Japan's Abe raises ghost of glories past
By Peter Lee
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe aspired to Churchillian eloquence during his visit last week to Washington. According to the LA Times, what came out sounded more like a Terminator/MacArthur mashup: "I am back, and so shall Japan be."
Foreign Policy's The Cable blog presented a different, more flattering, but somewhat incorrect version:
"I am back!" Abe declared forcefully to the hundreds of experts, officials, and reporters assembled in the basement of the Center for Strategic Studies Friday afternoon. "And Japan is back."
A look at the video reveals that Prime Minister Abe began his address with the awkward remarks reported by the LA Times and
concluded his speech with the sole affirmation "Japan is back", having over the course of his 20-minute speech miraculously accomplished his goal of restoring the Japanese nation to greatness. 
Fans of the US "pivot to Asia", apparently including The Cable, were enthusiastic about the speech, which included Abe pointing to the commemorative blue ribbon on his lapel to highlight the absolute priority he gives to rescuing Japanese abductees in North Korea (and rejection of engagement with North Korea), declaring the global character of the North Korean nuclear threat, putting forward his country as a democratic promoter of rules-based behavior on the seas, and capping with the applause lines: "I make a pledge. I will get back a strong Japan. Strong enough to do even more good for the betterment of the world."
Others might have regarded Abe's remarks as a rather creepy mix of pivot-pandering meant to ingratiate his administration to the Obama administration, and a jingoistic affirmation of Japan's determination to avoid "second tier" status by a more assertive security and military posture against North Korea and a certain unnamed non-democratic Asian power with the initials "PRC".
Remarkably, Abe-skeptics apparently include the foreign policy team of the Barack Obama administration, as Peter Ennis of Dispatch Japan wrote:
[F]ew people in the Obama administration know Abe, and top officials are somewhat skeptical that Abe ... will be able to restrain ... nationalist impulses and act with a clear strategic vision for stability in the region. As Michael Cucek pointed out recently, Abe himself declared in his "new" book (a virtual reprint of an earlier tome) that his return to power is not simply a replacement of the discredited Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), but "is a fight to return the country called Japan to the hands of the citizens of Japan from out of the grip of postwar history." Abe's long-standing "history denier" perspective has not changed. ...
Abe had assumed, mistakenly, that his return to office, and that of his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), would be met with cheers in Washington, that an "anything but the DPJ" attitude prevailed. While greater political stability is certainly welcomed by Obama administration officials, many in Washington were pretty happy with the foreign and security policies of the DPJ's Yoshihiko Noda, who is clearly more moderate than Abe. ...
Abe had initially hoped to trumpet his plans to lift Japan's self-imposed ban on the exercise of the right of collective self-defense, and make clear publicly that Japan would use its missile defenses to assist the United States in the event North Korea launched a ballistic missile aimed at US territory. Abe assumed the new policy would be welcomed in Washington.
That was not the case. The Pentagon, of course, would welcome the defense planning and operational flexibility that would come from Japan exercising its right to collective self-defense. But US officials were concerned that a demonstration of support for such an initiative by Abe could be misinterpreted as endorsement of the prime minister's broader domestic agenda, including revision of the Constitution, which could unnecessarily anger Beijing.
As Prime Minister Abe advertised his unshakable resolve to reassert Japan's "first tier" status, the US media also noted some anxious backing and filling. Abe felt compelled to get into China's grill about the Senkaku Islands dispute in a Washington Post interview setting the table for his meeting with President Obama, claiming the PRC had a "deeply ingrained" need to challenge neighbors over territory.
The PRC's Ministry of Foreign Affairs laid into Abe:
"It is rare that a country's leader brazenly distorts facts, attacks its neighbor and instigates antagonism between regional countries," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said. "Such behavior goes against the will of the international community. ... We have solemnly demanded the Japanese side immediately clarify and explain."
Global Times went with "China Heaps Scorn on Shinzo Abe Remarks" and added the interesting nugget:
Echoing the Chinese side's requirement for immediate clarifications, Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga explained Friday that the newspaper misquoted Abe's remarks and had caused a misunderstanding.
