Illustration: Adam Fitzcharles

Is Japan balancing?

"Randy Waterhouse," the nom de blog of a contributor to the political science group blog Duck of Minerva, looks to Japan in a discussion of when and why states balance against other states.

As I wrote in April, the lack of Japanese balancing behavior is the great puzzle in Japanese security policy since the end of the cold war. Waterhouse considers the possibility that North Korea — as opposed to China — is leading Japan to pursue a balancing strategy. He considers threatening signals from North Korea as a source of "perturbations" (borrowing a concept from Kingdon's Agendas, Alternatives, and Public Policies) that will trigger Japanese balancing behavior against North Korea.

There are a few problems with this argument. First, while the DPRK is in a sense be "revisionist" in that it wholly rejects the prevailing international order, as a small, impoverished, isolated country dependent on its neighbors to feed its people and having little more than its nuclear weapons, its missiles, and its wits to depend on for survival it hardly constitutes a revisionist power in the sense outlined by Robert Gilpin. North Korea may be revisionist in rhetoric, but do states balance against rhetoric or reach? The idea — implied but not explicitly stated by Waterhouse — is that Japanese conservatives can balance against the state that may one day become a revisionist power if it is not one already (see Alastair Iain Johnston's consideration of this question here ) by using the DPRK as a stand-in for China. Policy decisions made to cope with North Korea could serve as a "down payment" on a balancing strategy against China. Or not: as Waterhouse notes, there is a difference between reactionary balancing and long-term balancing. And while Waterhouse argues that elites interested in a more robust security posture are treating North Korea's recent behavior as a catalyst, certain conservatives make no secret of their desire to balance against China. A recent Sankei editorial on the LDP subcommittee's draft NDPG points to China's rise to second place in the SIPRI index of defense spending to make the case for reversing cuts in Japan's defense spending, a call echoed in an op-ed by Atsuyuki Sassa, the first head of the Cabinet's national security office, who calls for an increase in defense spending to 1.5% of GDP (but does not mention China). Japan's desire to purchase the F-22 is explicitly connected to a desire to balance against Chinese airpower. Despite the positive developments in the Sino-Japanese relationship, the China threat thesis is alive and well among the Japanese elites arguing for a more robust security policy. North Korea's actions may help make the case for balancing, but that does not mean that elites using Chinese behavior too.

There is a bigger question in this debate, namely how do we know when a state is balancing? What mix of policies would constitute a Japanese balancing strategy? Waterhouse essentially assumes that any change to the status quo in Japanese security policy would constitute balancing. But there has been plenty of change in Japanese security policy in the past twenty years, but it is debatable whether these changes constitute balancing. Japan may have opted for some balancing: the decision made by Japanese officials in 1994-1995 to keep the US-Japan alliance at the center of Japanese security policy (and to "strengthen" the alliance) was a response to the uncertainty surrounding China's rise, although US and Japanese officials were careful to not mention China when discussing the redefinition of the alliance. In other words, it is possible to argue that Japan has opted for external balancing over internal balancing, which would entail sweeping legal changes and (presumably) an expensive rearmament program that would give Japan greater autonomy from the US to cope with an uncertain regional environment. Nearly a decade of stagnant defense spending in areas aside from missile defense and host nation support — i.e., defense spending directly connected to the alliance — means that autonomy has become increasingly costly for Japan, which may in turn explain why Japanese elites are especially sensitive to recent signals emanating from Washington.

But that being said, there are other explanations for Japan's decision to embrace the alliance that have less to do with balancing and more to do with institutionalist arguments: Japan opted to renew the alliance after the cold war because there was a certain degree of path dependency. While it appeared as if Japan was making a choice between the US-Japan alliance, greater autonomy, and greater independence within the UN and other multilateral organizations, the choice may have been a false one. Japan may have reaffirmed the alliance simply because the balance of power among domestic actors was overwhelmingly in favor of doing so, with little thought to the strategic implications of this choice versus other choices.

Is this about to change? With the defense division of the LDP's Policy Research Council approving its subcommittee's draft NDPG that recommends the acquisition of preemptive strike capabilities — most notably cruise missiles — it is possible that Japan is preparing to shift from external balancing to internal balancing. Prime Minister Aso is favorably disposed to the proposal, although his defense minister, Yasukazu Hamada, is more cautious (triggering two blog posts from Yoshihisa Komori criticizing Hamada for being too soft). But Hamada's caution suggests that there may be skeptics within the LDP who could prevent the government from making a radical break with the status quo. (And there's a strong possibility that the LDP will not be in power long enough to oversee the publication of the new NDPG in December.)

In short, Waterhouse is right to look at domestic politics as a source of Japanese balancing behavior, but he understates the extent to which Japan may have already opted for a particular balancing strategy via the US-Japan alliance, and the extent to which domestic politics constrains political actors who want Japan to embark on a substantial and expensive rearmament program.

Other posts by Tobias Harris: