Can Japan Be Great Again?
Shinzo Abe, the reelected Prime Minister, will have a hard time to make his vision of a Japan as the biggest Asian power a reality.
- Japan has far bigger challenges than simply trying to enhance its military options against the threat of North Korea.
- Shinzo Abe needs to focus on defining a new relationship with China and dealing with the country’s rapidly aging society.
- When it comes to military power, China and Japan have remained rivals throughout their intertwined history over centuries.
- The two countries have never been equals: Either Japan or China has always been the dominant power that towered over East Asia.
In the end, the Japanese prime minister’s gamble paid off. Shinzo Abe’s big win in the latest election made clear once and for all his firm hold over the government.
That should allow him to move one step closer to achieving his lifelong objective: Making Japan a major power in Asia that is to be reckoned with once again.
Without doubt, with his reelection, Abe has enhanced his own standing in the annals of history: He is now well on his way to become Japan’s longest-serving prime minister since World War II.
Japan’s real challenges
But while he may have cleared a political hurdle to beef up his country’s defense capabilities, Japan actually has far bigger challenges than simply trying to enhance its military options against the threat of North Korea.
For Shinzo Abe to go down in history books as a great leader, he will need to focus on two major challenges; defining a new relationship with China and dealing with the country’s rapidly aging society.
Granted, prospects for confrontation with Kim Jong-un’s regime remain uncomfortably within the realm of reality. Options to rein in North Korea appear to be running out, and Japan as well as South Korea are directly in the cross-hair of increasing tensions between Pyongyang and Washington.
Nevertheless, with the international community by and large in agreement that North Korea is the single biggest immediate threat to regional stability, Japan can expect cooperation from the United States and the broader international community for support.
Managing China’s rise
There is, however, no international consensus on how to manage China’s rise and increased aggressions on the part of Beijing. At the latest Party Congress, Xi Jinping made clear that China would not be content with simply being an economic power, but it must be a great power both economically and militarily.
China is already clearly the former. In the region, China is the single biggest trading partner of almost all Asian nations, including Japan.
But when it comes to military power, China and Japan have remained rivals throughout their intertwined history over centuries. What’s more, there has never been a time when the two countries have been equals: Either Japan or China has always been the dominant power that towered over East Asia.
Having secured two-thirds of total seats in the Lower House of the Diet in the October 22, 2017 election by forming a coalition yet again with the Komeito Party, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party remains the political force that still has no credible opposition to unseat its strong hold in government.
A more muscular military?
The latest win has not only cemented Abe’s position as the head of the LDP, but also his hopes to revise the nation’s restrictive pacifist constitution, which is the prerequisite to increasing Japan’s military capabilities and options.
Of course, constitutional change will require not only approval from two-thirds of both the Upper and Lower Houses of the Diet, but also majority approval in a public referendum. Those are considerable obstacles to enhance Japan’s ability to defend itself against North Korea as well as China.
Another equally significant hurdle is the fact that, even if constitutional change were possible, Japan’s fiscal health may not be up to the task.
What Japanese voters want
While increased military risks in Asia garner headlines overseas, the single biggest concern of Japanese voters is the state of the economy, the outlook for public welfare and pension payments in particular.
Such concerns are easily understood. After all, about a quarter of the population is already 65 years or older. That already high number is expected to rise to one-third by 2050 — as a result of people living much longer on the one hand, and the birth rate continuing to slide on the other.
Meanwhile, Japan’s debt-to-GDP ratio is the highest amongst OECD countries, and yet no Japanese political party has been able to tout a significant cutback in social spending in order to meet the obvious resulting financing gap.
Currently, Japan’s military spending amounts to about 1% of GDP. It is now at the highest level that it has been since 1945. Some legislators are pushing to increase that by another 20%, especially in light of concerns about U.S. commitment to the region.
Abe’s victory was, of course, not as straightforward as he had initially anticipated, given the emergence of a new opposition party only hours after the snap election was called. Yet, in the end he and the LDP prevailed, and Abe is unlikely to face any major opposition to his leadership any time soon.
Nonetheless, being voted into power once again was perhaps the easiest part of his leadership. He will not find it as easy to make his vision of a Japan that is once again the biggest Asian power a reality.