President Barack Obama’s abrupt decision to cancel his visit to Asia and skip the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting, letting China’s new president, Xi Jinping, dominate the proceedings, is reverberating unpleasantly in an area of the world where symbols are often more important than substance. The President’s absence from the Bali summit, where seventeen nations totaling 3 billion people were represented, was interpreted by many in the Asian press as a metaphor for an America that is decreasing its presence in Asia, and ceding leadership to China.
China’s leadership, of course, will seek to propagate this notion to its advantage. To be sure, the United States may be pressed for resources, our economy still hobbled by the lingering effects of the 2008 economic crisis and our military power may be stretched thin by a decade of war and fiscal pressure, but there is still an affordable and realistic path forward for bolstering Asian security. It centers around the revitalization of Japan.
For quite a long spell now, Japan has been the sick man of Asia. In 1991, when its stock and real estate bubble burst, the Japanese economy went from miracle to morass almost overnight. An average GDP growth rate that had been 10 percent in the 1960s and 5 percent in the 1970s, fell to approximately zero and froze at that level for twenty years. Those lost decades were accompanied by a slow-motion demographic implosion, with Japan’s population both shrinking and aging simultaneously. The 2011 tsunami came as if a final blow, causing widespread destruction and massive loss of life; but it was not a final blow. For the Fukushima nuclear power station, catastrophically damaged by the tsunami, continues to spew radioactive poison, and threatens to spew more, with crippling political effects on an energy source in which Japan had invested heavily.
The picture could not have appeared to be bleaker. Yet, Japan is by no means finished. Modern democracies possess a remarkable degree of resilience and in Japan we are seeing unexpected signs of a comeback.
Some of the evidence for the comeback is visible in the shifting relationship between its domestic politics and economics. In Shinzo Abe, Japan’s youngest prime minister since World War II, the country finally has a leader with the political standing to take effective action to reinvigorate the economy. The package of measures known as Abenomics — including especially letting the Yen depreciate by 20 percent since November — has already begun to have a positive effect on economic growth. Over the next two to three years, Japan’s GDP is expected to grow by 1 or perhaps 2 percent. Those numbers may sound modest, but compared to the stagnation of recent decades they represent significant progress.
Even a limited economic resurgence will pave the way for a more active Japanese role in shaping Asian security. It is notable that already, for the first time in more than a decade, Japan has increased its annual defense spending. From the American point of view, this could not be occurring at a more opportune time. In ominous fashion, China has been throwing its weight around in the region, threatening freedom of navigation, unilaterally leveling territorial claims on resource-rich territories and building up its military forces in menacing fashion.
Given the constraints on American resources, the United States is not in a position to check China on its own. Indeed, any additional forces Washington deploys to the Pacific under the rubric of the administration’s oversold “pivot” are not likely to be more than symbolic in quantity and quality. Europe, still hobbled by its banking crisis, and having long scanted military expenditures, is definitely not going to fill the breach. A flourishing Japan is urgently needed as a counterweight to a China whose rise has been accompanied by a disquieting bellicosity.
Since the end of World War II, Washington has asked Tokyo to play only a subordinate and highly circumscribed role in assuring security in Asia. This was natural enough. The United States was the superpower in the partnership, while Japan was self-limited by design, as reflected in its constitutionally assured demilitarization. But times and circumstances have changed and Japan has been compelled to change with them.
In the face of Chinese pressure, Mr. Abe is steering Japan toward a more assertive stance in the region. But it is notable that he has been careful to proceed only within the confines of the U.S.-Japan bilateral partnership. His goal is to enhance Japan’s military posture while avoiding any steps that arouse the suspicions and fears of Japan’s neighbors. Given the rawness of historical memories across Asia, movement in this direction demands a delicate balancing act. While Tokyo has not always been as deft as it could be, Mr. Abe’s task has been simplified by the fact that Beijing itself has done such a thoroughgoing job of arousing neighborly suspicions and fears. Matters have reached the point where a more effective Japanese-American security partnership will be quietly welcomed even in quarters in Asia where Japanese exertions have traditionally been met with considerable anxiety.
This is precisely why the time is ripe for the United States to deepen its support of Japan in the diplomatic, economic and military spheres. For just as Japan depends upon the United States for its security needs, the United States will increasingly depend upon Japan if it is to maintain its position as a Pacific power. Indeed, with the right set of policies in place, it is not inconceivable that the Japanese economy could grow to the point where it displaces China as the world’s number two.
A Japanese success story would be a boon to the prosperity and security of the Pacific and indeed the entire world — China very much included.