Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and his then Vietnamese counterpart Nguyen Xuan Phuc feeding the fish in a pond at the Presidential Palace in Hanoi on October 19, 2020. Photo: Reuters
Richard Heydarian
Richard Heydarian

Japan can be a dynamic alternative to superpower hubris – just ask Southeast Asia

  • As a pre-eminent middle power with sufficient autonomy and resources, Japan can help prevent superpower conflict
  • Not only did Japan, under Abe, rescue the Trans-Pacific Partnership, it has offered a constructive alternative to China’s Belt and Road Initiative

“The vision I am aiming for is that of ‘a beautiful country, Japan’,” declared Shinzo Abe in his maiden speech as prime minister before the Diet in 2006. As the first Japanese leader born after the Second World War, Abe envisioned his country’s re-emergence as a global force, one that is “filled with charm and vitality” and “open to the world”.

The upcoming Summer Olympics in Japan, which were postponed last year due to the Covid-19 pandemic, would have been his crowning achievement, capping more than a decade of transformational leadership. And his long-time right-hand man and hand-picked successor, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, seems determined to push ahead with the games despite opposition at home and scepticism abroad.
In many ways, the forthcoming Olympics are a metaphor for Japan’s steady re-emergence, one that has been clouded by controversy but may yet be game-changing in an era of uncertainty and upheaval. Although much subdued, this would be Japan’s ultimate comeback party following the “lost decades” of economic stagnation, demographic decline and political infighting.

In stark contrast to its dark imperial past, and as far more than just an addendum to a declining American empire, Japan can now truly become a force for prosperity and stability in Asia. And as a pre-eminent middle power, with sufficient autonomy and resources to independently shape its strategic environment, Japan can also help prevent superpower conflict between the United States and China.

It’s easy to write Japan off as a has-been. After all, few countries have experienced as dramatic a decline as Japan’s in contemporary history. Up until the 1980s, the Asian country was seen as America’s biggest rival, with Japanese conglomerates gobbling up studios and real estate from Hollywood to New York.


Tokyo 2020 Olympic Village opens to the media

Tokyo 2020 Olympic Village opens to the media
Amid a historic asset boom in high-flying Japan, Tokyo’s real estate prices were at one point nearly 350 times more expensive than Manhattan’s. The Imperial Palace alone was worth more than the entire state of California. Predictably, the bubble eventually burst, yet Japan was still a formidable power up until the twilight years of the 20th century.

In 1990, Japan’s economic output still represented about 15 per cent of global gross domestic product and close to 70 per cent of regional GDP; it also accounted for around half of Asian trade. Despite its pacifist constitution, Japan’s defence spending was 60 per cent more than China’s.

But Japan’s lost decades saw its share of regional and global GDP slipping, and its defence spending becoming just a fraction of China’s by the second decade of the new century. Eager to redeem himself following a disastrous first prime ministerial stint, Abe vowed to revamp Japan’s domestic and foreign policy following decades of stagnation after his party won a surprise victory in the 2012 election.
True to his words, Abe would become Japan’s longest-serving leader and dedicate the next eight years to revitalising Japan and its role in the world. His domestic reforms, ranging from the “three arrows” of Abenomics to controversial attempts at revising the post-war constitution, produced mixed results.
Abe proved far more successful in his global agenda. On his watch, Japan rescued the Trans-Pacific Partnership abandoned by then US president Donald Trump, and finalised a historic free-trade deal with the European Union.


Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe resigns for health reasons

Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe resigns for health reasons
While the West bickered and denigrated China’s economic initiatives, Japan literally offered a constructive alternative to the Belt and Road Initiative. Under Abe, Japan launched a US$110 billion infrastructure investment programme, which emphasised high-quality, employment-generating, transparent and big-ticket projects.
In the critical region of Southeast Asia, a theatre of superpower rivalry, Japan proved strategically nimble. Its total pledges to infrastructure investments in the region amounted to US$367 billion, much higher than China’s US$255 billion.

China’s promised infrastructure billions yet to arrive in the Philippines

In vital states such as the Philippines and Vietnam, where Chinese projects have moved at a snail’s pace and have been shrouded in controversy, Japan has remained a dominant economic player.

Under Abe’s successor, Japan is set to further expand its global infrastructure blueprint, with a bilateral US$4.5 billion hi-tech initiative with the US, a trilateral Blue Dot Network with the US and Australia, as well as a multilateral Build Back Better World partnership with other G7 powers.


G7, Nato rhetoric mark ‘seismic shift’ between China and the West

G7, Nato rhetoric mark ‘seismic shift’ between China and the West

Collectively, these projects, in which Japan plays a key role, could provide a constructive alternative to China’s Belt and Road Initiative, creating much-needed healthy competition to fill a trillion-dollar spending gap in infrastructure in Asia.

Unlike the US, Japan has had to grapple with its bitter and traumatic experience of defeat during World War II, its deepening economic interdependence with neighbouring China, and the liminal vision of pan-Asian solidarity among its leaders and the broader population.

Above all, Japan’s strategic options are shaped by the tyranny of geography, with an ascendant China perched just across the hotly disputed East China Sea while a declining US may eventually retreat to the Americas in the coming decades. Ultimately, Japan can become a “beautiful country” by strengthening its status as a dynamic and formidable alternative to superpower hubris.

Richard Heydarian is a Manila-based academic and author of “Asia’s New Battlefield: US, China and the Struggle for the Western Pacific” and the forthcoming “Duterte’s Rise”