In his second act, Shinzo Abe plays it safe

The Japanese PM is acting with the determined carefulness of a man given a second chance
Last Updated 20 February 2013, 18:28 IST

Since taking office less than two months ago, Japan’s outspokenly hawkish new prime minister, Shinzo Abe, has been in what some political analysts are calling ‘safe driving mode.’ He has carefully avoided saying or doing anything to provoke other Asian nations, while focusing instead on wooing voters with steps to revive the moribund domestic economy.

So far, his approach seems to be working. His plans for public-works projects, stimulus measures called ‘Abenomics,’ have sent the Tokyo stock market surging along with Abe’s approval rating, which is at 71 per cent according to the latest poll by Yomiuri Shimbum.On Friday, he will seek to build on his strong start when he meets President Barack Obama at a Washington summit meeting aimed at improving relations with the United States, which regards Japan as its most important ally in Asia.

Abe, 58, has said he wants to be what Japan has not seen in almost a decade: a steady-handed leader who lasts long enough in office to actually get things done. Analysts say his success hinges on whether he can lead his Liberal Democratic Party to victory in Upper House elections in July, and end the split Parliament that undermined many of his predecessors.

What is less clear is what he will do if he wins that election. One trait that makes Abe a bit of an enigma, some analysts say, is that he seems to have two sides: the realist – the side on display now – and the right-wing ideologue. In analysts’ view, if he does jettison some of his current caution, like by trying to revise Japan’s anti-war constitution to allow a full-fledged military instead of its current self-defence force, he risks provoking a standoff with China over disputed islands, and possibly isolating Japan in a region still sensitive to its early 20th-century militarism.

“In his first six weeks, he has done everything he can to show he is a moderate,” said Andrew L Oros, director of international studies at Washington College in Chestertown, Md. “But after July, he might feel he has a freer rein to do things that he thinks are justified.” Part of the problem, Oros and others say, is that Abe faces conflicting political pressures. His base in the governing party’s most conservative wing expects bold steps to end what it sees as Japan’s overly prolonged displays of contrition for World War II. But he must also convince the broader public that he is a coolheaded, competent steward of a declining nation that also depends on China for its economic future.

There is also the ghost of his past failure. The last time he was prime minister, six years ago, he stepped down amid criticism that he had been ‘clueless’ for having pursued a nationalistic agenda of revising the constitution and history textbooks, and for not doing more to reduce unemployment and spur the economy.

Extricating from recession

This time, Abe is acting with the determined carefulness of a man given a second chance. He has focused on extricating Japan from its recession with steps that have quickly buoyed the country’s economy, the world’s third-largest. Since being named prime minister after his party’s election victory in December, Abe has promised $215 billion in public works spending to create jobs and promote growth.

He has also publicly pressured the central bank, the Bank of Japan, to move more aggressively to end years of corrosive price declines known as deflation – threatening, for example, to amend the law on the bank’s independence if it does not reach its target goal of 2 per cent inflation. The bank’s governor, Masaaki Shirakawa, announced this month that he would step aside to allow Abe to appoint a new chief who will work closer with the government by pumping more money into the economy to prompt banks to lend more and companies to spend more.

“Abe has clearly learned the lessons of his past failure,” said Norihiko Narita, a political scientist at Surugadai University, near Tokyo. “And the biggest lesson is that voters care more about the economy.”

Abenomics has already affected the yen, helping to drive down its value 20 per cent in just four months. This has strengthened Japan’s struggling export industries by making their products cheaper abroad, but also led to warnings of a trade war in which other nations push down the values of their currencies.

However, the biggest criticism of Abenomics is that it will provide only a short-lived adrenaline shot for growth, while producing little more than superfluous bridges and roads, and adding to Japan’s stifling national debt. Economists say Abe’s policies so far contain few of the deeper-reaching structural reforms that they say are needed to produce sustainable growth by encouraging competition in Japan’s sclerotic economy.

They say the most symbolic step would be joining a Pacific-wide free trade pact that would force Japan to open sheltered domestic markets, like farm products. Abe appears to personally favour entering the pact, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which the United States champions as a way of binding the economically vibrant region together. Japanese and US officials say Abe may even privately promise Obama that Japan will soon join the pact. But he cannot afford to say so in public for fear of alienating the farmers who have been strong supporters of the Liberal Democrats – at least not until the July elections.

Similarly, fears of angering voters on Okinawa will also likely prevent Abe from offering progress on another issue that has long caused problems with the United States, the relocation of the unpopular US air base at Futenma. This has led some analysts to wonder what Abe’s visit to Washington will actually be able to produce.
Plans for the summit meeting seemed to get off to a rocky start last month, when the administration declined a Japanese request for a visit by Obama, saying the US side was not ready. This was reported as a snub in Japan’s tabloid press. Perhaps to make amends, the Americans have increased the time Abe will spend with Obama, adding a luncheon at the White House to the schedule.

For Abe, strengthening ties with the US is crucial as Japan faces a growing challenge from China for control of the disputed islands, known as the Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in Chinese. Analysts say Abe will probably tell Obama that he wants Japan to act as a fuller military partner to the US, at a time when the Pentagon faces steep budget cuts. But it is unclear if more radical steps, like rewriting the constitution, would sit well with the majority of Japanese voters who wish Abe to remain moderate.

“Abe is to the right of the mainstream,” said Koji Nakakita, a politics professor at Tokyo’s Hitotsubashi University, “and that carries a huge potential risk for him.”

(Published 20 February 2013, 18:28 IST)

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