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Deutsches Institut für Japanstudien

The Logic of Reassurance and Japan's Grand Strategy

October 5, 2000 / 18.30

Paul Midford, Kanazawa University

Since at least the end of the Cold War, predictions about Japan’s grand strategy have either been non-realist or else they have been wrong. Japan has long pursued a grand strategy that quote;underproducesquote; unilateral military strength. Measured in terms of percentage of GDP spent on defense, unilateral restrictions on the possession of nuclear weapons, the export of weapons, deployment of troops and peacetime rules of engagement, Japan appears to be a pacifist outlier. Perhaps no other second ranked economy in history has pursued such a restricted defense posture, or relied so heavily on another power for its security. At least since the 1970s, realists have been predicting that Japan would abandon its under-armed posture and emerge as a great military power. Since the end of the Cold War these predictions have become more prominent. Kenneth Waltz predicted at the beginning of the 1990s that Japan would quickly emerge as a military great power armed with a full nuclear arsenal. Other Realists have even predicted that Japan would even balance against the United States. However, little that has happened since the 1970s, or even since the end of the Cold War, supports these predictions. A related anomaly that neither Realists nor non-realists have addressed concerns deep-seated Asian mistrust of Japan as a military power. Balance-of-power dynamics suggest that many Asian countries, including China, have a stake in Japan’s emergence as a larger and more independent military power.

After reviewing Realist and non-realists attempts to explain Japan’s grand strategy, I propose a modified version of balance-of-threat theory by borrowing theories of perception and reassurance from social psychology, especially attribution theory. I then suggest how this modified balance-of-threat theory can be used to explain Asian mistrust of Japan and Japan’s grand strategy. In particular, Japan has pursued a restricted grand strategy designed to reassure Asian nations, thereby warding off counter-balancing behavior. Moreover, Japan’s reassurance strategy has changed since the end of the Cold War, as Japan has pursued greater security engagement with its neighbors and an incremental expansion of its military role. In conclusion, I consider the implications of this new approach for realist and non-realist explanations of grand strategy, and for Japanese and American policy-makers.

Paul MIDFORD is an Associate Professor in the Department of Public Policy, Faculty of Law, Kanazawa University, and a doctoral candidate in Political Science at Columbia University. His latest publication is quote;Japan’s Leadership Role in East Asian Security Multilateralism: The Nakayama Proposal and the Logic of Reassurancequote;, published by The Pacific Review this month.