Japan’s political resurgence

by Brahma Chellaney

TOKYO — The election of Shinzo Abe as postwar Japan’s youngest prime minister signals more than a change at the helm. Abe not only symbolizes a generational change in Japanese politics but also is the face of an assertive new Japan intent on shaping the power balance in Asia in a way that China does not dominate.

The most far-reaching but least-noticed development in Asia in the new century has been Japan’s political resurgence. Japan is set to formally break out of its pacifist cocoon by revising its U.S.-imposed Constitution and eliminating the military proscription enshrined in Article 9 — a goal high on Abe’s agenda.

With Japanese pride and assertiveness rising, the nationalistic impulse has already become noticeable.

As Asia’s first economic success story and still the world’s largest economic powerhouse after the United States, Japan has always inspired other Asian states. Now, with the emergence of new economic tigers and the ascent of China and India, Asia collectively is bouncing back from a 150-year period of historical decline.

In the past decade, however, as China’s dramatic rise coincided with economic stagnation in Japan, the “Land of the Rising Sun” began feeling threatened by the lengthening shadow of a neighboring giant whose economic modernization it promoted by providing $30 billion in cheap yen loans and making large direct investments. As if to make this threat look real, China’s belligerent anti-Japanese rhetoric shook Tokyo out of its complacency and diffidence, setting in motion Japan’s political rise.

One major element underpinning Tokyo’s new confidence is its economic recovery. As underlined by economic data, the sun is rising again in a country whose an economy even now is more than double the size of China’s.

A major threat to Japan’s competitive edge, however, comes from within — a declining birthrate and aging population. For the first time ever, the number of natural deaths surpassed the number of babies born last year.

Compared with America’s fertility rate of 2.1, Japan’s is now at a record low of 1.29. While Japan can boast of exceptionally high life expectancy — the highest in the world for women — declining births reinforce the steady aging of its society, with important economic and social implications.

In that light, the way for Japan to prop up the key of its economic success — an emphasis on leading-edge technologies — is to open its universities and technology centers to foreign researchers. That is no easy task for any of the homogenized societies of East Asia. But just as Japan has come to live with the discomforting fact that the top sumo wrestlers of today are non-Japanese, it will have to open its research institutions to foreigners in order to raise productivity through continuing science-based innovation.

The recrudescence of the Sino-Japanese historical rivalry, which dates back to the 16th century, has prompted Tokyo to search for greater strategic options and a more autonomous defense structure, even as China’s accumulating power has prompted Japan to reinvigorate its military ties with the U.S. Building strategic autonomy will remain a priority under Abe, who has derisively compared Japan’s past diplomacy to performing “sumo to please foreign countries in a ring they made, abiding by their rules.”

Asian security will be greatly shaped by the equations between Japan, China and India — Asia’s three main powers — and their bilateral ties with the U.S. The rapidly growing trade in Asia, however, does not signify improving political ties.

China is Japan’s largest trading partner, but that has not prevented Beijing from aggressively employing the history card against Tokyo. Taiwan is the largest single investor in China, but that has not stopped Beijing from pursuing military plans for a full-scale invasion of the self-governing island. China is India’s fastest-growing trading partner, but that has not halted Chinese actions antithetical to Indian interests.

History testifies that close, interdependent economic relations do not ensure political moderation and mutual restraint. In fact, as brought out last week by the global-attitudes survey of the Washington-based Pew Research Center, the China-Japan and China-India divides are anchored in negative public perceptions about the other state.

While China’s growing military strength has drawn Japan and India closer to the U.S. (and to each other), Tokyo and New Delhi are both interested in building greater room for maneuver vis-a-vis Washington. To do so, they need to manage their relations with China well.

Deterioration in ties with Beijing will increase Tokyo’s or New Delhi’s need for strategic help from the U.S. Similarly, for China, rising tensions with Japan or overt dissonance with India only undercut its Asian and international appeal, making it more difficult for it to realize its larger geopolitical ambitions.

The emerging new Japan is determined to take its rightful place in the world by employing its economic clout to raise its political profile. It will stand up to a China eager to supplant America as the main player in Asia. With the elevation of Abe, born after the end of U.S. occupation, Japan is now coming out of the postwar era.