China and Neighbourhood

Japanese Foreign Policy and Human Security in the Context of an Emerging New Global Order

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After two periods of transition in the distribution of power in the international system – bipolarity after 1945 and unipolarity after the Cold War – today we are facing a new period of power transition and diffusion into an increasing multipolar order. Differences in values and in the political regimes of actors are becoming more relevant.


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Asia, as a region, has seen growing economic, political or military power. In East Asia, Chinese economic growth is fuelling an increasing international acceptance or legitimization of authoritarian political regimes and conventionalist views about human rights.

Japan can be seen to have conducted domestic and foreign policy both in consideration of its national interest and also through incorporating human-centred and peace-related principles as an important guiding concept to its foreign policy and development aid. Against this background this paper will consider contemporary structural changes and human security theory within foreign policy by using Japan as a case study. Specifically, the paper will focus on the links and interdependence between current global changes and challenges and how human security can be not only a tool to protect human dignity, but also acts as a guiding principle in Japanese foreign policy.

The 21st century is witnessing the reformulation of state foreign policy agendas, underlining the centrality of Asia as the new geostrategic epicentre of international politics. The rebalancing of these agenda’s towards Asia, the “Asia pivot”, argues that many states believe that the centre of gravity for foreign policy – national security and economic interest – is shifting towards Asia, and therefore the strategies and priorities of states’ need to be adjusted accordingly. Asia is the most populous region, fastest growing economic area, and is expected to become the most vital region for the world economy in the future. Greater trade flows through the Asia-Pacific have reinforced security interests in the region, as have the major expansions of other regional military forces, the most evident case being China.[1] Given this, a priority for the rest of the world is to focus on its policies in the Asia-Pacific region. A failure to do so could invite regional powers, particularly China, to shape the region in its own way. Nevertheless greater instability is rising as the region adjusts to a shifting distribution of power with the potential for regional conflicts. The Senkaku/ Diaoyu islands disputes, North Korea’s provocative behaviour, the rising military budgets in Asia, particularly China, along with other issues, are a reflection of the power shifts and tensions occurring in the region.

History argues that the rise of a new power can destabilize the international system and even lead to conflict. The emergence of new powers like China, India and Russia, along with the US pivot to Asia, underlines the rising importance of the Asia-Pacific region as the new geostrategic centre of international politics. Recently, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) anticipated that China will soon have the world’s largest economy, surpassing the US.[2] These systemic changes are posing new challenges to the formulation and implementation of Japan’s foreign and security policies and may affect external perceptions of Japan’s role in contemporary international politics.

Against this external environment, Japan’s position in the world today is also a result of challenging domestic conditions. Significant issues such as an aging population, declining birth rate, a debt-to-GDP ratio over 200 per cent, a political leadership issue and the development of the “sakoku syndrome” – a growing inward focus among many young Japanese. At the same time Japan is still widely respected as an influential regional and global power. However whilst Tokyo faces many challenges, there appears to be under-utilised dimensions of Japan’s national power and influence. Japan is still the world’s third-largest economy, and continues to have large economic potential that could be unleashed by reforms, innovation and competition. More gender equality and openness to immigration could add significantly to Japan’s gross domestic product (GDP) growth. Moreover, Japan still has considerable soft power resources. Armitage argues that “…the country is rated among the top three countries in international respect and first in the world in terms of ‘national brand’. Therefore Japan seems not to be an insignificant country positioned in a quiet part of the world.”[3] In a time when scholars and policymakers have the tendency to undervalue Japan’s role within the international society in favour of other Asian actors it is both important and timely to make an assessment of the country’s role and influence in today’s world through its engagement with the Human Security concept.


*Published in Journal of Conflict Transformation & Security (JCTS) Vol. 3 | No. 1
© Copyright 2013 by CESRAN

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