CSIS scholar: An aging Japan will lose any hope of controlling its effective sovereignty

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.

20 thoughts on “CSIS scholar: An aging Japan will lose any hope of controlling its effective sovereignty”

  1. “too old and financially crippled to credibly defend”

    While there is certainly a need to think about what the future might hold, we should be very cautious about these types of predictions. For starters, if the situation really got that grim, Japan could always get nukes. Second, the battlefield of today requires plenty of young guys but who is to say that Japan would be mass producing cheap combat cyborgs by 2172 or whatever? That might sound stupid, but so are many of these macro trend predictions. The big unspoken bogeyman in this analysis is China, but China also has nay saying 50 year predictions – economic collapse, revolt, AIDS, crazy aging population, pollution, etc. so why assume a scenario that is all bad for Japan and business as normal for China? Even if you throw out the worst China predictions it stands to reason that China is not going to be able to get by on low wages and manufacturing cheap stuff forever – when wages rise and domestic consumption becomes more of a factor – kiss 8-10% growth rates goodbye. We’ve seen it happen in Japan, Korea, and Taiwan already.

    Your (Adamu’s) final comments are very reasonable, however. You don’t need doom and gloom soothsaying on a decades long scale to tell that US military demands risk alienating a solid ally in the Pacific (at least in a diplomatic sense). You are also correct that this sounds more or less like a call for the status quo on the part of the States, perhaps with an added hint that we don’t need another Iraq (I think that we all got the hint on that). In the end, this isn’t that much difference between this analysis and the “OMG if there are no Japanese kids anymore they won’t be making anime!” idea.

  2. Of course, Korea and China have their own respective demographic crisis to deal with. China will get old before it gets rich; and Korea has had a far more drastic and sudden drop in birth rates that will hit them harder, plus the fact that much of the countryside is importing wives from Southeast Asia and creating curious ethnic tensions.

  3. I am not supremely well-read or anything, but I don’t think it’s all that common to see analysis like this that so completely writes Japan off (ok maybe that “Japan is the world’s worst economy EVAR” blog post was a harbinger).

    Anyway, what this tells me is I need to kick-start my “serious” pundit career. If I write enough editorials maybe I’ll be named the Executive Director of the Caribbean Security and Progress Study Policy Center headquartered on a resort in the Bahamas.

  4. When people write things like this, it is usually an attempted act of manipulation.

    Japanese rightwingers write pretty much the same thing, but call for a standoff with China and whatnot as a “solution”. Here, we have an American who seems to be in the mainstream Democrat or left of crazy Republican camp (WSJ makes me think R) – who sees big American world power as a given but realises that there is also a need for a soft touch and hopes that policy people will follow that suggestion.

    People who are trying to change the views of others (apart from say, trying to prove a thesis) often end up making the most dire predictions to shock and get attention.

    “Anyway, what this tells me is I need to kick-start my “serious” pundit career.”

    Indeed. Compare the amount of effort and thought that went into your Tokyo election series to this WSJ bit. But you need degrees and thinktank experience and a lot of brown nosing before they let you in the door.

  5. “This will diminish Japan’s status in the region as other countries replace Japanese funds.”

    Japan never had any “status”in the region.If it ever was than it wes “Sugar daddy”.The region simply demaded money and told Tokyo to fuck off when they ask something in return such as political influence.
    And so far I don’t see any regional nations replacing Japanese funds for the moment.Unlike Japanese,Chinese and Indians don’t feel the need to establish the reputation that they are generous.But if they do,I see no problem with this.What I do find problematic about is Japanese tax payer is doing this task almost single handedly in the region for more than 40 years.It’s time that Koreans and Singaporeans to open their wallets to help Cambodians and Mongolians.

    Japan had never send large numbers of personals to oversea mission.And though aging population does make SDF recruting mission difficult,increasing public support to SDF missions and unemployment of youth(neither exist next to none in the 70’s and 80’s)compensate that.Anyway SDF is no Juggernaut,It’s less than quater of a million,Japan can and will fullfil the personels it need for the mission.

    However,I read a lot more hidden sign here. I read this alarming since this is coming from Brad Grosserman,who is far from other gloom and doomers.He was a type that can be categorized as member of the chrythanthemum club or so I think judging from what he writes in the past.
    Now he is saying stop counting on Japan and shake more hands with China.Trying to change Japan becoming normal nation won’t serve American interest since it would help “tright wingers” and make our important Chinese friend upset.

