Does the U.S. pivot to the Pacific represent a necessary rebalancing, overbalancing or counter-balancing against China's growing wealth, power and assertiveness? Few third countries have a bigger stake in the correct answer to this critical question than Australia and Japan.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe declared during his U.S. visit last month that Japan is back. It neither is nor ever will be "a second-tier country," he added for good measure. This might sound like bravado. Japan has been in economic slump for two decades and is one of the most heavily indebted countries in the world with a shrinking population and a rising elderly cohort.

Still, talk of a declining Japan is relative. Everything considered, I would rather live as a national in declining Japan than in rising China or India. Per capita incomes are extremely high; universal literacy and exceptionally high life expectancy testify to excellent educational and health standards; and the sense of community, social cohesion, civic pride and low crime rates even amid the densest of urban settings were abundantly evident in the manner in which people dealt with the great earthquake and tsunami of March 2011.