By Ian Bremmer / Special to The Yomiuri ShimbunHow should we think about Japan’s role in the world in this new Reiwa era? Japan is increasingly a model for many countries around the world — and that’s new. Until the aughts, Japan was increasingly economically stagnant, had a lot of debt, and a decreasing birthrate and aging population. Some might have asked, “What are we going to learn from Japan?”
And yet, in 2019, with this extraordinary transition happening in Japan, even though Japan has little growth, it is the one country that’s not eating itself apart. You don’t see the rise of nationalism or populism. Political institutions still have legitimacy. You have a country that is stable and is committed to the existing global order.
Take a look at all of the industrial democracies in the world today. Who is leading the free world? It isn’t the United States, which is questioning what its role should be. You certainly wouldn’t say Macron in France or Theresa May in Britain. You used to say Germany and Angela Merkel, but not anymore.
In fact, the strongest leader of an advanced industrial democracy today is Shinzo Abe in Japan.
Japan has strong leadership and a stable political model. At the same time, the change in the geopolitical order is more of a danger and threat to Japan than perhaps any of the other major advanced industrial democracies. Japan’s lack of military capabilities — and its reliance on the United States so overwhelmingly for its security needs — at a time when Americans are increasingly questioning the costs of such support leaves the country vulnerable. Add to that China, a threat to Japan both because of historical and cultural enmity as well as proximity. Japan is particularly concerned as China builds up its geopolitical capabilities and influence in Asia.
What can Japan do concretely? There are a few areas where we can see Japan playing more of a global role in this Reiwa era:
(1) Japan’s role in helping to ensure existing multilateral architecture, created and supported by the West, continues to be critical. That’s true whether you talk about the World Trade Organization or Japan’s role in the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which it helped ensure stayed together after the United States pulled out (the United States may still be welcome to join after Trump leaves office). Maintaining global security, maintaining a free market international trading system, maintaining support for international human rights — these are all things Japan is in a position to actively promote and safeguard.
(2) New architecture. The Japanese are very interested in working with the Americans and others on cybersecurity. Today we have the Five Eyes agreement (the United States, Britain, Australia, New Zealand, Canada) but if you think about the other countries that are going to be the most interested and united in battling against cyber threats that come from the Russians, the Chinese and non-state actors, Japan is near the top of the list. It’s going to be a critical player and a more important ally to the United States and the Europeans than they have been historically.
(3) Artificial intelligence. One of the biggest dangers in the geopolitical order is that we’re seeing AI becoming a confrontation between the United States and China. But the United States by itself is much weaker on artificial intelligence than it is with allies. The Americans have the best entrepreneurs, the Europeans have the best regulators; Japan is the one country that is least threatened by AI; in fact, the Japanese welcome it. And the reason for that is their population is shrinking so they don’t have the same labor dislocations that come from the robots and automation and artificial intelligence that the Americans and the Europeans are experiencing. That makes them a critical partner in what we could envision as a technological TPP, an agreement that brings together the complementary AI superpowers of all the Western allies. China would need to think twice about competing against — as opposed to working with — such an alliance.
(4) Resilience. We are entering a world where there are some very big and global threats that are going to make weaker countries and weaker political institutions very vulnerable. Climate change, in particular, poses a major risk. And the Japanese are more focused on building up durable infrastructure that is well-managed and lasts than any other country around; after all, their service sector is great and their infrastructure really works. That matters in a world of climate change, and that matters in a world of instability. It’s going to be important for Japan not just to have that for themselves, but to export it, to work with partners and help to ensure that other countries have the kind of resilience and the kind of infrastructure the Japanese have become famous for.
Bremmer is an American political scientist. He is the president and founder of Eurasia Group. He warns of “G-Zero,” his term for a global power vacuum in which no country is willing and able to set the international agenda.Speech