Book review: Line of Advantage: Japan’s Grand Strategy in the Era of Abe Shinzo, by Michael J Green (Columbia University Press)

Michael Green’s examination of Japan’s foreign and security policy in the 21st century elegantly evaluates what was an eight-year effort under Abe Shinzo during his second stint as prime minister to realign Japan’s institutions and international relationships, especially its alliance with the United States. Line of Advantage: Japan’s Grand Strategy in the Era of Abe Shinzo is an important and comprehensive volume that builds on Green’s earlier book about the history of America’s engagement in Asia. Rather than merely browsing the short-term achievements of the Abe administration, the book places Abe in the context of the long history of Japan’s foreign and security policy, beginning what Green argues to be “a new era in Japanese statecraft”.

Japan has struggled with strategy following the Second World War, eschewing the very word “strategy” for sounding too militaristic. As quoted in the book, America’s former Secretary of State George Shultz lamented that “Japan quickly went from ‘grand strategy to fruit puree’” during the Cold War.

While Green’s Reluctant Realism, published in 2001, grasped the beginning of a change in the post-Cold War era, he argues convincingly that this dramatically shifted under Abe to develop “the clearest conceptualisation, consensus, and implementation of a grand strategy of any of the democracies confronting Chinese hegemonic ambitions in the Indo-Pacific”. Moreover, the strategy formed by Abe will endure, Green argues, because it is solidly based on the institutional reforms that the Abe administration made as well as its realistic view of relations with China. One of the benefits of the book is to meticulously analyse the internal policymaking and political struggles beyond what might appear on the surface.

Whether you like or dislike Abe Shinzo, for policymakers who deal with Japan or Asia, Green’s analysis is a prerequisite for understanding Japan’s future foreign policy.

Green’s book offers deep insights on Japan’s history and contemporary affairs, drawing on his experiences as a policymaker in the White House and a senior think-tanker closely working with the government of Japan. His high praise of Abe’s strategic worldview is reflected in the title of the volume, “line of advantage”. Although the term originated with Japan’s prime minister Yamagata Aritomo in 1890, who insisted on marking a boundary outside the “line of sovereignty” to prevent adversaries from controlling the critical access points to Japan, Green distinguishes Abe’s line from Yamagata’s. While Yamagata’s idea melded with imperialism and led to Japan’s territorial expansion in the Korean Peninsula, Taiwan, Manchuria and the Chinese mainland, Abe’s statecraft was chiefly based on maritime security and international rule-making, which provides Japan “far better choices than it did a century ago”. Consequently, as Green explains, Japan’s way of combining competition and engagement with China became the model for other democracies. Abe’s idea of a Free and Open Indo-Pacific, for example, affected America and led the Trump administration to use the same term, not vice versa.

Japan-America-India trilateral meeting between Donald Trump, Abe Shinzo and Narendra Modi on the sidelines of the G20 Summit in Osaka, June 2019 (MEAphotogallery/Flickr)

While Green sees China as the most imminent structural challenge for Japan, Japan’s goal is “shaping the environment around China by reinforcing the ability of the rest of the Indo-Pacific to resist expansionism by Beijing”. For Japan itself, that has required what is described as “internal balancing”, including the establishment of the national security council and secretariat, the adoption of the national security strategy in 2013, the centralisation of policymaking to the Prime Minister’s Office, as well as improving coordination among the three military services of the Self-Defence Force. Green warns the future Japanese leaders that “there will be no excuse for passivity, no alibi in times of crisis, no tolerance from the public for reacting to rather than shaping regional development” thanks to the massive reforms made by Abe.

Whether you like or dislike Abe Shinzo, for policymakers who deal with Japan or Asia, Green’s analysis is a prerequisite for understanding Japan’s future foreign policy – and Abe’s experience can be a useful benchmark to compare and assess different countries in their policies towards China. Green has sent a warning to American policymakers who tend to be “conditioned to view Japan as an adjunct to US strategy rather than an increasingly successful thought leader in its own right” and instead offers a much more positive signal that “an effective US strategy on China … will depend on working with Japan and knowing Japan’s own strategic thinking and impact”.