Global Interest in Japan’s Election, Expected to Strengthen Premier

As Japanese go to the polls Sunday to vote in elections for the upper house of parliament, all eyes will really be on the margin of victory for Prime Minister Shinzō Abe’s ruling coalition. Judging from the latest polls, and from the results of municipal elections in Tokyo last month where Abe’s Liberal Democrats won handily, the premier can expect to gain control of the upper chamber and claim a mandate for his policies that could fundamentally change the world’s third largest economy and its role in the region.

After the elections, the real drama will start. Abe will be expected to move forward and provide greater details about his plans to restructure the Japanese economy, the so-called third arrow of “Abenomics.”

In addition, Abe could change Japan’s national-security strategy which would transform the role of the military for the first time since the end of World War II. Read more “Global Interest in Japan’s Election, Expected to Strengthen Premier”

Tokyo Assembly Victory Boost for Japan’s Prime Minister

Shinzō Abe received a vote of confidence on Sunday when his party came out the big victor in local assembly elections in Tokyo. The victory could bode well for his Liberal Democratic Party’s chances in key national elections for the upper house of parliament next month.

Sunday’s election to the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly is viewed as an endorsement for Abe and his reform plan. His party gained twenty seats after the vote. In alliance with the conservative New Komeito, it now holds a comfortable majority. Both parties had all of their candidates elected.

The outcome is especially important in light of Abe’s legislative goals and the Liberal Democrats’ control of the lower house of parliament. If the party takes control of the upper house, the prime minister will be given a freer hand to pass structural economic reforms he believes are necessary to spur economic growth. He has also said he wants to revise Japan’s pacifist constitution to allow the military to participate in more overseas missions. Read more “Tokyo Assembly Victory Boost for Japan’s Prime Minister”

Japan’s Abe Takes Risk by Delaying Reforms Ahead of Election

Since Shinzō Abe was an archery player in college, it is apt that his plan for turning the Japanese economy around is described as encompassing three arrows. Last December, when it became clear that the Liberal Democratic Party would emerge victorious in lower house elections and return Abe as prime minister, “Abenomics” sparked confidence in a public hungering for reforms.

Indeed by spring, there was growing belief that the economic reforms might just beat deflation and lift Japan out of its doldrums. The Nikkei 225 stock average had climbed some 80 percent by May from its November lows and the yen‘s value had greatly depreciated, encouraging exporters. In addition, there was evidence that inflation was starting to creep back into the economy.

But after five months in office, the market began to get nervous about the lack of details in a key part of Abe’s plans: the restructuring of the economy, the “third arrow.” This nervousness soon translated into volatility in the Japanese market, creating further uncertainty. The third arrow would always be the hardest to push through because it encroaches upon Japan’s vested interests. Read more “Japan’s Abe Takes Risk by Delaying Reforms Ahead of Election”

Japan’s Abe Seeks Energy, Trade in Russia, Middle East

Prime Minister Shinzō Abe of Japan, accompanied by more than one hundred business executives, is in the middle of a four nation trip intended to secure much needed energy resources and to bolster trade. His itinerary underlines the quandary Japan faces as it grapples with finding alternative energy sources while its nuclear plants remain idle since the 2011 Fukushima power plant disaster.

Abe’s first stop was Russia. The two countries acknowledged in a joint statement that relations remained “abnormal” in the face of an unsigned bilateral peace treaty officially ending World War II. Abe and Russian president Vladimir Putin instructed their foreign ministries to revisit the issue and also find ways to improve Japanese-Russian relations in general.

The major impediment preventing a treaty from being signed has been the status of the four islands situated north of Japan’s Hokkaido and south of Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula that the Soviet Union took in 1945 during the final days of the war. Japan refers to these islands as its Northern Territories while they are known in Russia as the Southern Kurils. The islands are surrounded by rich fishing grounds and believed to posses oil and natural gas deposits offshore.

The issue was left unresolved in the 1956 Japan-Soviet joint declaration which restored relations. At the time, Japan rejected an offer to return two of the four southernmost islands closest to it as inadequate by the Soviets. Read more “Japan’s Abe Seeks Energy, Trade in Russia, Middle East”

Japan Prepares to Thwart North Korean Missile Strike

With American and South Korean intelligence predicting a missile launch by North Korea in the coming days, Japan announced a series of measures to protect its territory and calm nerves among its population. This comes as South Korea raised its military watch alert level to “vital threat” and its president vowed to respond to any provocations.

