The following is an abbreviated summary of the German Marshall Fund's recently released Policy Brief "Japan's Global Re-Emergence: How Japan's Active Diplomacy Strengthens the Foundations of the U.S.-Japan Alliance" co-authored with Sharon Stirling Woolsey
Japan has reappeared on the world stage. After 20 years of economic stagnation and a decade of political malaise, Shinzo Abe, in his second incarnation as prime minister, has won two major elections and is attempting to use his political capital to reform the sluggish Japanese economy.
At the same time, he is placing a renewed emphasis on global affairs. Central to this has been the Abe's government effort to diversify Tokyo's international partnerships. Japan is forging closer relations across the Indo-Pacific and increasing dialogue with ASEAN. Farther abroad, Japan is deepening cooperation with Europe and reinforcing its security anchor, the U.S.-Japan alliance. Just when global rules and norms are being tested, Tokyo's proactive diplomatic outreach, aimed at strengthening the international system, is a welcome development for Washington. Japan has benefited tremendously from the U.S.-led international rules based order established after World War II and now seeks to stand-up to the threats that are challenging this order by strengthening its connectivity with other countries -- especially other democracies. Japan is seizing the opportunity to be not only a contributor to regional peace and stability, but an active player on the global stage.
Japan's determination to be a global actor is underscored by recent contributions to international peace and prosperity efforts in combating the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and the ongoing crisis in Ukraine. Japan joined the United States and Europe in implementing sanctions against Russia. This position ran contrary to the prior Japanese goal of settling its longstanding territorial dispute with Moscow and securing much-needed energy resources from Russia. Sadly, Japan's increased global profile has not come without controversy or tragedy, witnessed most starkly by the recent public killing of two Japanese hostages by ISIS. The Abe government has sought to diversify Japan's traditional partnerships and policy instruments by pursuing a grand strategy of connectivity among democracies, while balancing its pragmatic and opportunistic relations with other states. This strategy begins with Japan's newly established National Security Council, and employs the use of a variety of levers including foreign aid, defense commerce, and multilateral diplomacy.
Ultimately, Abe's success in this endeavor will hinge on his much-vaunted "Abenomics" -- economic policy aimed at resuscitating the sluggish Japanese economy. The success of this daunting task will likely determine whether Abe will have the political capital to sustain Japanese leadership abroad. There is little public appetite for Japan's international leadership role if direct interests are not at stake. Thus it is vital for Abe's government to conclude the Trans-Pacific Partnership as soon as possible, and clarify the benefits of various new trilateral partnerships involving Australia, India, and Southeast Asia.
If Abe can succeed, a revitalized Japan, empowered to undertake important trade negotiations and reinterpret the traditional definitions of collective self-defense, is a welcome global development. Japan's proactive diplomacy is not a threat to the U.S.-Japan alliance; rather it is a tribute to it. By the same token, strategic diplomacy with partners in the region or elsewhere who share common interests but not values should be viewed as complementary to U.S. and European interests. Tokyo's diversification of its partnerships with like-minded powers in the Indo-Pacific and Europe along with the deepening of relations in Southeast Asia works to ensure a prosperous and strong Japan, which in turn guarantees regional stability. Rather than being a zero-sum game for the U.S.-Japan alliance, it is a force multiplier for both parties.
The United States remains the indispensable link between the Atlantic and Pacific. In turn, Japan has a key role to play not just as an important ally of the United States in Asia, but also as the world's fourth largest economy, the biggest donor of international aid, and home to many of the world's most respected multinational businesses, assets that Tokyo can bring to bear in international affairs to reinforce global norms and the existing international order. Success in tackling its own domestic and economic challenges will ultimately determine the longevity of Tokyo's global renaissance. Japan's global emergence should be welcomed and encouraged by its partners to weather the challenges in the 21st century.