Japan's Leadership in East Asian Security with Paul Midford

The length of the recording: 26 minutes

Henrik Hiim: [00:00:07] Welcome to the Nordic Asia Podcast, a collaboration sharing expertise on Asia across the Nordic region. My name is Henrik Hiim. I'm a senior researcher and the Asia coordinator at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs. I am here today with Professor Paul Midford. Paul is one of the leading scholars internationally on Japan's foreign policy and heads the Japan program at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology. We are here today to talk about Paul's new book, Overcoming Isolationism, Japan's Leadership in East Asian Security, Multilateralism. Paul's book asks a really important but under examined question why did Japan, after the end of the Cold War, move out of its isolation and started cooperating more actively with its neighbors about security? And to me, the reading this book really helped me debunk some myths, because I must admit I've had an image of Japan as a sort of very passive foreign policy actor, largely following the lead of the United States. But I think that in this book, Paul really demonstrates that this is not true. Japan has become more and more active in the post-Cold War period. So, Paul, just to start, if you could tell us a little bit about how Japan's foreign policy changed, that would be that would be great if you compare Japan's security policy during the Cold War to its post-Cold War policies. What are sort of the main differences that that you see?


Paul Midford: [00:01:56] Ok. Well, as the title of my book suggests, The Cold- during the Cold War, Japan engaged in what I call security, isolationism in avoided security ties with all other nations, with the U.S., the United States as the sole exception. Now, one notable example of this is that when Japan joined the U.S. Navy's multilateral rim of the Pacific, or RIMPAC annual naval exercises at the beginning of the 1980s, it scrupulously avoided contacts with with any other participating navies except for the U.S. Navy. So for Japan, RIMPAC was a bilateral naval exercise with the U.S. and in close proximity to a multilateral exercise. Japan also opposed regional security, multilateralism. It pursued security, isolationism as a way to reassure East Asian states that Japan would not return to its pre 1945 expansionism. So Japan effectively self-contained itself within the twin frameworks of its war renouncing constitution and the U.S. Japan alliance. And it after the Cold War or at the end of the Cold War, things began to change because the Soviet Union and the U.S. were reducing their regional military presence at the same time that Japan, U.S. bilateral economic tensions were worsening and Japan was looming large as the region's economic hegemon with an economy larger than the rest of East and South Asia combined. So Japan had used its security isolation in combination with this, including this kind of self containment within its war renouncing constitution and the U.S. alliance to become a as a way to reassure its neighbors. So this was effectively a reassurance strategy towards Asia. But with the end of the Cold War, it became clear that Japan had outgrown the self containment structures and needed to expand its regional and global security role in response to U.S. pressure and an apparent looming security vacuum in the region.


Henrik Hiim: [00:04:13] So in a sense, I mean, this was part of a reassurance strategy, right, to reassure other countries of Japan's sort of benign intentions, were there other factors, you would say, that sort of inform this policy shift?


Paul Midford: [00:04:31] Well, besides the kind of changing of the balance of power at the end of the Cold War, the decline of the United States in the Soviet Union, other factors or other motivations Japan had were kind of a desire to kind of control or manage its alliance with the U.S. What's often talked about is a so-called alliance security dilemma. You know that when you're whenever one state has an alliance with another, you have to worry about the possibility of being abandoned by your ally or being entrapped by your ally. And Japan also tried to use regional security, multilateralism that it began to embrace at the end of the Cold War as a way to manage its U.S. ally. And as time went on, it also found regional security, multilateralism to be useful to provide certain kind of what you might call utility security, utilities, things that the Japan couldn't do by itself and really couldn't do with the U.S. bilaterally, such as combating piracy regionally or cooperating with countries in the region to strengthen responses to natural disasters and humanitarian crises. So these are some of the things that Japan has also tried to pursue since it really shifted from security, isolationism to what I could call in the post-Cold War era security engagement, primarily through promoting regional security, multilateralism, something that I opposed during the Cold War, but also engaging more bilaterally with other countries in the region like Australia, India, states of Southeast Asia, Vietnam, Philippines, et cetera.


Henrik Hiim: [00:06:07] But this need for reassurance, maybe you could say a little bit more about it, because, I mean, I know historically, of course, I mean, Japan has had sort of a bad reputation for for obvious reasons, which perhaps speaks to the to the to the need for a reassurance strategy. Right? Yes.


