Opinion

Ian Bremmer

Japan’s path forward, in five steps

Ian Bremmer
May 9, 2014 20:28 UTC

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On the surface, Barack Obama’s recent Japan visit struck all the right chords for Tokyo. For the first time ever, an American president stated that the U.S.-Japan security treaty extends to the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands dispute, the most combustible geopolitical conflict between Japan and China. And Obama and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced a “key milestone” for negotiations on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the trade deal that encompasses 12 countries and more than 40 percent of the world’s economic output.

But there was less to the visit than meets the eye. Obama’s Senkaku pledge was a restatement of existing U.S. policy. The “key milestone” on TPP was never identified; in fact, it seems that the 40 hours of bilateral discussions between the U.S. and Japan led to no breakthrough at all. And while the trip was a big win for Obama — he managed to placate Tokyo without provoking Beijing — it didn’t offer any solutions for how Japan should deal with a rising China.

With the United States disengaging on foreign policy and China rapidly expanding its influence, Japan is caught in a dire geopolitical position. But Tokyo still has options. Here are five foreign policy priorities for Japan.

1. Stay the course on Abenomics.

Japan’s first priority must be to follow through on the prime minister’s economic plan. Despite Tokyo’s recent fixation on security issues, it has maintained economic momentum — and must continue to do so.

Improving its long-term economic trajectory is the single most important initiative for Japan. It makes Tokyo more attractive as a partner, and gives Japan opportunities to influence regional outcomes with its wallet. Tokyo cannot take its eyes off the ball to deal with geopolitical concerns. Pressing ahead with Abenomics is the most valuable use of Abe’s political capital.

Is the China-Japan relationship ‘at its worst’?

Ian Bremmer
Feb 11, 2014 22:58 UTC

At the Munich Security Conference last month, Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Fu Ying said the China-Japan relationship is “at its worst.” But that’s not the most colorful statement explaining, and contributing to, China-Japan tensions of late.

At Davos, a member of the Chinese delegation referred to Shinzo Abe and Kim Jong Un as “troublemakers,” lumping the Japanese prime minister together with the volatile young leader of a regime shunned by the international community. Abe, in turn, painted China as militaristic and overly aggressive, explaining how — like Germany and Britain on the cusp of World War One — China and Japan are economically integrated, but strategically divorced. Even J.K. Rowling has played her part in recent weeks, with China’s and Japan’s ambassadors to Britain each referring to the other country as a villain from Harry Potter.

Of course, actions speak louder than words — and there’s been no shortage of provocative moves on either side. In November, Beijing declared an East Asian Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) — which requires all aircraft to follow instructions issued by Chinese authorities, even over contested territory, which pushed tensions to new highs. The following month, Abe visited Yasukuni Shrine — a site associated with Japanese World War militarism that makes it an automatic lightning rod for anti-Japanese sentiment among Japan’s neighbors.

China’s air zone announcement was just the beginning

Ian Bremmer
Dec 9, 2013 15:37 UTC

When China announced its decision to claim a wider air zone that encompassed the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Island territories, the East China Sea erupted into conflict reminiscent of the Cold War era. In response, the United States and Japan declared the zone illegitimate and flew military aircraft through it, while China deployed fighter jets to identify them.

But this was not a simple instance of China overstepping and getting burned — nor was it as sudden and unexpected as headlines suggest. Rather, it was the manifestation of a longstanding Chinese regional strategy that is only just beginning. And China is likely quite pleased with how it is playing out thus far.

For years, China has been looking for opportune moments to test the existing status quo of regional security, and then advance its self-interests. Ever since the summer of 2012, when Japan’s Noda-led government announced its intention to purchase more of the Senkaku Islands from a private owner, China has felt that the precarious equilibrium between the two countries had shifted. It was only a matter of time before China would try and change the status quo.

The countries not letting a crisis go to waste

Ian Bremmer
Jul 25, 2013 14:57 UTC

In 2008, before the financial crisis had even reached its nadir, Rahm Emanuel famously said: “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste.” Emanuel’s quote became the conventional wisdom for crisis management, even if the idea is age-old: John F. Kennedy Jr. famously pointed out that the Chinese word for “crisis” is composed of two characters, one for “danger” and one for “opportunity. 

Nearly five years after the global economic meltdown, we can now look at the world’s major powers and assess how well they’ve responded to their various crises. Three categories emerge. Who took advantage of crisis? Who never really had a true crisis? And who is letting crisis go to waste?

A crisis unwasted: Japan and the Euro zone

Let’s begin with Europe, which experienced a real and urgent crisis. Remember that as little as 18 months ago, the media and bond markets had the euro zone pegged for imminent fracture, when the debts of its member countries and the untenable divide between its core countries and those on the periphery threatened to overwhelm the political unity and economic cohesion that the bloc enjoyed. A lack of fiscal coordination, political and monetary dexterity, and balance between strong and weak states pushed the world’s largest economic bloc into existential crisis.

