Workshop: Japan's Grand Strategic Choices 2016

It is often argued that Tokyo’s new muscularity in its security policy is derived directly from Beijing’s new assertiveness in regional affairs. Fewer analysts have paid attention to another, equally critical element of Japan’s evolving grand strategy: changing perceptions of U.S. commitment and capabilities. Concerns about the relative decline of the United States and the possibility of U.S. retrenchment from its global role have also motivated Japanese foreign and security policy behavior in East Asia and beyond. By establishing regional strategic partnerships that include security as well as economic and diplomatic elements, the Japanese government has begun generating and deploying a fuller spectrum of strategic tools to position it to achieve its longer term foreign policy goals. These new tools and relationships also provide for a greater degree of strategic autonomy for Japan. By embracing the U.S. strategic pivot over the short to medium term, Japan will enjoy a window of opportunity where it can more confidently implement strategic partnerships with regional players without excessive fear of Chinese reprisals, and without raising US suspicions that Japan is trying to side-line it in the regional order.

This workshop will explore and articulate areas where Japan is pursuing its own independent interests as refracted through Tokyo’s perceptions of a relative decline in U.S. capabilities and commitments to East Asia alongside a more assertive China. Two sessions are designed to enhance understanding of how Japan might leverage its own resources and efforts—and, in the short- to medium term the US-Japan alliance-- to achieve its grand strategic and security goals. 

Richard J. Samuels and Corey Wallace, Co-organizers, Einstein Visiting Fellow Project East Asia Security

Japan’s Grand Strategic Choices in a Changing Asia (23-24 June, 2016): Workshop Summary


A two-day discussion workshop focused on Japan’s grand strategic choices in a changing Asia was held on June 23-24, 2016 at Freie Universität Berlin. This workshop was the first step towards putting together a focused proposal for an edited volume on this topic as part of the Einstein Foundation-funded project on East Asian Security, led by Einstein Foundation Visiting Fellow, Professor Richard Samuels.

Day one of the conference started with sessions on the ‘China Question’, and the ‘Korea Question’, which reflected upon whether Japan could continue to rely upon its two major Northeast Asian economic partners given increased diplomatic and security tensions in the region. This was followed by two afternoon sessions that focused on the ‘American Question’ and the military balance in the region. The key point of contention during these sessions was whether Japan could continue to rely on its major security and diplomatic partner, and whether the steps taken by Japan to strengthen the operational functionality of the US-Japan alliance would be enough to maintain a favourable military balance.

The day ended with a keynote speech by Mr. Nishi Masanori, the recently retired Japanese Administrative Vice-Minister for Defense. Mr Nishi provided the conference participants with an extremely insightful reflection on his experiences of over more than thirty years as an official in the Ministry of Defense, especially those experiences relating to the revision of the US-Japan Defense Guidelines in 1997 and 2015. While noting that Japan had faced similar questions about rapidly changing geopolitical trends in the 1970s, Mr. Nishi pointed to the specific difficulties of security policymaking in the post-Cold War era. In particular, he addressed the increased importance of being able to understand, and if possible, adapt to the rapidly changing economic dimensions of security in a period of globalisation.

Day two started with reflections on adjustments made to Japan’s security policy in terms of changes to political and legal institutions, as well as enhancements of Japan’s own hard military power. This was followed by two sessions looking at evolving and new diplomatic partnerships outside Northeast Asia, and beyond the US-Japan alliance, that the Japanese government has been pursuing more vigorously over the last decade. The conference ended with a panel discussion and summary of proceedings by Professor Richard Samuels.

During the workshop, a consensus developed among the participants that Tokyo has increasingly come to question its own assumptions about regional and global geopolitical trends. The period from 2008-2009 has seen significant economic, diplomatic and internal developments in China, the United States, and on the Korean Peninsula. Due to these changes, Japan’s ability to co-manage regional relations and tensions with the PRC, the US and the ROK, has become strained. This broader realisation, along with specific discussions on the geopolitical changes and Japanese government adaptations, will make a good basis for the development of an edited volume and a subsequent publication workshop to be held in June 2017.