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Japan Rising
The Tiger, Kawanabe Kyosai, 1887

Japan Rising

Japan's strong stance against Russia is no surprise, as Michael J. Green helps us understand in Line of Advantage. Step by step, Japanese foreign policy has been maturing.

Ben Noon
Line of Advantage: Japan's Grand Strategy in the Era of Abe Shinzō
by Michael Green (Columbia University Press, 328 pp., $35)

As the West seals Russia off from the global economy in response to Putin’s calamitous war in Ukraine, one Asian country’s enthusiastic participation may come as a surprise to many: Japan. The island democracy’s Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has fully supported sanctioning Russia during this crisis. Japan is even accepting Ukrainian refugees, historically a taboo practice for the Japanese government. Since when would Japan so eagerly contribute to supporting the international order?

Japan’s growing boldness is its new normal, according to Michael J. Green in Line of Advantage: Japan’s Grand Strategy in the Era of Abe Shinzō. Over the course of nearly 230 pages, Green shows how Japan, the country often derided as an underperforming power, is embracing a leadership role in the 21st century. Although Washington debates about a “New Cold War” between the United States and China often focus solely on these two rivals, Green shows that in fact the island nation could be the key to this competition.

As Japan’s prime minister in 2006-2007 and 2012-2020, Abe Shinzō set Japan on course to fulfill its great power potential as the world’s third-largest economy. Before his tenure, Japan had a confused approach to handling a newly aggressive China, an equivocal relationship with the United States, and a national security bureaucracy more concerned with internal squabbling than the pursuit of Japan’s interests abroad. Today, the liberal powers of Asia have embraced Abe Shinzō’s framework for a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific.”

Line of Advantage entices the reader with repeated references to Japan’s history as a great power since its arrival on the global stage during the Meiji Restoration in the late 19th century. The book bounces between Japan’s contemporary strategy to handle resurgent Chinese power with the dilemmas and approaches of past leaders in prior eras. This style reminds the reader of the recurring choices facing any nation given unchanging geographic conditions.

Green often returns to the maritime versus continental strategic challenge facing Japanese leaders seeking to draw their “line of advantage.” According to Green, Meiji-era Japan chose a maritime path to expand their trading empire amid aggressive European imperial powers. In mere decades, this strategy catapulted Japan from a closed nation to great power status. It took a continental turn, however, in the late 1920s and 30s when the Japanese government devolved amid a collapsing world order. Japan identified its critical interests with the conquest and exploitation of mainland China. The implied lesson is that for Japanese leaders, those that have followed Great Britain’s maritime approach are successful, whereas those that copy Germany’s continental path will find only ruin.

After the Second World War, Japan pulled back from the world stage. It focused on nurturing a dazzling economic model for its recovery while relying entirely on its alliance with the United States for its Cold War security. But with the rise of an aggressive China, an ambivalent United States, and stumbling economic growth since the 1990s, Japan no longer has the choice to sit on the sidelines.

Green links the history of Japanese grand strategy with Japan’s action today. He argues that through the new “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” concept, a smarter approach to China, and a strategy to encourage U.S. engagement in the region, Abe Shinzō sought to uphold the liberal international order with a diverse maritime coalition. Like its approach in the late 19th and early 20th century, Japan has recognized that as an island nation, its prosperity depends on the maintenance of an open maritime commons that it can use for trade and the pursuit of an independent foreign policy.

Abe is not just a statesman who has returned Japan to its maritime traditions. He defined his tenure in office with the unique application of subtle diplomatic, economic, and political tools to pack an extra punch without spending much more than his predecessors on Japan’s national security toolkit. These strategies cultivated goodwill throughout the Indo-Pacific and presented the region with credible alternatives to Chinese power.

Take, for instance, Japan’s approach to Southeast Asia. In Abe’s first year as prime minister, he visited every single Southeast Asian country. Japan deployed infrastructure financing and construction across the region as a low-cost, high-quality alternative to infamous Chinese debt traps. Green writes, “Japan [has] fought China to at least a draw in the infrastructure race in Southeast Asia.” The region appreciates the attention: 93 percent of Southeast Asians think Japan is a “reliable partner.” Such moves have solidified Japan’s place as the region’s preferred partner and also serve as a bulwark against creeping Chinese influence.

Green explains in detail Abe Shinzō’s diplomatic strategy to entice the United States to re-commit to the Indo-Pacific region. A central pillar of Japan’s strategy today is to convince the Americans to rediscover their interests in maritime Asia. Proof of Japan’s success lies in the “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” concept, hailed by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken as the organizing principle of American strategy in Asia. It was the Abe government that actually invented the concept and gave it to American officials—talk about making friends and influencing people.

Abe Shinzō showed that the effective application of low-cost tools can go a long way in stabilizing the balance of power in Asia. There are certainly lessons for Washington to learn from Japan about the approaches beyond hard power in the competition for influence in the Indo-Pacific.

These foundational changes in Japanese grand strategy should come as great news to Washington readers. One cannot help but walk away from the book feeling more hopeful about the future of the American international order. Japan’s vigorous embrace of the defense of liberal values internationally should validate them for American observers, and it shows that the Cold War of this century will depend on the decisions of middle powers, not just the jostling between the United States and China. The United States can take some heart that the third-largest economy has decisively chosen the side for freedom.

But is that enough to hold the line against Chinese aggression? Washington readers may walk away from Line of Advantage wishing it had a grander discussion about the future of the Indo-Pacific within the context of a focused Japan, a belligerent China, and an aloof America. Luckily, Green’s previous book, By More Than Providence: Grand Strategy and American Power in the Asia Pacific Since 1783, gives Green’s in-depth views about the relationship between the United States and order in the Indo-Pacific. Together Green’s two books can provide interested readers with a more complete picture of how the liberal powers of Asia can rise to the threat posed by the Chinese Communist Party in this century.

Line of Advantage would have benefitted from a discussion of the relationship between Japan and Taiwan. Taiwan’s de-facto independence is essential to Japan’s pursuit of open trading lanes and the independent foreign policy central to Abe Shinzō’s grand strategy, yet it is an open question if Japan’s subtle maritime approach can deter Chinese aggression toward its neighbor. With so much of Japan’s critical trade, such as in energy and food, sailing near Taiwan, China’s annexation of the island democracy would devastate Japanese security. Only a more capable Japanese Self-Defense Force can protect Japan’s existential interest in a stable Taiwan Strait.

Green does describe the quantitative military drawbacks to the Abe strategy. Although Japan’s defense spending recently surpassed its customary mark at 1 percent of GDP, there is still a long way to go. Considering its geostrategic location, American observers remain understandably puzzled that Japan is not already spending more on its defense. Readers in Washington would no doubt have appreciated if Green would have connected the military problems with Japanese strategy and the geographic fault line of the Indo-Pacific: Taiwan.

Nonetheless, with Line of Advantage, Green introduces a picture of the Indo-Pacific in which Japan is a crucial leader against the Chinese Communist Party’s hegemonic ambitions. Since it is not enough to focus solely on China to understand the New Cold War, those hoping to predict what direction the Indo-Pacific will take in this century would do well to give Green’s book a read.

Ben Noon is a research assistant at the American Enterprise Institute, where he focuses on alliance management in Asia and U.S.-China competition.

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