Japan is back


Defying American ambivalence and Chinese outrage, Japan Prime Minister Shinzo Abe declared in Washington last week that Japan will remain a first-rate power in the world. Addressing a Washington audience after he met US President Barack Obama in the White House, Abe spoke in English, unusual for a Japanese premier, and asserted that "Japan is not, and will never be, a second-tier country."

After a series of weak PMs and persistent economic recession in the last few years, the widespread assumption in Washington and beyond has been that Japan is slowly but certainly fading out of the world's centrestage. In the last few weeks he has been in power, Abe has sought to shake Japan, East Asia and the world out of the certitudes on Japan's inevitable decline. Making bold moves to revive the economy, standing up to Chinese pressure over the disputed islands that Beijing calls Diaoyu and Japan Senkaku, proposing an increase in defence spending and calling for far-reaching changes in Japan's peace constitution, Abe has generated shock waves.

"I make a pledge," Abe declared in Washington, "I will bring back a strong Japan, strong enough to do even more good for the betterment of the world." For a country that has never stopped offering apologies for its imperial conduct in World War II, the use of the phrase "Japan is back" has grated on Chinese nerves. Worse still, Abe made bold to accuse the Communist Party of China of mobilising patriotism and stoking up territorial quarrels with neighbours to shore up its sagging domestic political legitimacy.

This was red rag to the Chinese bull, and a spokesman of the foreign office in Beijing declared that Abe's personal purpose was to "distort facts, attack and defame China and stir up confrontation between the two countries". Unfazed by the Chinese criticism, Abe said in Washington that he is not for confrontation with Beijing and is willing to engage China for mutual benefit. On the territorial dispute, though, Abe gave no quarter to Beijing. "No nation should make any miscalculation about the firmness of our resolve" to defend Japan's claim to the Senkakus.

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