What Will 2019 Bring for Japan?

 

 

Looking forward into 2019 we can ask: what will the New Year bring Japan?

 

Domestically, a new emperor will ascend the throne with the abdication of Emperor Akihito. A new reign will doubtless cause people to reflect on the many good things about Japanese society. But reflection on the many challenges facing the nation – security threats, the economy, the problem of a falling population and the grave risk of importing labor – will also be necessary.

 

Internationally, however, the picture for Japan is unfortunately darker than the rest of the world believes.

 

 

South Korea

 

The surprising deterioration in relations with South Korea is a big cause for concern. As negotiations with North Korea enter a very sensitive period, the rise in anti-Japanese sentiment in South Korea is both puzzling and alarming. The incident in December 2018, wherein a South Korean military vessel used a fire-control radar against a JSDF surveillance aircraft in the Sea of Japan, was quite outrageous and should have brought an immediate apology from Seoul. Yet Moon Jae-in’s officials have denied the incident even happened.

 

If this is the new normal with South Korea, what will happen next? Moreover, what did Japan do to earn such unreasonable hostility from its neighbor?

 

 

North Korea

 

Also, on the Korean Peninsula, Japan will likely have to face the bitter disappointment of the de facto abandonment of denuclearizing North Korea. Whatever United States President Donald Trump says, Kim Jong Un is not going to give up his nuclear weapons and missiles. A long stalemate will probably ensue, with China and Russia doing everything possible behind the scenes to weaken the international sanctions.

 

Will Kim resume both missile launches and the further development of his nuclear arsenal? The gangster state that exists north of the DMZ is hardly showing signs of wanting to join the civilized world, and one can be justified in harboring grave doubts about Moon Jae-in’s coddling of Kim Jong Un.

 

 

China

 

North Korea aside, the really big problem lies in Beijing. Global pressure on China to counter its many acts of aggression abroad and repression at home will likely increase in 2019.

 

Governments in democratic countries all over the world have finally woken up to the threat that China’s Communist Party poses in so many spheres of activity, whether it’s the so-called Belt and Road Initiative (in reality, barely-disguised debt-trap diplomacy), militarizing the South China Sea, or cyber-attacks on industry, vital infrastructure, and governments all over the world.

 

Yet 2018 showed us that opposition to Xi Jinping’s needless provocations is a unifying trend around the world; to try and stop China we, the free world, must act together. This is good news.

 

But the bad news is the Chinese response to this increasing pressure is not likely to be generous or diplomatic. Instead, we can look forward to probably greater provocations from Beijing.

 

Japan’s geographical position means it will probably face some severe challenges from Beijing as the months progress. The recent misbehavior of Chinese fishing vessels in Japan’s exclusive economic zone illustrates what is to come in 2019.

 

 

The United States

 

The biggest overall security issue for Japan will be questions about the U.S. commitment to security in Asia.

 

President Trump recently announced the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria, much to the fury of the Washington foreign policy and military establishment. What does this have to do with Japan’s security?

 

The answer is — whether we like it or not — the American people are asking hard questions these days, such as, “Why do we need to have such large military assets spread all over the world? Why do we have to be the global policeman? Why aren’t our allies doing more?”

 

Trump’s own doubts about this reflect public opinion in America. Conservative commentators such as Pat Buchanan regularly call for a U.S. withdrawal from Asia.

 

 

Japan’s Response to the Challenges

 

How will Japan handle its own defense in future if America’s will to remain a guarantor of security starts weakening?

 

The current Japanese Constitution is way out of date. It was written and imposed on Japan in 1947. To state the obvious, the security situation has radically changed since then, so it’s only sensible that the Constitution be amended to reflect the new — and scary — reality of Asia these days. To protect your way of life, your culture, and your economy, you have to do what’s necessary. There’s no escaping this reality.

 

At home Japan is still facing the problem of a falling population, something that makes fiscal repair very difficult as the tax base shrinks.

 

The country’s aged infrastructure is crying out for maintenance, a very expensive exercise.

 

And with many enterprises struggling to find staff for business expansion the government has proposed a radical new policy: importing foreign workers. This is a very risky measure, one that suggests the government has given up on efforts to stabilize the population by encouraging a higher birth rate. Large-scale immigration has the potential to bring disaster with it. Just ask Europe or Australia.

 

 

Author: Andrew Thomson

 

 

Andrew Thomson

Author:

Andrew Thomson is a former minister in the Australian Government, now resident in Kyushu, Japan. An international lawyer specializing in WTO rules and trade issues, he speaks Japanese, Chinese, and basic Arabic. He has worked in Australia, the US, Saudi Arabia, China, and Japan. He is the author of Bridge to The Gods: Tales From Kyushu. Mr Thomson also serves on the Foreign Affairs committee of the Japan Golf Association.

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