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Global Perspective: How to overcome Japan's national crisis

The British Royal Navy's HMS Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier is seen at the U.S. naval base in Yokosuka, Kanagawa Prefecture, in this Sept. 7, 2021 file photo. (Mainichi/Hiroshi Maruyama)

By Makoto Iokibe, Chairman of Asian Affairs Research Council

    We are now in the fourth year of the Reiwa era, but that was preceded by 30 years of the Heisei era (1988-2019). What kind of era was it?

    Simply put, it was a time of triple suffering. First, the economy, which we had been so proud of, plunged and sank after the economic bubble burst in the early 1990s. Secondly, the Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake of 1995, the Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011, and other major disasters occurred frequently. Third, the rapid military expansion and menace of North Korea and China exposed Japan to a real national security threat for the first time since the end of World War II.

    Despite the triple woes, Japanese society remained undisturbed, did not fall into populism, maintained a people-friendly way of life, and the reputation for cool Japanese culture grew.

    So, how is it going to change in the Reiwa era? Has the triple burden been eliminated? No, rather, the country is now faced with quadruple troubles. This was due to the spread of the new coronavirus. While major disasters are limited to certain regions, the new coronavirus poses a life-threatening danger to the entire nation. The people are not tolerant of a government that is unable to respond to the threat to their survival. Even a government which had enjoyed the longest term in power in modern Japanese history (Abe), or one with a strong grip on the bureaucracy (Suga) were both easily replaced in the midst of the corona disaster. It is a terrible crisis.

    Did the threat from foreign enemies subside with the advent of Reiwa? The opposite is true. North Korea is even more defiant and provocative when it comes to nuclear weapons and missiles. Since nuclear weapons are practically unusable, the probability of actual harm is not high, but what should be feared is China, which has built an all-round military system and is not afraid to use it. Its aggressive behavior, also known as the wolf warrior diplomacy during the coronavirus pandemic, has led to international restraining actions aimed at China, such as AUKUS (Australia-UK-US Security Framework) and QUAD (Japan-US-Australia-India Strategic Dialogue). Major Western European nations, which traditionally saw China as an economic opportunity, became so cautious that they sent warships to patrol in East Asia. Even so, China's actions toward Taiwan and the Senkaku Islands cannot be blocked, and Japan must find a response to the difficult problems at the forefront.

    In a nutshell, our country is in the midst of a national crisis. Now I would like to make three suggestions on what should be done.

    The first is to establish a crisis management agency for disaster prevention and epidemic control. A century ago, the Spanish flu killed about 400,000 people in Japan, but the Japanese government still does not have an effective system to deal with infectious disease crises. Changing the peacetime manual of action would be an unexpected hassle for bureaucrats, and they can only respond reluctantly. The prime minister's office must be supported by a specialized organization that has accumulated know-how on foreign and domestic infectious diseases and can respond to new situations with prompt research and studies.

    The same applies to disaster prevention. It is hard to believe that the prime minister's office does not have a permanent section of disaster prevention experts in an archipelago where disasters occur so frequently. As for external threats, a group of political experts under the prime minister, including the defense minister and the chief of the joint staff, study and train on contingency plans on a daily basis. A disaster prevention and epidemic control agency should be established for crisis response, with experts in the two fields of disaster prevention and infectious diseases.

    Second, Japan must restructure its national security strategy. Post-war Japan, reflecting on its pre-war behavior, believed that a condition for peace was not to start wars by itself. Today, that is only half the story. It is now essential to find a way to prevent our neighbors, who are rushing to expand their armed forces, from using force. This is remarkably difficult to achieve, but a combination of three approaches may be useful: (1) strengthening self-help capabilities, including the enhancement of missile networks, (2) making the Japan-U.S. alliance more effective, and (3) expanding international cooperation.

    The gap in military power between Japan and China has now widened significantly. Under these circumstances, we must avoid errors of going two extreme ways. One is no-defense pacifism. As was the case with Belgium's unpreparedness before World War I that led to Germany's invasion, and China's takeover from the Philippines of Mischief Atoll in the Spratly Islands in 1995, not posing sufficient resistance to a country that threatens to use force has the effect of arousing and tempting its greed.

    The other extreme is to argue that we should have full deterrence against the other country. With Japan's economic power, it is not easy to build an army (deterrence) that can destroy the heart of China, and we should not allow the problem to spread too far. The only Japanese territory that China intends to seize is the Senkaku Islands. There is an urgent need to strengthen the capabilities of the Japan Coast Guard and to build up a layered missile network to make this difficult. As long as the Japan-U.S. alliance is alive and well, a direct attack on the Japanese mainland is too dangerous for China. We need to rebuild our relationship with China on the basis of the "Japan-U.S. alliance plus Japan-China entente" so that we can neither attack nor be attacked.

    Third is the revitalization of the Japanese economy, which is the foundation of everything. In a bid to achieve this goal, the second Shinzo Abe administration shot out "three arrows": (1) drastic monetary easing, (2) aggressive fiscal policy, and (3) growth through capital investment. The first and second measures worked, boosting stock prices and creating a positive economic sentiment. However, the third program did not work, and Japan is still experiencing low growth.

    Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has called for "new capitalism" through wage hikes and inequality correction. This is a global issue, and I hope that progress will be made. However, the most urgent task is for Japan to regain its growth potential by strengthening research and development and direct investment. Without this, there will be no improvement in the nation's finances and no revival of Japan. However, in the current situation where many companies have forgotten this for 30 years and have been focused on internal reserves, strategic guidance by the government is essential on R&D and investment. In this sense, Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company's (TSMC) construction of a semiconductor manufacturing plant in Kumamoto Prefecture in southern Japan gives me hope.

    Some high-ranking officials have been advocating for tackling the national budget deficit. It is an important policy goal, but now is not the time to pursue it. Budgetary austerity in a COVID-19 recession is suicidal. Now is the time to use aggressive fiscal measures to forcefully promote digitalization, where Japan is lagging behind the rest of the world, and to concentrate on accelerating investment in new industries with an eye on global warming.

    The triple or quadruple burden is about the severity of the environment. What matters is how we act. History is rich with examples of recognizing severity and setting ambitious goals to turn a crisis into an opportunity. Let's aim for a creative recovery in the Reiwa era.

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