Paul Midford: [00:06:27] Well, after simply put, I mean, after World War Two, Japan appeared to be a country that was very aggressive or was kind of predisposed towards militarism and being aggressive. That was a widespread impression. The American General MacArthur and many officials in the U.S. occupation of Japan have that image of Japan, countries of today, of very close security ties with Japan, like Australia, had that image in the Philippines to in fact, Australia was against a so-called Pacific pact that was proposed in the early 1950s, including Japan, because it included Japan. And they were even said they were more worried about Japan at that time than they were about the Soviet Union or China. And this is I'm talking about the early 1950s here. So Japan sort of created through its pre-war expansionism this image. And it's been trying gradually since the end of the ah during the Cold War to kind of overcome that through the security, isolationism, maintaining a very low military posture, maintaining its war, renouncing constitution and its alliance with the United States, in addition to some of the sort of broad structural changes that you mentioned at the end of the Cold War and the turn towards unipolarity in the international system, you also draw attention to what you call foreign policy entrepreneurs in your book.


Henrik Hiim: [00:07:54] And as far as I can understand, these are people with sort of new ideas to see. You also managed to get their ideas translated into actual policy. So I was wondering if you could say a little bit more about these people, who they were and how they got their policies implemented.


Paul Midford: [00:08:14] Mm hmm. Yeah. So the key entrepreneurs that identified in the book most I mean, especially Satoh Ukiyo, who was the brains behind the so-called Nakayama proposal, which is really the heart of the pivot from security, isolationism towards security, engagement. He had one he and many other policy entrepreneurs had one foot in the policy think tank world in the academic world and one foot in the in government specifically. He had at the time of the Nakayama proposal, he was head of policy planning at Japan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He had before that studied in the UK and had been a researcher at the London based Institute of Strategic and International Studies, ISS. He also had close ties with leading academics at the ASEAN Institute of Strategic and International Studies.


Paul Midford: [00:09:07] So he was able to kind of leverage these contacts between the academic world and policymaking to kind of absorb and channel and kind of refine some new ideas about cooperative and cooperative security and common security, these new forms of security, multilateralism that it really began in Europe in the 1970s and were beginning to be influential in East Asia in the early 1990s.


Paul Midford: [00:09:37] So he played a big role, along with some others and sort of changing the thinking in the foreign ministry and in Japan among Japan's elites. Now, others, like Nishi Haramasashi, were academics with close ties to policy makers. Then there's so that's maybe a second group. And then there are third group or politicians with deep expertise and interest in these issues. So former Prime Minister Miyazawa Kiichi and also Con- former Foreign Minister Kono Yohei leading samples in this group and all these intrapreneurs acted to transmit these new ideas about common and co-operative forms of security, multilateralism. And they were motivated by a belief that the rapidly changing security environment at the end of the Cold War required Japan to undergo a major rethink of its traditional approaches to security and look for a new kind of policy instruments.


Henrik Hiim: [00:10:31] What are the things that really impressed me while reading your book, guess the broad range of sources you've consulted here, including interviews with a lot of people who were intimately involved with all of this and also a range of declassified documents. Can you tell me a little bit more about the sources and in general, perhaps about the making of the book? You've been working on this for for quite a while, haven't you?


Paul Midford: [00:10:56] Yes, it's kind of occurred at the intersection of several other projects that really begins in the most meaningful sense, my my first full day in Japan and in my life. In July nineteen ninety one, I had an appointment at the Foreign Ministry. I went to the Foreign Ministry and met a diplomat who specialized in security issues, a former member of Japan's armed forces, the SDF. And he proclaimed to me that Japan had just made its first post-war international security initiative and handed me a copy of the Nakayama proposal that was given like two days earlier.


Paul Midford: [00:11:33] And that really got me interested in the Nakayama proposal and also this issue of reassurance, because Nakayama is very explicit in this proposal about saying you should establish a regional multilateral security forum and one topic should be used, other countries concerns about Japan playing a larger security role. So that's sort of where it began. And over the course of a related work to related to my doctoral dissertation at Columbia University and other projects, I've been interviewing people on this topic since the early 1990s. So one major source for this book are many interviews over many years with many Japanese diplomats. I interviewed Sato maybe seven or eight times and some other top officials. I interviewed Prime Minister Miyazawa, former Prime Minister Miyazawa in 2005. And then in 2010, when I had my first sabbatical and I was going to write up this book, I made the mistake or did the right thing.


