TOKYO – As Shinzo Abe sits down this week in Seoul with South Korean President Park Geun-hye and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, he does so as the leader of a country that many people around the world now seriously underestimate. That dynamic certainly will be felt during the three Northeast Asian powers’ first summit since 2012.
Three decades ago, many erred in the opposite direction in their assessments of Japan. Many Americans feared being overtaken after Japanese per capita income surpassed that of the United States; Japanese manufacturing set the international standard; and some books even predicted an eventual war with a Japanese nuclear superpower. Such views extrapolated from Japan’s impressive postwar economic growth; today, after more than two decades of malaise, they simply remind us of the danger of linear projections.
That danger remains with us. In response to China’s rapid rise and the assertiveness of its Communist Party leadership, the current conventional wisdom portrays Japan as a country of secondary importance – which is equally mistaken.
Despite its economic slowdown, Japan retains impressive power resources. It is a democracy that has been at peace for 70 years, with a stable society and a high standard of living. Its per capita income is five times that of China, and Beijing residents can only envy Tokyo’s air quality and product safety standards. Its economy remains the world’s third largest overall, sustained by highly sophisticated industry.