistance, technology transfers and contributions to international organizations. And Japan is gradually--almost everything in Japan is gradual--about to undertake more independent initiatives. Foreign Minister Sosuke Uno, for example, last July offered to pay for actual peacekeeping forces in Cambodia, a step some Japanese officials are still not sure was thought through, since it runs counter to a 1978 resolution prohibiting support for military forces in other countries.

Japan’s help is sought on all sides--by the communist world and by developing countries of all political complexions in Asia, Africa, Latin America, the Middle East and the West. The respect given its officials and diplomats, the attention given its views and the care and consideration extended to its private citizens are at superpower levels.

Japanese comments on economic policy issues are treated on a par with those of America--and sometimes with even greater respect. Japan’s voting power in both the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank will surely increase in the next few years, commensurate with Japanese contributions; Japanese policy influence in both organizations will grow. Even quiet hints, or silence, on policy issues are increasingly taken note of. This is political influence.

Japanese officials have been the most skeptical in the world about Soviet intentions and objectives, and of Mikhail S. Gorbachev himself. But the United States cannot assume that Japan will not shift its policy toward Moscow. Gorbachev’s speech last week did not focus on major military reductions in East Asia but its conciliatory tone will play well to Japanese audiences.

Early in 1988 Prime Minister Noboru Takeshita told the Japanese Defense Academy that Japan needed forces consistent with its economic power. But no one, including Takeshita, has subsequently repeated this position. The foundation of Japanese security policy continues to be, as it has been for the last 40 years, military dependence on the United States. For Japan, the question has been whether increased defense spending and a change in defense policy will strengthen its economic and political security or weaken it. Its answer thus far is that if it is seen by the rest of the world--particularly by the Chinese and Soviets--as becoming a more potent military power, both America and Japan would be less, not more, secure. This answer is almost certainly right.

Ironically peace, stability and an easing of tensions in Asia--just as in Europe--could also erode vital elements in the U.S.-Japan relationship, diminishing the importance of security ties and causing more Japanese to reconsider the strategic bargain they have maintained, especially if the arrangement itself caused Washington-Tokyo economic strains .

Global war seems increasingly distant. All major powers are likely to avoid involvement in regional conflicts and are likely to try helping settle those that do occur. Economic development and reform are given priority in the policies of virtually every country. It seems inevitable that the political influence of strong economic powers should increase relative to those dependent on military power.

This argues strongly for a restoration of a vital and innovative U.S. economy as quickly as possible. But it also argues for continuing to take advantage of the current situation: The political influence generated by Japan generally enhances the geopolitical and international economic interests of the United States. This is likely to continue, assuming the two countries adjust psychologically to the special symbiotic power relationship that has developed between them. As one close adviser to President-elect George Bush recently observed in private, the mutual economic damage that might be done if this breaks down might resemble in its own way the consequences of a confrontation between the two great military superpowers.

When other states understand that U.S. views on how or whether Japan should use its financial or economic weight are essential elements in Japanese decision-making, and when they see the bilateral cooperation on global issues, the political and economic objectives of both countries are served.

All this is easier to write than to do and the day-by-day political challenges for both countries are enormous. But Japan is betting that it can continue to increase its global influence and strengthen its economic and political interests by relying primarily on economic rather than military power, even while preserving strong U.S. relations.