How Japan Could Save the World

By Caryl, Christian | Newsweek International, February 9, 2009 | Go to article overview

How Japan Could Save the World

Caryl, Christian, Newsweek International

Byline: Christian Caryl; With Akiko Kashiwagi in Tokyo

Don't laugh--Japan has the skills and the resources, and has made huge contributions before.

As the chaos off Somalia has forced more and more countries to address high-seas piracy, one nation stands out for its proven track record in the field. For years, the Strait of Malacca--a narrow but vital waterway between Malaysia and Indonesia--was bedeviled by buccaneers. Who came to the rescue? Japan, a nation not known for its willingness to take on international threats. Yet Tokyo quietly rose to the challenge, providing training to regional militaries, setting up an information-sharing center that allowed local security forces to respond quickly to attacks and providing Coast Guard ships to the ill-equipped Indonesian Navy. Japan's efforts were highly effective, helping reduce piracy incidents in the area from 150 in 2003 to a third of that just three years later.

After seemingly endless dithering, politicians in Tokyo also recently agreed to dispatch warships to the Gulf of Aden--but only to protect Japanese ships and cargo, which will limit any international good will the country earns in return. And the mission will be so entangled in caveats and conditions that its effectiveness will be highly questionable.

What gives? Japan, it seems, has become the Hamlet of Asia, endlessly fretting about its waning world influence while failing to do much about it. Some analysts explain the diffidence by pointing to the drawn-out recession of the 1990s, which left the country demoralized and mired in debt. Others suggest that Japan's half-century military reliance on the United States created a culture of dependency and timidity. Some even blame the lack of mojo on the country's aging population, or its strikingly mediocre politicians.

There's a core of truth to all these charges. Japan's government often seems to lack the will to assert itself. This reluctance is particularly problematic today, when the world is desperately looking for ways out of the economic crisis. But there's reason for hope. In some cases, such as Southeast Asian piracy, Japan has already made real contributions to global problems--and hinted at a way forward on other issues. And later this year, when Japanese voters go to the polls, they're expected to deal a stinging defeat to the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which has governed the country essentially unchallenged since World War II. If the opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) forms the next government, it will face a remarkable opportunity to launch bold new initiatives--even though its current positions are a bit of a muddle. Japanese voters are likely to support decisive moves, given their frustrations with the LDP's fecklessness.

If the DPJ does start tackling international problems, it will find it has plenty of resources at its disposal. The Japanese economy, for example, might not be quite the force it once was, but it's still the world's second largest. (Tokyo alone has a larger GDP than all of Canada.) Despite the global economic crisis, Japanese financial institutions remain strikingly sound. "The banking system is relatively intact," says former Bank of Japan official Mikio Wakatsuki. "Our international exposure is not too bad. The currency is too strong--[but that's] another sign that we're not too badly damaged." Wakatsuki is the first to acknowledge that these advantages are relative, and that Japan is in dire economic straits. Yet even in its weakened condition, the country has the capacity to assert benign economic leadership--should it choose to.

Indeed, Tokyo has already made a few moves in the right direction. Drawing on its more than $1 trillion in foreign-exchange reserves, Japan has offered a $100 billion credit line to the International Monetary Fund, and could easily offer up to $200 billion more, says Masahiro Kawai, a Japanese director of the Asian Development Bank Institute (and not affiliated with the Japanese government). …

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