Paul Midford: [00:12:38] And I put in a lot of Freedom of Information request to the Foreign Ministry and to the Cabinet Office under the prime minister in Japan when I was there, and also into the diplomatic archives and found some documents there about the Freedom of Information request I put in resulted in a treasure trove of documents. I ended up with like over a thousand pages of documents in Japanese various cables and and policy planning documents, et cetera. And that was good, except that there was no way I was going to get through that in my first sabbatical. So that delayed my book until my last sabbatical, which was 26 to 28 through 2017 when I finally processed all that and wrote up the book. But it does I do think it does have a rich variety of sources. I mean, of course, secondary, scientific, academic literature plus, you know, these original declassified documents and interviews.


Henrik Hiim: [00:13:31] Just as a side note, for someone working on Chinese foreign policy, I could just dream about having access to to that sort of documentation of-


Paul Midford: [00:13:39] Actually, could I just interrupt there? Because I just remind me of a really important point, which is I was really lucky because when I was putting in this Freedom of Information requests, the Democratic Party of Japan was in power and they were very open and transparent. And I think that's why I got far more documents than I expected. And recently it's been reported that the Obama administration became much more restrictive. And there was even a case of a document from the 1950s that had been previously declassified. Someone requested it again and it came back with almost totally redacted. So I my timing, I was really lucky that I put in the request when I did. If I put them in today, I wouldn't have gotten nearly as much.


Henrik Hiim: [00:14:20] So under a different government. That would have been I would have been different. Now I want to discuss some of the implications that this book could have for the future of East Asia, because, again, like this is a really, really good book, you know, Japanese foreign policy between 1990 and the present. But but it also has important implications for for current debates about, you know, the future of of East Asia. And just to set the scene a little bit to our listeners, I would like to highlight and you highlight this in the book, too, of course, that the East Asia that we're seeing today is fundamentally different from the East Asia in 1991 when the Cold War and that and the most important difference, obviously, is that massive power shift that has happened in the region with the rise of China. I think you highlight this, but in the early 1990s, Japan was the second largest economy in the world and it was larger than all of the East Asian economies combined, including China. Chinese military power at the time was very limited, very, very limited power projection capability. Particularly in the maritime realm. And then if you fast-Forward, 30 years, this picture, this is very different. Of course, China is now larger than all of the East Asian economies combined. So Japan and China have sort of switched place places. The military power projection capabilities of China have also increased massively, of course. And then, I mean, given this shift, one may ask whether reassurance which you sort of identify as the core rationale of Japan's shifting security policy, whether it's as important now as it was in the past. Now, many countries in East Asia identify China as their sort of most important security challenge, not necessarily because they may regard Chinese intentions, but simply because of the massive increase in Chinese capabilities. So this Japan really need to reassure its neighbors. Now, does it need to reassure China? I mean, China was an important target of the reassurance policy, obviously, also in the past.


Paul Midford: [00:16:49] Yeah, yes. That's a good question. And my concluding chapter, I actually have a whole section entitled Does Reassurance Still Matter? And my argument is it matters less than it used to, but it still matters. First, I would argue it matters less because Japan's reassurance strategy, particularly through promoting regional security multilateralism, has been successful. They have successfully reassured a lot of East Asian countries who had been leery of Japan before, particularly. We can look at the Philippines and Vietnam that are now very much deepening their security cooperation with Japan. So that's one kind of one answer. But it is true that as the balance of power has shifted, that more states have become more concerned about China.


Paul Midford: [00:17:36] But that doesn't automatically translate into lack of concern about Japan. And also when we think about kind of the shifting balance of of threats and and power and which and, you know, who's kind of reputation Japan should be compared to, we shouldn't only think about the way other countries look at China versus Japan versus China as a military power. We also need to think about how the countries of the region think about Japan versus the United States as a military power. A sinologist in the United States. Thomas Kristiansen years ago kind of summarized this when he said that this was back in the 1990s, that Chinese observers seem genuinely thankful that American aircraft carriers and Marines replaced Japanese aircraft carriers and Marines so that the identity of the country providing, you know, security in the region, even if it is in some sense an opposition to China, matters to China. Now, I think that the difference between the U.S. and Japan today is much less because, again, Japan's reassurance strategy has been successful and maybe the U.S. reputation has also taken a few hits recently. So for those reasons, I would say that it does still matter. And I also think it matters for all states, actually, not just those who had the kind of reputation Japan was saddled with after World War Two. I think this is sort of one of the bread and butter purposes of diplomacy, which is reassuring others about your intentions and that you don't intend to threaten others.


Henrik Hiim: [00:19:15] I guess South Korea would be an important example of this also, right? I mean, South Korea was very much exposed to Japan's Japanese militarism during the Second World War. Right. And had very strong sort of objections to Japan, assuming a larger military role, despite the fact that they're both allied to the United States and and not the United States, really wanted to cooperate more closely.


