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Sunrise nation

A politically resurgent Japan is intent on shaping the evolving power balance in Asia, writes Brahma Chellaney.

india Updated: Sep 19, 2006 01:52 IST

A week from now, Japan’s Parliament will pick a new Prime Minister. The outcome is already evident: Shinzo Abe is set to be elected leader of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party.

Born a decade after the end of World War II, Abe symbolises the ongoing generational change in Japanese politics, which has long been dominated — India-style — by old men. Abe is expected to accelerate the nationalist shift in policy instituted by outgoing Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi.

Such is the international hype over China that it is frequently forgotten that Japan remains the world’s second largest economic powerhouse — after the US — and has an economy that is more than double the size of China’s. As Asia’s first economic success story, Japan has always inspired other Asian States. Now, with the emergence of new economic tigers and the ascent of China and India, Asia is collectively bouncing back from two centuries of historical decline.

The most far-reaching but least-noticed development in Asia in the new century has been the political resurgence of Japan. With Japanese pride and assertiveness rising, the nationalistic impulse has become conspicuous. Tokyo is intent on influencing the Asian balance of power to avert the rise of unipolarity in Asia.

A series of subtle moves has already signalled Japan’s aim to break out of its pacifist cocoon. Abe, the son of a former foreign minister and grandson of a post-war prime minister earlier imprisoned by the Americans as a Class-A war criminal, plans to revise Japan’s US-imposed Constitution within five years. The main thrust of the move is likely to be on the elimination of the military proscription enshrined in Article IX.

Over the last several decades, as China began to enjoy in its moment in the sun, the ‘Land of the Rising Sun’ began to feel threatened by the lengthening shadow of a neighbouring giant, whose economic modernisation it had advanced by providing $ 30 billion in cheap yen loans in addition to making large direct investments. As if to make this threat look real, China’s bellicose anti-Japanese rhetoric shook Tokyo out of its complacency and diffidence, setting in motion Japan’s political rise. Tokyo may not share Beijing’s obsession with indices of national power, but Japan’s military establishment, except in the nuclear sphere, remains the most sophisticated in Asia.

One major element underpinning Tokyo’s new confidence is its economic recovery after a prolonged period of stagnation. The sun is rising again. Economic data show Japan has come out firmly from a lost decade, a period in which its loss became China’s gain.

For resource-poor Japan, endowed only with human talent and abundant fresh water, the key to future success is exactly what had spurred its past success: an emphasis on leading-edge technologies while maintaining a vaunted tradition of craftsmanship. Thus, even during its economic stagnation, Japan continued to increase its rate of investment in science and technology (S&T), resulting in innovations such as plastic that conducts electricity, which is now widely used in mobile phones. Last spring, identifying eight priority sectors for promoting innovation, Tokyo announced a plan for investment of 25 trillion yen in S&T over the next five years.

A major threat to Japan’s competitive edge, however, comes from within — a declining birth rate and an ageing population. For the first time ever, the number of natural deaths surpassed the number of births last year. Compared with the US’s fertility rate of 2.1, Japan’s is at a record low of 1.29. This has important economic and social implications.

One way for Japan to prop up science-based innovation in the face of declining births is to open its universities and technology centres to foreign researchers. This is no easy task for any of the homogenised 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.

No prime minister has shaken up Japan more than the still-popular Junichiro Koizumi, who, despite leading the LDP to one of its largest parliamentary majorities just a year ago, is doing what no Indian leader has done: voluntarily quit office.

In his five-and-a-half years in power, Koizumi laid the foundation of a more muscular Japan. As he leaves office, he can draw satisfaction from the fact that he has built popular support for removing the shackles enshrined in the pacifist Constitution. Under him, Japan has shown the resolve not to kowtow to a China eager to supplant the US as the main player in Asia.

Koizumi’s exceptional legacy has got linked to the controversial Yasukuni shrine, a Shinto war memorial. The shrine, seen by Beijing and Seoul as an emblem of Japan’s past militarism, became the symbol of a major policy change under Koizumi. To Japanese nationalists, his visits to Yasukuni, in central Tokyo, have epitomised Japan’s return to being a ‘normal’ State.

Koizumi loosened constitutional constraints to make it possible to send troops and naval tankers overseas. He introduced legislation to elevate the Japan Defence Agency to full ministry status. Under him, Tokyo has also expressed its desire to slash its generous, $ 3.7-billion annual financial support to US forces stationed in Japan.

Such actions underlined Koizumi’s determination to expand Japan’s strategic options and create a more autonomous defence structure, even as China’s accumulating power has prompted Tokyo to reinvigorate its military ties with the US. Building strategic autonomy will remain a priority under Abe, who has derisively compared Japan’s past diplomacy to performing “sumo to please foreign countries on a ring they made, abiding by their rules”.

Asian security will be shaped by the equations between Japan, China and India — Asia’s three main powers — and their bilateral relations with the US. Booming 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.

Evidently, history testifies that close, interdependent economic relations do not ensure political moderation and mutual restraint. It is thus important for Japan and China, and India and China, to build stable political ties. The three seem to recognise that imperative, because they have a stake in maintaining the peaceful diplomatic environment on which their continued economic growth and security depend.

While China’s rise has drawn Japan and India closer to the US (and to each other), Tokyo and New Delhi are both interested in building greater room for manoeuvre vis-à-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 US. Similarly, for China, rising tensions with Japan or overt dissonance with India only undercut its appeal in Asia and in the world, making it more difficult for it to realise its larger geopolitical ambitions.

The emerging new Japan is keen to bolster ties with India. Given the present Asian power disequilibrium, New Delhi needs such strategic leverage. It also requires Japanese technology, FDI and market access to speed up its economic modernisation. Once Abe takes charge, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s Tokyo visit ought to be finalised soon.

The writer’s latest book, Asian Juggernaut: The Rise of China, India and Japan(HarperCollins), is being published soon.

First Published: Sep 19, 2006 01:52 IST