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.