I thought this might be a piece of ingenious Chinese self-consolation, also known as a lie, but it was true, as the Washington Post confirmed in an article titled "Japan says Abe's quotes about China in Post interview were 'misleading'":
"There is no comment made by the prime minister as saying that China wants to clash or [have] collision with other countries," Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said. "As I said, as the prime minister said, we value mutually beneficial relations with China based on strategic interests."
The United States is unlikely to be impressed by the Japanese government's transparent desire to present itself to the US as the unshakable axis of the pivot, while rather abjectly backpedaling vis a vis the PRC. Also, the prominent play that the Washington Post gave to this embarrassing story seems indicative of the bemused contempt with which the Obama administration regards the seemingly endless parade of Japanese prime ministers that it has witnessed over the past five years.
It is also open to question how seriously the Obama administration takes its own proposal for the "Trans Pacific Partnership" or TPP, the "high standards" free-trade zone that will exclude China and reward the Asian democracies for their willingness to risk the PRC's economic retaliation by aligning with the US pivot to Asia.
The root problem of the TPP is that everybody wants to boost exports, including the United States. The official line as the LA Times reported is that the US and Japanese economies are complementary, "except for cars". The report went on to state: "Japan's biggest imports from the US are airplanes and corn, while America's largest imports from Japan are cars, aircraft parts and printing machinery."
Perhaps the solution is for both countries to discard the automobile altogether and rely on Adam Smith's law of comparative advantage to fill their garages with the appropriate mix of airplanes and printing presses. 
However, for Prime Minister Abe, in a nation in which the political lifetime of prime ministers has recently been measured in weeks and months, not years, the vagaries of North Korea, the ongoing phony war over the Senkakus, or the pie-in-the-sky dreams of a Trans Pacific Partnership are not the tickets to national resurgence.
Central to Abe's political strategy is to breathe some life into the stagnant Japanese economy through "Abenomics", a combination of 10.3 trillion yen (US$112 billion) in infrastructure spending and a loosened monetary policy that will pump 36 trillion yen in extra currency into Japan's economy in a bid to achieve an inflation rate of 2%.
Beneath the brave theoretical talk of Abenomics and jumpstarting investment through the creation of inflationary expectations, the core of the current government's economic strategy is a not particularly sophisticated or principled exercise in monetary policy: print money in excess of economic growth, thereby triggering inflation to devalue the currency, boost exports, and reduce the real costs of servicing Japan's impressively large national debt.
The political downside of this scenario is that Japan's fixed-income old folk will bear the burden of the reduced purchasing power of their inflated yen. This is a price that the LDP appears increasingly willing to accept, as reflected in Finance Minister Taro Aso's widely reported recommendation:
Taro Aso, the finance minister, said on Monday that the elderly should be allowed to "hurry up and die" to relieve pressure on the state to pay for their medical care.
"Heaven forbid if you are forced to live on when you want to die. I would wake up feeling increasingly bad knowing that [treatment] was all being paid for by the government," he said during a meeting of the national council on social security reforms. "The problem won't be solved unless you let them hurry up and die." 
Prime Minister Abe clearly shares Aso's mindset, although he declared that he wants to empty the bank accounts of the oldsters, not necessarily yank out their IVs. In his remarks to the CSIS, he made the case for elders sacrificing their savings, presumably by paying out of pocket for luxuries like medical care, so that the young could enjoy lower tax rates:
"The big savers, mostly aged population, must be able to give their money to the younger generation with smaller tax burden."
The weakened yen promises to make things difficult for Japan's neighbors, both friends and strategic competitors, as well as its senior citizens. The most immediate victim of a weak yen is South Korea. In the official security equation, South Korea is a steadfast democratic partner in the Asian security alliance; in Abenomics, the it looks more like the competing exporter whose lunch Japan hopes to eat first.
Incoming President Park Geun-hye is not amused, according to Reuters:
"... the global economy hasn't recovered from recession yet our companies are having more trouble as the weak yen offensive is following," she said at a meeting with the Korea Employers Federation on Feb 20, according to her YouTube site.
Her remarks have gone down well with those suffering most from Abe's hyper-easy monetary policy that has seen the won jump 5% this year versus the yen after a 23% gain in 2012. South Korean and Japanese firms compete against each other in a range of products, from cars to televisions and computer chips. 