    “the U.S. should create and strengthen regional institutions.”
    Brits had proposed exactly the same thing when they wanted to dissolve Anglo-Japanese alliance.London was more concerened about worries of other Anglosphere in Pacific than Tokyo.It seems US-Japan alliance is heading toward the fate of Anglo-Japanese alliance with Japan only this time it’s Koreans and Chinese instead of Australians and Canadians who wants to weaken our alliances.Japan in 21st century lacking imperial army and navy with regional enemies armed to it’s teeth and nuclear weapon.

    “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. ”

    This,would never happens.My two cents.

  6. Demographic predictions are very unreliable, but if I was to pick ONE scenario that is the most likely, this would be it. I really wish Japan would wake up to these issues. Maybe the problem is that only nutty right-wingers expound these views in Japanese within Japan, and their proposed solutions are bound to fail anyway (“force all women to be housewives”). Or, since it seems that the majority of Japanese don’t care at all about “national glory”, but only about leading comfortable lives, it is possible that Japanese politicians are simply acting in the best interest of the Japanese populace.

    By the way, any future EU-like structure will be have to built on a Seoul-Tokyo axis, not Beijing-Tokyo. You cannot build an EU from undemocratic nations.

  7. [quote]
    “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. ”

    This,would never happens.My two cents.


    I agree with Aceface here. During the past 40-50 years there has been no reason whatsoever of accusing Japan of militarism. This hasn’t stopped China or South Korea, since bringing up militarism anyway improves their negotiation position.

  8. I wonder how long CSIS will be taken seriously with the director of its Japan activities its honbu (a guy whose knowledge seems to extend to a comprehensive understanding of what the headlines in the Japan Times say each morning) discredited as a neocon weasel and its strategy of forming cozy connections with the LDP’s Machimura faction down the toilet after the next election. Maybe Glosserman will get a promotion.

  9. From ex-NYT Tokyo bureau chief Nicholas Christof
    “Japan isn’t important since it’s not threatening.And I’m not interested since it can’t be a front page story”

    But here we have a steady loyal fan who keep his eyes constantly focused on Japan.
    “All I want is to help my be-loved North Korea off the hook and turn the blame onto others like….Japan”.

  10. “This,would never happens.My two cents.”

    Not much time to write now, but I will add that my first reaction to that part of the original was – China give up talking about Japanese miltiarism? Yeah, right.

    If China took over Japan and ran it as a military colony in 2937, I can imagine the Chinese leadership justifying increasing the size of the garrison by talking about 1937. This story ends with the Battleship Yamamto being outfitted as a space ship and destroying the Chinese star fortress in the Red Nebula…. In any case, these predictions are no more or less realistic than Glosserman’s assumption that the Japanese miltiarist bogeyman will be gone in a generation.

  11. Or Japan could remilitarize with a robot army, having finally achieved resource independence after building a space elevator stretching up to the heavens from Okinawa, which is used to transport ore from their robotic mining space-ships to the surface. The whole prediction game is really an exercise in fiction writing without having to do the hard part of writing compelling prose.

  12. “I wonder how long CSIS will be taken seriously with the director of its Japan activities its honbu (a guy whose knowledge seems to extend to a comprehensive understanding of what the headlines in the Japan Times say each morning) ・・・・・”

    FYI,Mike Green does read/speak Japanese.He was a staffer for ex-LDP diet member Shiina Motoo(Now deceased)

  13. “remilitarize with a robot army, having finally achieved resource independence after building a space elevator stretching up to the heavens from Okinawa”

    Is that Gunbuster?

    “Mike Green does read/speak Japanese”

    I rag on whiteys that live in Japanese for years and don’t learn that language. Take that X 100 for people who specialize in Japanese studies for years and don’t.

  14. The Obama administration seems to be keenly aware of the need to embrace those godless commies in China (sorry if that offends any god-botherers, koranimals, and/or intelligent designers out there).

    The tricky part now is ensuring that the twitching corpse that is Japan doesn’t knock something over.

  15. “Is that Gunbuster?”
    No, but I can expand it to book length for a pundit salary.

  16. “Is that Gunbuster?” No

    Wow, you just made up some crazy SF stuff off the top of your head and it is about an 80% accurate description of an 80s anime series! That’s gold.

  17. Check tvtropes.org and you’ll see that figuring out standard anime plots isn’t so difficult.

  18. Isn’t it America that looks like an empire on its last legs? I suspect that’s a much bigger problem for the possible age of turmoil ahead.

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