This year has, in some ways, been the year of the Asian strongman. Narendra Modi stormed to power in India, President Xi Jinping of China made some astute foreign policy decisions including an outreach to South Asia, Russia and even the US through a landmark climate deal while Indonesia elected Joko Widodo, a former mayor of Surakarta, as its president. These leaders bring high ambition to the office but confront impatient societies clamouring for reform. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan is in a similar mould and position. He built his brand by taking a tough line with China regarding disputed islands in the South China Sea, reopening the debate on Japan’s pacifism and pitching for ‘Abenomics’ — a combination of monetary easing, increased spending and structural reform. Mr Abe’s ideas elicited a great degree of interest in the policy world but he has not embarked on far-reaching reform yet. In an attempt to consolidate power before pursuing reform, Mr Abe called for a snap poll two years ahead of time and successfully led his Liberal Democratic Party to a remarkable mandate on Sunday.
In the months ahead, Japan will be an interesting test case for the ability of leaders with strong mandates to take politically tough decisions. Mr Abe has his plate full already. Japan remains the world’s third-largest economy but is unable to get out of a long deflationary cycle. The country is in recession and its debt burden is more than twice its GDP; unemployment levels are low but wages are stagnant. Every reform measure that experts commend is politically contentious, be it labour market and power sector reform, liberalising agriculture that powerful farming lobbies oppose or encouraging immigration to compensate for a shrinking, aging population.
Foreign observers will keenly watch Mr Abe’s progress and check if his domestic struggles will steer him towards a more hardened stance on foreign and security policy. He has already granted more powers to Japan’s self-defence forces and calls for revising Article Nine in the Constitution, which renounces war and the use of force for settling international disputes. Mr Abe is an energetic figure like prominent counterparts in the region. Asia’s near future promises not to be dull.