Sat, Nov 07, 2015 - Page 9 News List

The fate of Abe’s Japan

The prime minister has so far been unable to implement the ‘third arrow’ of Abenomics, which is structural reform, and a declining population, together with resistance to immigration and full participation of women in the workforce, means labor constraints will continue to restrict growth

By Joseph Nye

Illustration: Tania Chou

When Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe sat down this week in Seoul with South Korean President Park Geun-hye and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang (李克強), he did so as the leader of a country that many people around the world now seriously underestimate. That dynamic was certainly felt during the three Northeast Asian powers’ first summit since 2012.

Three decades ago, many erred in the opposite direction in their assessments of Japan. Many Americans feared being overtaken after Japanese per capita income surpassed that of the US; Japanese manufacturing set the international standard; and some books even predicted an eventual war with a Japanese nuclear superpower. Such views extrapolated from Japan’s impressive postwar economic growth; today, after more than two decades of malaise, they simply remind us of the danger of linear projections.

That danger remains with us. In response to China’s rapid rise and the assertiveness of the Chinese Communist Party leadership, the current conventional wisdom portrays Japan as a country of secondary importance — which is equally mistaken.

Despite its economic slowdown, Japan retains impressive power resources. It is a democracy that has been at peace for 70 years, with a stable society and a high standard of living. Its per capita income is five times that of China, and Beijing residents can only envy Tokyo’s air quality and product safety standards. Its economy remains the world’s third-largest overall, sustained by a highly sophisticated industry.

While China has nuclear weapons and more soldiers, Japan’s military is better equipped in some areas (and obviously has the technological capacity to develop nuclear weapons very quickly).

Moreover, Japan’s culture (both traditional and popular), overseas development assistance and support of international institutions are impressive sources of soft power.

Yes, Japan faces severe demographic problems, with the population projected to shrink from 127 million to below 100 million by 2050. The current birth rate is 1.4 (well below the replacement rate of 2.1), and Japanese are resistant to accepting large numbers of immigrants.

When Abe became prime minister almost three years ago, he vowed to restore Japan’s standing as a “first-tier country” by implementing an economic stimulus package, dubbed “Abenomics,” and reinterpreting Japan’s constitution to stiffen the country’s defense posture. However, whereas Abenomics was enacted quickly, the Diet enacted the defense legislation only recently — and after more than a year of effort.

Many in Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party would have preferred fundamental reform of Japan’s defense doctrine, by removing the constitution’s limits on the country’s armed forces. However, public opinion and Abe’s coalition partner, Komeito, did not allow it.

Nonetheless, Japan’s interlocutors at the Seoul summit, China and South Korea, which suffered enormously from Japanese aggression in the last century, have protested loudly. Both are suspicious of Abe, who exacerbated tensions with nationalist rhetoric and a visit to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine early in his current administration. Indeed, Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) has resisted meeting with Abe, as has Park, who did so for the first time at the Seoul summit.

On the other hand, Abe has repaired the strained relations with the US that Japan had under his predecessors, and US President Barack Obama reiterated the strength of the bilateral alliance during Abe’s state visit to the White House in April. Under the new defense guidelines, US and Japanese forces are able to plan and exercise more effectively, and the alliance is in its best condition in decades.

This story has been viewed 2954 times.

Comments will be moderated. Keep comments relevant to the article. Remarks containing abusive and obscene language, personal attacks of any kind or promotion will be removed and the user banned. Final decision will be at the discretion of the Taipei Times.

TOP top