Exploring the Challenges in Japan’s Ambition to Become a Major Global Power

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida pledged on the first of January 2024 that his country will be at the forefront of countries that engage in managing international interactions and issues, stressing, in his speech on the occasion of the new year, that he will work for Japan to play a unique leadership role, through summit diplomacy, to resolve the challenges it faces, especially regarding the Russian war in Ukraine, and the conflict between Israel and Hamas.

On the other hand, official data, published on February 15, 2024, showed that the Japanese economy at the global level fell to fourth place, in favor of Germany, which came in third place, with India expected to succeed in surpassing both countries soon during the current decade.

Between a geostrategic rise on the world stage and a marked economic downturn, the challenge and difficulties facing Tokyo’s quest to become a major power in today’s multipolar world remain.

Multiple indicators:

The past few years, especially since Fumio Kishida assumed his duties as Prime Minister of Japan in October 2021, have witnessed many features and manifestations indicating the growing position of Tokyo on the international stage in various fields, and this can be illustrated as follows:

  1. Modification of Japan’s military doctrine: In December 2022, Japan released a new national security strategy, which included the largest revision of its defense policy and military doctrine since World War II, allowing it to increase its role in self-defense in cooperation with the United States, as well as increase its ability to deploy its military power beyond its borders. The strategy identified three main security challenges that Japan must develop its defense capabilities to counter: Chinese military modernization, nuclear and missile threats from North Korea, as well as the fallout from Russia’s war in Ukraine.

Faced with these challenges, Japan decided to double its annual defense budget to more than $80 billion within 5 years, making it the third-largest country in the world by military budget value, after the United States and China.

  1. Increasing interactions with the Asian neighborhood: The past period has witnessed a remarkable increase in Japan’s presence and influence within the Asian continent. This was reflected in the growing visits of Japanese officials, in addition to the conclusion of bilateral cooperation agreements with many countries of the continent, with the aim of coordinating positions and visions on North Korean threats, as well as trying to propose an alternative model to the Chinese model among the countries of the continent. Japan has succeeded in strengthening its bilateral relations with both the Philippines and India, normalizing its relations with South Korea, and overcoming the historical differences between the two countries. It has also been keen to strengthen its presence and bilateral relations with Pacific island States.

At the collective level, Japan has worked to strengthen cooperation with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), especially in the field of maritime security, against the backdrop of rising tensions in the South China Sea, over which China claims full sovereignty.

  1. Employing aid diplomacy: For more than half a century, Japan has been providing official development assistance to developing countries, with the aim of deepening partnership relations with these countries, as well as contributing to international stability, through the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA).

For example, in 2022, Japan announced the allocation of $30 billion for development projects in the African continent over the next three years, in addition to providing $130 million for food security projects, and food assistance of $300 million in cooperation with the African Development Bank. In addition, Tokyo announced its intention to provide five billion dollars in loans in partnership with the African Development Bank to finance sustainable development and financial reform on the continent, and allocated four billion dollars for growth projects, green economy, de-carbon pollution, and food self-sufficiency. On February 27, 2024, it announced the provision of emergency aid worth $32 million, with the aim of improving the humanitarian situation in the Gaza Strip in light of the Israeli war against the Strip.

  1. Activating relations with the Global South: In the Blue Book of Japanese Diplomacy issued in April 2023, Japan stressed the importance of cooperation with the countries of the Global South, with the aim of maintaining international order and settling global issues.

Based on the above, the year 2023 witnessed a significant increase in the frequency of visits by Japanese officials to the countries of the Global South, which included visits to Mexico, Brazil, Ecuador, Argentina, Solomon Islands, Cook Islands, India, Egypt, Ghana, Kenya, Mozambique, Peru, Chile, Paraguay, Barbados, and Trinidad and Tobago. Through these visits, Tokyo sought to present itself as a political and economic alternative characterized by continuity and confidence in the countries of the Global South, which are witnessing intensive attempts by Russia and China to activate relations with them.

  1. Increasing Japan’s influence and influence in Africa: Japan has worked during the past period to strengthen and activate its role in the African continent, which is in line with the new strategy adopted by Washington, its main ally, towards the continent, in addition to Tokyo’s attempt to confront the growing Chinese influence in the continent. This explains the tour that Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida made in April 2023 to Africa, which included four countries: Egypt, Ghana, Kenya, and Mozambique.
  2. Increased involvement in the settlement of international crises: The recent period has witnessed a significant increase in Japan’s interaction with international issues and crises. Japan, for example, is one of the main international powers supporting Ukraine in the war against Russia. It has joined Western countries in imposing economic sanctions on Moscow.

It also showed its commitment to providing financial assistance to Kyiv and contributing to Ukraine’s post-war reconstruction, especially since the provision of military assistance is restricted by its war-renounced constitution. Also, in August 2023, it launched an initiative to revive the Iranian nuclear deal with major powers, including the United States.