The top 10 grudges in the G-20

Ian Bremmer
Mar 7, 2013 20:14 UTC

The G-20 is no happy family. Comprised of 19 countries and the European Union, once the urgency of the financial crisis waned, so too did the level of collaboration among members. Unlike the cozier G-7 — filled with likeminded nations — the G-20 is a better representation of the true global balance of power … and the tensions therein. So where are the deepest fault lines in the G-20? 

Below is a ranking* of the 10 worst bilateral relationships in the G20. Russia is in four of the worst, while China is in three (although Russia and China’s relationship is fine). Several countries are also in two of the worst relationships: the United States (with the two belligerents mentioned above), Japan, the UK and the EU. 

1.   China–Japan

China and Japan have a historically troubled relationship, which has reached its most contentious point in decades as their dispute over territorial claims to the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands has escalated, leading to renewed geopolitical tensions and possible confrontation. When the world’s second- and third-largest economies are butting heads, it carries huge global ramifications.

In a year of big elections, Japan’s was Godzilla

Ian Bremmer
Dec 20, 2012 05:14 UTC

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.

America’s way or Huawei

Ian Bremmer
Oct 26, 2012 22:05 UTC

If you watched the third presidential debate this week, you got the sense that in the U.S.-China relationship, there are only good guys and bad guys, and all the bad guys are in China. The Americans are the valiant defenders of well-paying jobs; the Chinese are the ones who make tires so cheap it hurts the Americans. The Americans have a currency so free it’s the envy of the world; China’s is so manipulated it stunts competition the world over. But the squabbling isn’t limited to what you heard at the debate or just the two governments. It’s also happening between governments and private companies.

For years, Huawei, a Chinese telecom giant, has been trying to break into the U.S. market. Huawei wants to provide communication infrastructure to the U.S., but the U.S. wants to make sure Huawei, founded by former members of the People’s Liberation Army, isn’t actually a spy organization. Huawei claims to be just like any other Silicon Valley tech giant. U.S. intelligence agencies, despite finding no evidence of spying, view Huawei’s technology as too vulnerable to hackers. The House Intelligence Committee classified Huawei as a national security threat. State capitalism and the challenge it poses have expanded enough that the government is officially worried about them.

The U.S. appears to be coordinating with the Canadians to resist Huawei’s advances. Stephen Harper, the Canadian Prime Minister, called his country’s relationship with China “complex” and acknowledged that there’s a national security dimension to its dealings with Huawei. In the midst of investing in cyber security, the Canadian government is also considering whether to allow Huawei to bid on building a new national email system.

Japan’s year of resilience

Ian Bremmer
Feb 15, 2012 18:34 UTC

Almost a year on from a devastating earthquake and tsunami that left the Fukushima nuclear catastrophe in its wake, it’s fair to say Japan has experienced a crisis unlike any other since the 1945 bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki that ended World War Two.

Over 13,000 people died from the quake, many from drowning. The final death toll, which will include those who were unable to receive proper medical care during the disaster, will be even higher. An estimated 100,000 children were uprooted from their homes after the quake, along with some 400,000 adults. And in the areas affected by fallout from the Fukushima nuclear disaster, cleanup work is really just beginning. With all of this coming in the teeth of the global economic crisis and Japan’s national industrial slowdown, the densely populated main island of Japan has not seen anything like this in decades.

Now Japan has to contend with the fact that its primary power supply, nuclear energy, is effectively verboten in the country. How will it rebuild its power infrastructure when the very idea of a new nuclear power plant is dismissed nearly out of hand? How will it rebuild when its costs for construction have skyrocketed thanks to the setbacks its industries have faced this year? How will it continue taking care of the thousands who have yet to return home, many of whom are living in fallout zones and may never even have the option to do so? The challenges facing the country are serious.

Why the U.S. is not—and never will be—Japan

Ian Bremmer
Nov 18, 2011 20:23 UTC

By Ian Bremmer
The opinions expressed are his own.

Though I’ve already written about the recent Munk debate in Toronto elsewhere, it’s worth taking some space to expand on my position, and why the U.S. truly is not going to experience a Japan-style lost decade of economic stagnation.

(The debate was on this resolution: Be it resolved North America faces a Japan-style era of economic stagnation. I joined Larry Summers in arguing the Con side against Paul Krugman and David Rosenberg.)

Let’s start with the political realities: Japan experienced 50 years of single-party rule. In the last 22 years, the country has had 17 prime ministers. Recently, the Democratic party there defeated the long-time incumbents, the Liberal Democrats, only to find that they had no idea how to govern the nation. They had no idea how the ministries worked, no relationships with industrialists or financial institutions, no grasp on the levers of power in society, and no strong policy apparatus. If the U.S.’s political situation looks bleak, consider that alternative.

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