Time to grasp the nettle
There is no mistaking Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's determination to transform the nation's foreign and security policies and reassert itself in the world. In the four months since he took office, he has made considerable progress in that endeavour.
Yet he is conducting a delicate balancing act that is becoming more difficult as he moves forward. While he must seize opportunities as he forges this new role, he must also reassure doubters both at home and abroad that Japan will act responsibly. That requires a vision of Japanese power and a national strategy to use it. While the primary burden is Tokyo's, Washington, as its ally, can play an important role.
Mr Abe has pushed his 'transformative' agenda since becoming prime minister, quickly visiting Beijing and Seoul in an attempt to reverse deteriorating relationships.
Japan also has taken the lead in UN diplomacy to respond to the North Korean missile and nuclear tests, and Mr Abe has reignited Japan's bid for a UN Security Council seat. At last weekend's East Asian Summit and related meetings, Japan offered US$2 billion to help developing countries in the region adopt more energy-efficient technologies. And it continued efforts to consolidate economic relations with Asean and to assist with maritime security.
On January 9, the Japan Defence Agency became the Ministry of Defence, a long overdue development that could rebalance bureaucratic politics in defence decision-making. Other security policy changes are under way.
The creation of the defence ministry occurred on the eve of Mr Abe's departure to Europe, which included a historic speech to Nato, the first by a Japanese leader.
In his speech, Mr Abe vowed to take a more activist approach to foreign policy. 'While adhering to the principles of the constitution, Japanese will no longer shy away from carrying out overseas activities involving the [Self-Defence Forces], if it is for the sake of international peace and stability,' he said. He also underlined the potential impact of problems in countries such as Iran, Sudan, Afghanistan and Iraq. This is especially important, given the traditional restrictions limiting Japanese activities to 'situations in areas surrounding Japan'.
It is an ambitious plan and faces obstacles. The first, as Mr Abe observed in his speech, is Japan's constitution. The prime minister has vowed to push for reform, but that promises to be a bruising political battle.
In this setting, Mr Abe has to be careful. His foreign policy agenda appears more conservative and nationalistic than that of his predecessor, Junichiro Koizumi, and he is therefore much less likely to have the latitude Mr Koizumi enjoyed. Moreover, his leash is shrinking. His tenure has been tarnished by scandals that have undermined confidence in his judgment.
One key contribution the US can make is in helping Japan think strategically about its role.
A real strategic dialogue must tackle the thorny issues that are the building blocks of an effective strategy. Inevitably, that means Japan must at least discuss the role of nuclear weapons and the need to develop pre-emptive capabilities.
That does not mean Japan will move in this direction. But the only way to design a foreign policy is to study these options. Thus far, politics has made that impossible. A new, activist foreign policy demands a change.
Brad Glosserman is executive director of Pacific Forum CSIS. Distributed by Pacific Forum CSIS