  1. Having a strong foreign relations network: According to the 2024 Global Diplomacy Index, issued by the Lowy Institute for International Policy, on February 29, 2024, Japan ranked fourth in the world, among the countries with the largest foreign relations network in 2023, with a total of 251 positions abroad, after China (274), the United States (271), and Turkey (252) positions, respectively. It is worth noting that the index ranks the countries of the world according to the number of relations they establish with each other, in terms of the total diplomatic posts abroad, which include embassies, consulates, permanent missions, and other functions.
  2. Japan’s success in landing on the moon: Japan became the fifth country to land on the moon, after the United States, Russia, China, and India. As part of Japan’s quest to achieve a breakthrough in the field of space conquest, the SLIM probe succeeded in landing on the moon on January 19, 2024, with the aim of conducting research on the origin of the moon and the earth, as well as the water resources of the moon, which is important for building manned bases on its surface in the future. Japan’s move is significant, given the U.S. and China’s long-term intention to establish manned bases on the moon.

Economic downturn:

In contrast to the remarkable increase in Japan’s position at the global geostrategic level, Tokyo has recently witnessed a significant decline in its economic performance, and this can be explained as follows:

  1. The decline in the status of the Japanese economy globally: Data published on February 21, 2024, showed a decline in the Japanese economy during the last quarter of 2023, against the backdrop of a decline in domestic demand, which made it decline to fourth place as the largest economy in the world in favor of Germany. Japan’s nominal GDP was $4.2 trillion, although it grew by 1.9 percent in 2023, compared to $4.5 trillion for Germany. This is due to the sharp depreciation of the Japanese yen against the US dollar, not as a result of the strength of the German economy, which contracted by 0.3% in 2023.
  2. Low population: Japan also faces the problem of a low population, as Tokyo suffers more than Berlin in terms of labor shortage with a shortage of population, and birth rates remain low, which led economists to expect the gap between the Japanese and German economies to widen.
  3. Impact on Tokyo’s international standing: Although the decline in the Japanese economy’s global ranking was largely due to the depreciation of the Japanese yen relative to the US dollar, this has a significant impact on Japan’s standing and perception of its role at the international level, in addition to putting pressure on Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, whose popularity has declined significantly in recent times. The impact on Japan’s international standing is exacerbated by projections that India will outperform Japan in 2026 and Germany in 2027 in terms of GDP, according to the International Monetary Fund.

Japan’s dilemma:

The quest of any State to become a major power influential in the current international system requires that this State should maximize the capabilities and capacities of its comprehensive power on the one hand, and on the other hand, remove the challenges and constraints it faces in the course of its pursuit of this goal, whether these challenges and constraints stem from the internal environment or from the external environment.

Looking at the Japanese case, Japan suffers from many major challenges and obstacles in its relentless pursuit of global ascendancy. This can be illustrated as follows:

  1. China’s Rise Challenge: China’s growing role and prestige in the current international system is one of the major challenges that constrain Japan’s ambitions for global rise. Tokyo sees “China as an unprecedented strategic challenge to its national security and a regional security concern.” Recognizing that China poses a major challenge to its rise, Tokyo has worked to compete with Beijing in its spheres of influence in many regions of the world, whether in Asia, Africa, or Latin America.
  2. Continuing security threats in Asia: There are many security factors that represent a constraint on Japan’s ambitions for global rise, including restrictions on Japan’s movements in the Asian continent, as it represents a threat to its national security, including the increasing tensions in the South China Sea region, the continuation of the Korean Peninsula crisis without settlement, in addition to the Taiwan crisis, the growing security and military cooperation between China and Russia, and other challenges related to maritime security in the region.
  3. Becoming a nuclear power: Some associate Japan’s success in facing the challenge posed by China, North Korea, and Russia, and the major dilemma that this represents for its ambition to become a major power, with possessing nuclear power. China’s nuclear capabilities are a growing threat, North Korea possesses a growing arsenal of nuclear weapons, a high tone of hostility and defiance toward its neighbors, and the U.S. “nuclear umbrella” that has allowed Japan many years of peace and prosperity under Washington’s military protection is increasingly eroding, and perhaps irreparable.
  4. Deep internal challenges: Japan faces many deep internal challenges that may limit its ambition to become a major power in today’s world, including a declining population, growing inequality among Japanese citizens, and voters’ reluctance to participate in politics.

In addition to the world’s largest aging population, rapidly declining births, massive public debt, increasingly devastating natural disasters fueled by climate change, falling wages, and worsening income inequality in society, all of them present deep-rooted challenges. This requires “these challenges to be seen as a wake-up call to accelerate neglected economic reforms,” the Japanese press said.

In estimation, it can be said that Japan possesses many of the capabilities and elements of comprehensive power that place it in the ranks of the major powers influential in the current international system, especially in light of the visions and diplomatic ideas put forward by its current Prime Minister, Fumio Kishida, whose implementation resulted in Japan becoming one of the international powers with an important influence and position at the regional and global levels. However, Japan’s continued influence and rise on the world stage are linked to its ability to deal with the many external and internal constraints and challenges that may hinder it from implementing its ambitions to assume the appropriate position and role, on top of these challenges are the rise of China, security instability in Asia, as well as the decline of the Japanese economy, whose reform is one of the main factors that will determine Japan’s future position in today’s world.

SAKHRI Mohamed
SAKHRI Mohamed

I hold a Bachelor's degree in Political Science and International Relations in addition to a Master's degree in International Security Studies. Alongside this, I have a passion for web development. During my studies, I acquired a strong understanding of fundamental political concepts and theories in international relations, security studies, and strategic studies.

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