Brad Glosserman, a former member of the Japan Times editorial board now with CSIS*, has a WSJ op-ed (link here just in case) on Japan’s national security situation as its society ages and population declines, taken from a US strategic perspective. It’s pretty grim stuff:
The strategic implications of this shift are equally important. Japan’s demographic transition will act as a guillotine, cutting off the country’s policy options. Most simply, budget priorities will shift. Health care, currently underfunded, will become a considerable drain on the government purse. Defense spending—always a tough sell in Japan—will feel a tighter pinch. Recruitment for the Self Defense Forces, already difficult, will get harder. The reluctance of some Japanese to see their country assume a higher security role will be intensified as the population gets older and more risk averse. Japan will be reluctant to send its most precious asset—its youth—into combat.
Other forces will reinforce Japan’s increasingly inward-orientation. Foreign aid and investment have laid the foundation for Japanese engagement with Asia (and the world). But as the domestic economy dwindles, official development assistance and the investment capital that lubricated foreign relations will shrink. This will diminish Japan’s status in the region as other countries replace Japanese funds.
All won’t be negative: The demographic transition will make it difficult, if not impossible, for other regional powers to demonize Japan as in the past. The bogeyman of remilitarization could be laid to rest for good. This will help eliminate one of the most important obstacles to regional cooperation and provide a real impetus for Asian solutions to Asian problems.
Then he wraps up with some recommendations for how the US can respond to Japan’s demographic changes:
The U.S. needs to be prepared for these contradictory impulses and adjust how it engages Japan accordingly. First, it must abandon the quid pro quo mindset that often characterizes alliance discussions. Japan will have considerably less to contribute to the alliance, but that should not mean the alliance is less important. Discussion should focus on how Japanese contributions serve larger public and regional interests. Japan must do its part and come up with creative ways to share burdens and responsibilities.
Second, the U.S. should shift the alliance’s center of gravity away from military issues. Japanese engagement in this area will become more problematic. If Washington pushes Tokyo harder to make military contributions, it risks politicizing the alliance and undermining its support in Japan.
Third, the U.S. should create and strengthen regional institutions. Regional security mechanisms can pick up the slack as the U.S.-Japan alliance evolves. Other economic and political organizations can minimize tensions in the region. This process should begin soon, while Japan has more influence to maximize its leverage during the creation process. Washington and Tokyo should stop seeing their bilateral alliance and multilateral institutions as zero-sum alternatives. The U.S. should not see this process as a threat to its interests; instead, it should trust Tokyo to see that its interests are respected in these discussions. That would constitute a new form of burden sharing.
Finally, the U.S. has to get its own economic house in order. Washington has relied on Japanese savings—along with those of China and other Asian nations—to finance its profligacy. As Japan ages, it will no longer have those funds to lend to the U.S. This is a potentially wrenching adjustment for America—one that might produce some premature aging of its own.
Typically for op-eds by think-tank people, Glosserman is less interested in making his thoughts clear to the general public than he is in reaching a more sophisticated audience of policymakers. This strategy makes for just this sort of opaque, “wonkish” writing style.
So as the title of this post suggests, I’ll offer the clarity that Glosserman won’t. At the risk of mischaracterizing his argument, here are the points I think he is trying to make:
- The demographic situation means Japan will get weaker and weaker to the point that it’s too old and financially crippled to credibly defend itself or economically engage with countries in the region.
- This means the US cannot stop providing a strong defense presence in Japan or else “other countries” will replace Japan as a power in Asia.
- To get this done, the US needs to pursue a strategy of (1) Pretending the US-Japan alliance is reciprocal by making reasonable demands for Japanese contributions and by not making military issues an explicit focus of the alliance, i.e. stop making loud public demands, (2) Building up regional institutions on terms the US can accept, and do it now before Japan really starts to look bad, (3) Keeping China (and to a lesser extent South Korea) on board as friendly powers so Japan and China can work together on the second piece of the strategy (though he doesn’t outline how to do this); and (4) End the US “reliance on Japanese savings” (that part is light on details as well; I suspect it’s a hastily added reference to the economics topic du jour).
- If this can be accomplished, a “Beijing-Tokyo axis” can lead efforts to build EU-style integration of the region which will lead to a lasting peace. And they all lived happily ever after.
Got that, Japan? You’re doomed to live out the 21st century as a paralyzed dementia victim, and CSIS is ready to have the US start manipulating you like a ventriloquist’s dummy in America’s efforts to reshape the region.
My brief reaction is that Japan shouldn’t be counted out quite so easily, but America would be foolish not to think realistically in this direction. Funnily enough, he seems to more or less describe America’s existing policy toward Japan (maintain the alliance no matter what), except for a reminder to US leadership that they shouldn’t expect too much of Japan considering where its demographics are headed.
* Glosserman is affiliated with the “Pacific Forum CSIS” located in Honolulu of all places. Sounds like a much more comfortable post than the real CSIS on K Street in Washington.