As the stream of bellicose statements from North Korea continued and reports indicated that it has prepared missiles on its east coast ready for launch, Japan’s defense minister Itsunori Onodera on Sunday directed the island nation’s military to be ready to shoot down a North Korean rocket should it threaten Japan. The navy sent anti-missile ships to the Sea of Japan and Patriot batteries were deployed in and around the capital Tokyo as well as elsewhere in the country. Read more “Japan Prepares to Thwart North Korean Missile Strike”

China’s Xi, American Secretary Discuss Currency, Korea

China’s new paramount leader Xi Jinping met with American treasury secretary Jack Lew in Beijing on Tuesday in what was his first meeting with a foreign official since being formally named president last week.

According to American officials, the two men discussed the major issues between their countries: the state of the global economy, China’s currency, cyber hacking, intellectual property rights and North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. It was the highest level meeting between American and Chinese officials since Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta visited Beijing in September.

Lew was reportedly “candid and direct” on North Korea. The United States want China to enforce tougher sanctions enacted by the United Nations Security Council after the country conducted a nuclear test in February. There is doubt about China’s commitment in following through. Because China is North Korea’s main ally, it has historically been reticent of pushing too hard on the regime for strategic reasons and a fear that should the government in Pyongyang collapse, a flow of refugees will seek shelter in China and destabilize the border region. Read more “China’s Xi, American Secretary Discuss Currency, Korea”

Abe Challenges Domestic Interests, Enters Trade Talks

Fear of falling behind has a funny way of focusing the mind sometimes. Policy choices once seen as toxic become increasingly palatable to leaders when they are considered against national security. So it goes for Japan as it seeks to maintain its position in Asia and finally kickstart its perennially stalled economy in the face of a rapidly growing China.

Prime Minister Shinzō Abe announced on Friday that Japan will be joining talks to become part of a new free-trade area in the Pacific led by the United States. If Japan succeeds in joining the trade pact, it would be nothing short of a sea change for the Asian country’s domestic policy because it will need to structurally reform its economy and open its market to foreign competitors. Read more “Abe Challenges Domestic Interests, Enters Trade Talks”

Wen Signals Status Quo in Final Congress Speech

China’s premier Wen Jiabao called for continued “reform and opening up” of the economy in his final policy address to the National People’s Congress on Tuesday. The speech lacked new policy prescriptions and was largely consistent with the prevailing language on the development of the economy as “key to solving all of our problems” and the government’s “central task” to advancing its cause.

In reforming the economy, the government fears the unforeseen consequences that looser controls could have for the Communist Party’s monopoly on power once the proverbial genie is let out of the bottle.

China is in the middle of a once a decade leadership transition with Wen and President Hu Jintao relinquishing their posts to Le Keqiang and Xi Jinping, respectively. The transition is occurring at a critical time as China has reached an inflection point in its economic development after three decades of unprecedented double digit growth. Read more “Wen Signals Status Quo in Final Congress Speech”

In Washington, Japan’s Abe Reaffirms American Alliance

Japanese prime minister Shinzō Abe met with President Barack Obama in Washington on Friday for the first time since his Liberal Democratic Party won the election in December.

Abe arrived in the United States with strong domestic support. Some polls put his cabinet’s approval rating as high as 70 percent. This largely stems from budding enthusiasm for his economic policies and his commitment to protect Japanese sovereignty over the Senkaku Islands which China lays claim to.

At the top of the summit agenda, according to Japanese officials, were North Korea’s ballistic missile and nuclear weapons program as well as the situation in East Asia, i.e., Japan’s island dispute with China. Read more “In Washington, Japan’s Abe Reaffirms American Alliance”

North Korea Nuclear Explosion Tests China’s Patience

North Korea conducted an underground nuclear test on Tuesday in defiance of the international community which had urged it not to. It was the communist regime’s third such test in seven years and the first under the leadership of Kim Jong-un.

The United States Geological Survey registered a 4.9 tremor in the northeast of the Asian country at the time of the suspected test. North Korea’s state news agency reported that a test had been conducted with a “lighter nuclear device with greater explosive force” than during the previous two in 2006 and 2009.

The United States described the test as a “highly provocative act” and called on the international community to take “credible action” against the government in Pyongyang.

China reportedly summoned North Korea’s ambassador in Beijing to register its displeasure with the test. China, North Korea’s only ally, supplies the regime with much needed fuel and food. Its statement, typically more restrained when it comes to the neighboring communist state, said that it was in “staunch opposition” and “strongly dissatisfied” with the test and urged all sides to respond calmly.

The United Nations Security Council, in a hastily called meeting in New York, strongly condemned the test as well. However, there were no indications that any more sanctions on the North were forthcoming. Read more “North Korea Nuclear Explosion Tests China’s Patience”