In a year of big elections, Japan’s was Godzilla
Entering 2012, we were staring at a host of critical elections and transitions in countries that represent about half the world’s gross domestic product. You would think those elections and political handovers would have been some of the most important events of 2012. Yet they were largely red herrings.
In China, the consensus view is that even with a change of leadership, China is largely the same as it was; if anything, the Chinese leadership has doubled down on the approaches of its former government. In Russia, Vladimir Putin went from running the country as prime minister to running the country as president. In France, Nicolas Sarkozy was voted out and a socialist, François Hollande, voted in, but that hasn’t changed France’s stance toward the European Union, its most important relationship. And in the U.S., Barack Obama swatted aside Mitt Romney while Congress remained divided, making four more years of the status quo likely.
Yet in one major economy an election really did matter, and really will change the way a country behaves in the global arena. That place was … Japan.
At the beginning of the year, this notion seemed preposterous. Japan has had 18 prime ministers in 23 years, a modern-day Asian record. How important could a Japanese election be?
Yet the election that just saw Shinzo Abe return to the prime minister’s office was a statement about the kind of country Japan wants to be for the next few years. And it has major implications for the U.S., China and others.
Abe’s party, the Liberal Democrats, defeated the ruling Democratic Party of Japan in a landslide, capitalizing on several years of ineffective government by the DPJ. A faltering economy, mismanagement of the nuclear aftermath of Japan’s 2011 tsunami and a growing national debt all doomed the DPJ. But the election showed something else about Japan: It is increasingly nationalistic.
Along with the Liberal Democrats’ victory, a new party, the Japan Restoration Party, made significant headway, winning dozens of seats to become the third-strongest bloc in Japan’s lower house. The Restoration Party wants to remilitarize, rip up the U.S.-brokered Japanese constitution and install a federalized system that would break Japan up into self-governing regions. There’s a real nativist streak at work.
That sentiment helped Abe rise back to power. While not as stringent as the Restorationists, he is a comparative hawk on China, talking about “escaping the postwar regime” brokered by the U.S. and boosting defense spending. In its economic policy, too, his government will be meaningfully different from the Democratic Party’s, with a higher inflation target and a preference in favor of stimulus. Japan, unlike its peers in the rest of the world, has a definitively different steward.
Nowhere will that matter more than in Japan’s relationship with China. Like Japan, China is unhappy with the status quo. Recognizing that the power dynamic between the two countries is no longer what it was, China has been liberated from having to play nice. Over the past year, China has increasingly laid claim to the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands, which Japan thinks belong to it. Just last week a Chinese
fighter jet aircraft went into Japanese airspace for the first time since 1958.* Amid all this, Japan’s response has been increasingly nationalistic, as best evidenced byAbe’s re-election. After his party’s victory, Abe said, “The Senkaku Islands are inherently Japanese territory.”
The next logical step for Japan is to engage with other countries that are concerned about China’s rise. That, of course, means strengthening ties with the United States just as much of the country wants to move beyond the legacy of U.S. influence in the country. But reducing its reliance on China could be wise in the long term for a country trying to fend off a neighbor whose growth isn’t going to stall anytime soon. What Japan wants to avoid is a situation similar to the one that played out between Russia and Georgia in 2008. Japan has to resist China’s provocations, or else risk getting drawn into a deadly confrontation with a larger country that has something to prove. That would hurt the Japanese economy far more than tacking away from China to strengthen its relationship with alternatives like the U.S.
The last time Abe was elected prime minister, in 2006, his first foreign trip was to China. Don’t count on it this time around.
This essay is based on a transcribed interview with Bremmer.
CORRECTION: This piece originally misstated that the Chinese aircraft that went into Japanese airspace was a fighter jet. It was not.
PHOTO: Japan’s conservative Liberal Democratic Party’s (LDP) leader and next Prime Minister Shinzo Abe speaks to the media at the Parliament in Tokyo December 18, 2012. REUTERS/Toru Hanai