Emboldened Abe’s constitutional quest threatens regional stability and Japan’s economy
William Pesek says the Japanese prime minister’s new mandate to revise the pacifist constitution, following his convincing election victory, may spark confrontation with neighbours, especially China, while endangering Japan’s recent economic revival
To Donald Trump, he’s “little rocket man”. But to Japan’s Shinzo Abe, the North Korean leader is a blessing from the heavens. Not the nukes, of course. The missiles Kim Jong-un fires over Japan are an existential threat to Abe’s 127 million people. The “fire and fury” bombast of Trump is also most unwelcome. But politically, Kim’s provocations help Abe achieve his most cherished goals: becoming the longest-serving prime minister and amending the constitution so Tokyo can field a conventional military.
Polls show the Pyongyang effect helped Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party win a resounding victory in Sunday’s election. That job security emboldens Abe to revise the war-renouncing Article 9 of a constitution written by General Douglas MacArthur’s US occupation forces after the second world war.
There are two big risks here, one geopolitical, one economic. Changing the constitution would enrage China. While Abe pops champagne corks, Xi Jinping consolidates power. Neither of these two nationalists has much incentive to mend rocky relations.
North Korea is an obvious divide. Xi favours talks and patience; Abe stands with Trump in demanding a more assertive response. In Tokyo next month, Trump will meet families of Japanese kidnapped by North Korean agents decades ago. It doesn’t take a vivid imagination to foresee a Trump Twitter storm.
Since 2012, Xi has been ramping up China’s military influence, expanding claims in the South China Sea and spreading his wings with the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and “Belt and Road Initiative”. Abe’s priorities will shake up the neighbourhood as rarely before. He wasted no time after Sunday’s win pivoting to making Japan’s highly capable Self-Defence Forces legal. It won’t come without a domestic fight. Opposition forces stand in Abe’s way; the public is split on the merits of altering Article 9. But Abe is determined.
Trump’s visit is also Abe’s chance to gain greater access to US weapons. Beijing freaked out over South Korea hosting Terminal High Altitude Area Defence systems. It clamped down on tourism, cancelling K-pop concerts, shuttered Lotte stores and found other pretexts to stifle commercial interests. Japan following suit would elicit a more acerbic reaction.
That could escalate an already raging arms race that spills over into economic relations. China is Japan’s biggest trading partner, and 6.4 million mainlanders visited Japan in 2016, lifting economic growth. In Tokyo last month, Chinese ambassador Cheng Yonghua noted the “tendency to gradually improve the overall trend” on trade regardless of difficulties.
Article 9 revision could be a game-changer. But so could the world’s view of the reflation scheme Abe has spent five years hawking. Investors saw loads of Bank of Japan easing, but scant moves to deregulate a rigid, ageing economy. At the moment, Japan is benefiting from solid global growth. To sustain a recovery, it must act boldly to loosen labour markets, modernise tax policy, catalyse a start-up boom and empower women.
The LDP’s big win puts Abenomics at risk. Abe may pivot to constitutional priorities at the expense of economic retooling. In 2012 and 2014, Abe’s party won convincingly, generating buzz about accelerated reform efforts, only to disappoint.
Might this time be different? Abe has never been closer to completing what can be described as a family mission. In books and speeches, Abe talks nostalgically about his beloved grandfather – with myriad tales of what he learned at Nobusuke Kishi’s knee. Kishi was a member of the wartime cabinet of General Hideki Tojo, and later accused of war crimes. America let Kishi off easy. In 1957, Kishi even became prime minister and secured the 1964 Olympics.
Abe’s revisionism stems partly from cleaning up his grandfather’s past. First, Abe secured his own Tokyo Olympics. Now, he has right-wingers in a whirl over an ideal generational bookend: Kishi’s grandson could make Japan a “normal county” again.
China won’t see anything normal about it, nor will South Koreans or Kim’s regime. While great news for his personal ambitions, Abe’s election win could be rough on the neighbourhood.
William Pesek is a Tokyo-based journalist and the author of Japanization: What the World Can Learn from Japan’s Lost Decades. Twitter: @williampesek