Yomiuri Shimbun, 19 July 2012
by Susan Yoshihara
Deep and sustained population decline has brought Japan to a fateful decision point.
A government report says the country will lose a million people a year for the next several decades, plummeting to 86 million from 127 million today, representing a 30 collapse by 2060.
Given such population projections, Tokyo’s ambitious global agenda is now in tension with its own security requirements and the needs of the U.S.-Japan alliance. Tokyo has raised and diversified its international profile while keeping the homeland safe from aggression. But it now seems unlikely Tokyo can have it all. Policy makers will most likely have to choose between internationalist visions and regional duties closer to home.
During the Cold War, Japan’s vital role focused on such priorities as territorial integrity and defense of nearby sea lanes. The post-Cold War era broadened the alliance’s vision to include values-based, human security roles and out-of-area operations. The new era, marked by China’s rise, North Korea’s continuing intransigence, and the subsequent American “pivot” to Asia, may bring the alliance full circle. It will likely need Japan to return to basic principles: namely defense of the homeland.
Judging by the Defense Ministry’s annual white paper, repelling a Chinese invasion of the southwestern islands is plausible. It is also among the most manpower-intensive missions Japan faces in the coming years. So are international humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, as the 2011 tsunami tragedy demonstrated.
Japan’s loss of some 25 percent of its recruitable population for the Self Defense Force over the last decade means that force levels will prove inadequate.
The United States, for its part, will seek out additional security partners to defend the liberal international order and guard against any shortfalls in manning the alliance. Analysts have long pointed to India because it shares America’s democratic ideals and wariness of China’s rise. Adding to the appeal is that Indians, like Americans, possess a healthy demographic outlook.
There will be a tendency in Tokyo to see the turn to India as a zero sum game. But much depends upon Japan’s response. If it chooses to retrench, Japan can outsource some of its international responsibilities. Like Washington, Tokyo can selectively invest in new partnerships, cultivating trustworthy custodians of the existing global order which can further promote values Japan holds dear. In other words, choosing India and others to fill some roles is not necessarily a loss for Japan if it plays its cards right.
And securing the home front would reinforce the alliance. After all, deploying Japanese troops to far off contingencies doesn’t support America’s pivot to Asia. What would be worse is failing to make the hard choice between internationalist aims and national priorities now could spread Japan’s resources too thin and even risk overdependence on the United States, with adverse effects on the partnership.
Some may criticize this as an abdication of Japan’s role in championing values-based human security. But this would be a mistake. Recent history confirms that tried-and-true deterrence is indeed humanitarian, having saved more lives than any humanitarian intervention.
In the coming decades, Japan’s population plummet will reshape the alliance in ways that are hard to imagine. Policy makers, like most of us, have a hard time discerning slow moving shifts that are nonetheless massive in proportion. The temptation will be to put off hard decisions in the pursuit of short-term fiscal and political priorities. However, a wait-and-see approach risks allowing circumstances to shape the alliance rather than the other way round.
To get ahead of the curve, Tokyo will have to make tough choices now.