Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe, arriving in Washington this week for President Obama’s nuclear-security summit, is America’s strongest ally in Asia — a region crucial to America’s future. Since taking office, Abe has pursued politically risky policies that have steadily bolstered not just Japan’s, but also America’s position in Asia. So he must be puzzled to find himself at the center of a U.S. political dispute.
Battling for votes, the Trump presidential campaign suggests that Japan is an economic and military drain on the U.S. After criticizing China, the campaign smacks Japan. Such overheated rhetoric is as outdated as it is misguided.
In the last few years, Abe has labored mightily to reinflate his currency, to restrain risky regional disputes that also endanger U.S. interests, to raise Japanese defense spending, to adopt new defense guidelines increasing Japan’s regional and global security burden, and to bend his country’s U.S.-inspired post-war constitution to enable Japan to defend U.S. ships and troops in the event of an attack.
In the process, he has sought to jump-start Japan’s stalled national economy — the third largest in the world — and to push trade deals advancing Western resilience against China’s economic bullying. He has done all this even as China’s military probes Japan’s southern boundaries and northern Japan recovers from a tsunami-related nuclear-plant disaster.
Instead of the Japan, Inc. that scared Congress and labor unions in the 1980s and 1990s and inspired fearmongering books like Clyde Prestowitz’s Trading Places, Japan now struggles with an economy that has persistently underperformed for two decades, ironically due to many of the same misguided Keynesian policies that President Obama has used to leave the U.S. economy stuck in low gear since the 2008 financial crisis.
Today’s leading economists, as well as Prestowitz’s newest book, Japan Restored, argue that Japan’s economic revival would help America and the world. Instead of being the fearsome economic predators of 1990s myth, Japanese companies like Honda, Nissan, and Toyota have opened auto plants in the U.S. that have created more than 1.3 million jobs through 2013, and have become innovative partners in new manufacturing areas like robotics.
Even more important, as an economic rival, Japan has been supplanted by a far more menacing competitor, namely China. While some aspects of our trade deficit with Japan could stand some correcting, the deficit with China has ballooned to $365.7 billion, a new record. Chinese cyberattack and commercial cybertheft endanger both Japan and the United States.
Furthermore, unlike Japan in the 1980s and 1990s, China is also a threatening geopolitical competitor. China’s $1.4 trillion “One Belt, One Road” program for financing massive infrastructure projects — from harbors and high-speed trains to oil and natural-gas pipelines that will connect China with the rest of the world — aims to displace U.S. influence worldwide, not just in Asia. Its aggressive actions in the South and East China Seas threaten freedom of navigation and could recklessly spark armed conflict. Meanwhile, China has never applied its considerable leverage to reverse the irresponsible international misbehavior, provocative missile programs, and outrageous nuclear-proliferation activities of its client state, North Korea.
Japan lies at the forefront of such challenges. So over the past decades it has spent billions annually — at times covering the majority of U.S. costs — to support U.S. bases in Japan, bases that are the bedrock of America’s position in Asia. Japan has sent ground troops to Iraq and contributed to Western efforts in Afghanistan, and it remains a foremost funder of international economic development.
But its current prime minister wants to do more to meet and to deter the challenges from China and North Korea and to be America’s true strategic partner in East Asia. Notably, he has steadily increased Japan’s defense budget — indeed, the defense budget for fiscal year 2016 will be Japan’s biggest since World War Two. In working for these changes, Abe specifically argued that Japan needed to be able to come to the aid of the U.S. in a conflict, and to provide real capabilities when it did.
In connection with this week’s summit, Japan has sought to counter the threat of nuclear blackmail in Asia — a current focus given North Korea’s recent provocations. Japan may be America’s single most significant partner in deploying missile-defense systems, including co-development of the updated Aegis and SM3 anti-ballistic programs.
For Japan, these have been historic steps. In short, Japan has been the kind of powerful democratic ally, and Abe the kind of prime minister, that America has wanted and needed for a long time to maintain peace and collective security in the region.
In 1951 General Douglas MacArthur returned from overseeing the occupation and transformation of Japan and told Congress, “Politically, economically, and socially Japan is now abreast of many free nations of the earth and . . . may be counted upon to wield a profoundly beneficial influence over the course of events in Asia.” After 70 years of uninterrupted responsible democratic governance, those words are even truer today than they were then.
It’s not time to strain our ties to Japan, but to strengthen them. Japan-bashing, like 1980s boom-boxes and DeLoreans, should not be disinterred. All of Asia, including China, will be watching what our next president does to encourage Japan’s revival as a global economic engine — and its emergence as America’s steadfast military and strategic ally.