Paul Midford: [00:19:41] Yes. When we look at Northeast Asia, certainly Japanese reassurance toward South Korea has not been very successful. I mean, they've made some progress in terms of security cooperation, but it's been very modest. So there is still a need for, I would argue, reassurance towards South Korea and also regarding China, I mean, I think we could argue that there is also Japan of some need to continue reassurance towards China, although there are, of course, many skeptics who who who question how sincere, you know, Chinese concerns about Japanese rearmament are. Those are well taken nonetheless. You know, military to military cooperation, say, in disaster relief operations, et cetera, can help to reassure and build a better image for Japan's military with China. Also, Japan has had some unappreciated successes, so China, for example, initially opposed Japan sending its military to Cambodia for the U.N. peacekeeping in 1992 93. But by the time it was over, China reversed its position and come out in favor of that, in part because the Japanese contingent and the Chinese military were able to cooperate on the ground.


Henrik Hiim: [00:20:52] Related to this: I wonder whether you think the relative importance of balancing Chinese power has increased. You do mention this as one motivation in the book, but that's sort of less important than reassurance. But do you think that is shifting about cooperating with other Asian states and potentially, I mean, states outside Asia, too, to balance Chinese power is sort of gaining prominence, becoming more important to Japan?


Paul Midford: [00:21:23] Well, as a foreign policy goal, yes, it is. But of course, I'm talking about Japan's I'm focusing on Japan's involvement in regional security, multilateralism and balancing. China has been a motivation in those contacts within the ASEAN Regional Forum and within the ASEAN defense ministers meeting, plus dialogue partners that are involved, defense ministers from all from those countries in the region. But in that context, it's it's not the context for building like an explicit or even less than explicit counterbalancing coalition against China, such as the quad that involves Japan, the U.S., Australia and India might be. So Japan has been putting more importance on organizations like the Quad, which I would not call multilateralism. That's more an example of many lateral ism. I would say it's more involves like minded states, whereas the the R.F., for example, includes China and Russia is more of a unlike minded forum. But even in that, unlike minded forum, counterbalancing China can be important for Japan in terms of maybe isolating China or preventing China from isolating Japan so it can use that maybe to make gains or defensively to prevent China from making gains. So in that context, balancing China is important. But but there are limits to what you're going to be able to do in that kind of context.


Henrik Hiim: [00:22:54] So, in essence, it seems like you think that despite the shifts happening in the balance of power in East Asia, you see a strong continuity, nevertheless, in Japan's foreign policy. Could you say a little bit about the implications of this and what it, I mean, holds for and implies for the future security and security environment of East Asia?


Paul Midford: [00:23:18] What the implication is, as I discussed in the book, is that Japan is been a consistent champion of regional security, multilateralism. And I think I expect that to continue. And therefore, I expect to see regional security, multilateralism to be important and to continue to develop. And I think it has an important role in helping to stabilize the region. It's a place where all the countries of the region can meet. Among other things, the ŞEREF is the only place outside of the U.N. International Forum political for and where North Korea participates. So for that reason alone, it's pretty valuable. But but also it's a place where, you know, Japan and China and the U.S. and these other countries can directly talk to each other. And so I argue that it has an important stabilizing role. It's also important for helping to keep the U.S. in the region. Japan's security, multilateralism that helped to create the admin plus in the Şeref have been surprisingly successful in terms of helping to keep the U.S. engaged in the region and prevent kind of U.S. abandonment, because, as you know, officials in Washington tell me, those meetings are sort of like one stop shopping, meaning that the secretaries of state and defense can come out and meet all of their regional counterparts in one place. And so that is justification to draw them out of Washington and make the very long journey, long flight from Washington to to Southeast Asia for these meetings.


Paul Midford: [00:24:47] So I expect that, you know, these Japans promotion of security, multilateralism and security, multilateral institutions in East Asia will play an important stabilizing role in helping to maintain regional peace and security, particularly at a time when you sino U.S. tension is increasing. And we need and there's a need for having kind of mechanisms that can help to address, if not diffuse, some of that tension, particularly in the at the regional level.


Henrik Hiim: [00:25:20] Ok, on that slightly positive note, I think we'll have to and for everyone who wants to explore this issue more in depth and learn more about Japan's foreign policy and international relations in East Asia more generally, I strongly recommend reading this book, Overcoming Isolationism Japan's Leadership in East Asian Security. Multilateralism is available now. My name is Henry Quim and thank you for joining the Nordic Asia podcast showcasing Nordic collaboration and studying Asia.