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Asia’s Overlooked Great Power

Mention Asia, and most people think of the region’s fascinating, rising giants, China or India – or both. Or people think about North Korea’s nuclear program, some terrorist incident, or the humanitarian consequences of the latest earthquake or tsunami. But often overlooked – or at least underestimated – is Japan.

This is odd, given that Japan is still the world’s second largest economy, with a GDP of $5 trillion – more than China and India combined. Despite Japan’s relatively modest rate of economic growth, its GDP per capita is roughly $38,000, more than ten times that of either China or India.

Moreover, there are important stirrings in Japan that suggest change on both the economic and security fronts. The 1990’s may have been a lost decade, but Japan’s economy has begun to recover, now growing at more than 2% a year and boasting several firms that are truly global and hugely successful.

Changes in foreign and defense policy are more considerable. Japan’s self-defense agency was upgraded in January to a full ministry. Japan now spends more than $40 billion a year on defense and maintains one of the world’s most diverse and modern militaries. Approximately 1,000 Japanese forces serve in and around Iraq. Intellectuals, journalists, and politicians are now saying and writing things about Japan’s role in the world that were unthinkable a decade ago. It is a question of when, not if, the Japanese amend Article IX of their constitution, which limits the role of Japan’s armed forces to self-defense.

Not everyone will welcome these changes. Japan’s neighbors, who continue to harbor concerns stemming from World War II and Japan’s failure to deal adequately with its history, will worry about Japanese nationalism. Nevertheless, a more active and more capable Japan, with a robust democracy and a thriving economy, is in its neighbors’ best interests. The danger is not renewed Japanese militarism, but rather a Japan that is unable and unwilling to do its share to meet the regional and global challenges facing Asia.

Japan, for its part, needs to continue to open and reform its economy, improve its military, and make its forces available for the sort of low-intensity but manpower-intensive missions, ranging from genocide prevention to nation-building to peacekeeping, that are increasingly required in the greater Middle East and Africa.

Japanese leaders also need to act with sensitivity. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is off to an uneven start. On one hand, he is wise not to have visited the Yasukuni shrine, which honors millions of Japan’s war dead, including 14 Class A war criminals. On the other hand, Abe’s public statements denying Japan’s coercion of “comfort women” in China and Korea have been clumsy at best, insensitive at worst.

It is essential that Japan and China forge a modern relationship. The increasing frequency of high-level visits – Prime Minister Abe went to China in October, and Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao was just in Japan – is a welcome development. But more is needed. Trade and investment flows can and should be expanded, which is likely only if political relations improve. Both countries should commit themselves to a diplomatic resolution of competing claims to offshore resources. Exchanges of every kind – military, educational, touristic – should be facilitated.

The world also needs to take into account Japan’s importance. Japan should no longer be denied fair treatment because of events more than 60 years ago. There is no reason Japan should not hold a permanent seat in the United Nations Security Council.

Japan should also be a full participant in Asian regional arrangements. Asia is rich in dynamism, but relatively thin in influential political, economic, and security-related institutions, in contrast to Europe, which often lacks dynamism but is institution-heavy. The Franco-German relationship, central to much twentieth-century conflict, now forms the core of modern Europe. The goal should be the same for China and Japan.

The agenda is virtually limitless, including trade and investment, energy and climate change, and confidence-building in the security sphere. A new regional institution could be based on an existing one (such as the six-party arrangement used to manage North Korea’s nuclear challenge) or start afresh.

Moreover, just as the United States continues to play a major role in Europe, so, too, should it act as a guarantor of Asia’s stability and a source of regional prosperity. The US-Japan alliance is central to America’s position in Asia. The goal is not to enlist Japan in any anti-Chinese coalition, but rather to increase the depth and breadth of US-Japanese cooperation. Both countries have many reasons to pursue this goal, considering North Korea’s missile and nuclear programs, terrorism, and the numerous challenges to stability around the world.

Abe’s visit to Washington in late April is an opportunity to continue to modernize a relationship conceived in an earlier geopolitical era. It is to be hoped that it will not be overshadowed by calls in Congress for Japan to apologize more formally than it already has for the comfort women. Rather, the focus should be on the future and on welcoming the emergence of a Japan that is increasingly able and willing to act as a partner of the US in addressing regional and global challenges.