As for the PRC, its distorted economy and overextended banks are not going to have an easy time of it if the weakened yen cuts into Chinese exports - both to Japan and into competing markets. This might be a feature of Abe's geopolitical strategy as he tries to come up with an economic riposte to the damage that China has inflicted on Japan's exporters and enterprises over the Senkakus dispute.
If and when the LDP wins the upper house elections in July and secures a mandate to drive the yen to 100, we'll see if the PRC's leadership will respond to the challenge with a profound economic restructuring toward efficiency, accountability, and domestic demand, or simply throws more infrastructure money at the economic and social problems associated with slacking exports.
Or China might decide Japan deserves a taste of its own medicine, and returns to its old, yuan-depreciating ways. That would not be a good thing.
In the worst case, known as "beggar thy neighbor", everybody else follows the example of the major economic powers and devalues their currencies, leading a global rush to the bottom resulting in goodness knows what, but perhaps to a sag in purchasing power for the world's consumers, not just Japan's inconvenient oldies, and a new global recession.
Count Stephen King, chief economist of HSBC, among the Cassandras: "Mr Abe's policies may ultimately deliver the goods but there is a very good chance that, instead, his measures will only lead to further global financial instability, in turn triggering an increase in economic nationalism," King wrote. 
There has been a chorus of public anxiety, led by Brazil and Germany, expressing concerns about an imminent currency war, and behind the scenes insistence at the Group of 20 of a "don't ask don't tell" reticence by Japan on the obvious but not openly acknowledged linkage between its inflation, currency devaluation, and export-promotion goals.
The United States, possibly because it is the first and biggest offender (with three rounds of quantitative easing and a commitment to increased inflation) has been markedly silent. The European Union, on the other hand, is still maintaining what one might, with a straight face, refer to as the "responsible stakeholder" attitude, opposing the mercantilist adventurism of Washington and Tokyo.
There is considerable poo-pooing of currency war anxieties in the financial press - along the lines of "the IMF is there to relieve the misery of unwise and unlucky laggards in the currency revaluation game" - but the New York Times' Harry Campbell seemed to have the most honest take on the situation:
Bigger, more mature countries are responding to their own economic downturns by adopting easy money policies. But the problem is that the emerging market economies can't respond with similar effectiveness because of their own economic or political issues. 
Said "economic and political issues" are the unwillingness to lose exports, revenues, and jobs to US and Japanese exporters. The US and Japan, by flooding the money supply, are inflicting a massive stress test on the world economy, particularly the "emerging market economies".
A look at the nationalist truculence of Japan's LDP does not inspire confidence that the powerful tool of the monetary policy of one of the world's largest economies will be carefully and responsibly wielded. When informed of German reservations, the attitude of Abe's close associate and inflation advocate, Kozo Yamamoto: Bring it on! "If they think Japan has gone too far, then they should try it themselves," said Yamamoto. "That's what a floating exchange rate system is for." 
Paul Krugman, who abhors austerity/budget balancing talk and is a vigorous advocate of deficit spending and inflationary monetary policy as a solution to America's slow-growth headache and, therefore, supportive of Abenomics, paid the LDP the mother of all backhanded compliments:
[Abe] is not anybody's idea of an economic hero; he's a nationalist, a denier of World War II atrocities, a man with little obvious interest in economic policy. If he's defying the orthodoxy, it probably reflects his general contempt for learned opinion rather than a considered embrace of heterodox theory.
But that may not matter. Abe may be ignoring the conventional wisdom on spending, and bullying the Bank of Japan, for all the wrong reasons - but the fact is that he is actually providing fiscal and monetary stimulus at a time when every other advanced-country government is too much in the thrall of the Very Serious People to do something different. And so far the results have been entirely positive: no spike in interest rates, but a sharp fall in the yen, which is a very good thing for Japan.
It will be a bitter irony if a pretty bad guy, with all the wrong motives, ends up doing the right thing economically, while all the good guys fail because they're too determined to be, well, good guys. But that's what happened in the 1930s, too ...
Krugman, loath to violate Godwin's Rule against invoking the name of a certain German dictator in contemporary debate, fails to mention that the "pretty bad guy" who did "the right thing" in bootstrapping his country out of the Great Depression was one Adolph Hitler.
As for Japan, perhaps we can now relaunch the yen as "Official Currency of the Japan Sole Prosperity Sphere". What could possibly go wrong?