New Japanese Government Deepens Burma Engagement

After his Liberal Democrats won last month’s parliamentary elections, Japan’s Shinzō Abe stated that turning the economy around would be his top priority as prime minister. It is therefore not surprising that the first trip abroad by officials in his new government would be to Burma, a country considered the next frontier for foreign investment since it has adopted political and economic reforms after being virtually isolated from the world while living under decades of military rule.

Japan’s finance minister Tarō Asō arrived in Burma’s relocated capital of Naypyidaw last Thursday for meetings with Burmese president Thein Sein and announced a series of moves that amounted to Japan boosting its economic ties with Burma. Asō reaffirmed Japan’s intention of forgiving ¥300 billion ($3.4 billion) of the ¥500 billion owed by Burma that was first announced last April.

Japan will now extend a new loan to the South Asian country of ¥50 billion, the first in decades, intended for infrastructure projects and the development of Burma’s Thilawa economic zone near Yangon. The Abe government will also work with the Burmese authorities and Japanese banks to refinance the balance of the country’s outstanding debt. This will clear the way for Burma to apply for more loans and international aid. Read more “New Japanese Government Deepens Burma Engagement”

Park Holds Onto Presidency for South Korea’s Conservatives

South Korea’s conservatives are the projected winners in Wednesday’s election. With 75 percent of the votes counted, Park Geun-hye is set to become the country’s first female president.

The incumbent, Lee Myung-bak, served his mandated five year term, having been elected in 2007.

Voter turnout of 75.8 percent was the highest in a decade, according to the National Election Commission. More than 37 million voters braved the cold weather and long lines at polling stations in order to cast their ballots.

The race between Park, from the ruling Saenuri Party, and Moon Jae-in, of the main opposition Democratic Union Party, had been a dead heat with pollsters unable to project a clear winner in the final days of the campaign. Read more “Park Holds Onto Presidency for South Korea’s Conservatives”

Japan’s Abe Proposes Foreign, Monetary Policy Changes

Japanese prime minister Shinzō Abe answers questions from reporters in Tokyo, September 26
Japanese prime minister Shinzō Abe answers questions from reporters in Tokyo, September 26 (Xinhua)

Japan’s conservative party won in convincing fashion on Sunday in parliamentary elections for the lower house, according exit polls. The elections took place against the backdrop of increasing tensions with China over disputed islands in the East China Sea, a stagnating economy unable to reinvigorate growth and a rancorous debate over the reliance on nuclear power after the 2011 Fukushima disaster.

The Liberal Democratic Party won between 275 and three hundred seats of the 480 seat lower chamber, according to preliminary polls conducted by the national public broadcaster NHK. If the results stand, it will prove to be a big increase from the 118 seats the party held before the elections. Along with the 27 to 35 seats expected to be won by their allies in the New Kōmeitō Party, the Liberal Democrats will have gained the two-thirds majority needed to override bills passed in the divided upper house.

The Liberal Democratic win means that former prime minister and right leaning Shinzō Abe is expected to get a second stint as premier. He would be the country’s eighth in the last seven years.

Until its surprise defeat in 2009, the Liberal Democratic Party was the dominant force in Japanese politics, having been in power for over fifty years.

The incumbent Democratic Party of Japan coalition is expected to win only 67 seats, down sharply from the three hundred odd seats it won in 2009 when it was swept into power in a landslide. Back then, a new era was said to be at hand in Japanese politics.

The results are a stinging rebuke to the ruling party and Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda’s government. Voters were upset with the party that doubled the consumption tax and failed to follow up on various campaign pledges from reforming government expenditures to relocating 8,000 United States Marines from the military base on Okinawa to Guam.

Abe is expected to push for a change in Japan’s pacifist constitution which forbids it from waging war. A big adjustment in Japan’s military posture is not seen as imminent, however, as the Japanese public has on previous occasions rejected radical changes to the Constitution that would have seen the military rearming. A more likely scenario, analysts say, would be for Abe to push for a closer alliance with the United States in the case of hostilities in East Asia.

Abe has talked of more public spending and called for a more activist policy from the Bank of Japan to simulate growth. His proposed monetary policy could result in a change to the traditional independence enjoyed by the central bank. Specifically, Abe would like to adjust the inflation target from 1 to 2 percent and increase the central bank’s interventions in the currency market to weaken the yen and stimulate exports.

The Bank of Japan has taken steps like increasing its asset purchases in recent months to reverse the deflation that has afflicted the Japanese economy since the early 1990s but its domestic critics, frustrated with the nation’s economic malaise, complain that it has not done enough.

Abe and the incoming Liberal Democrats have also talked about adopting a tougher tone with China as relations have grown rockier in the last year over disputed claims to sovereignty over the Senkaku or Diaoyu islands in the East China Sea.

China has gradually upped the ante by increasing the incursions by its maritime surveillance ships which many believe it is using to change the status quo of Japanese control over the islands. Recently, Japan scrambled fighter jets after a Chinese aircraft was detected entering Japanese airspace over the islands, widely seen as an escalation and the first time that aircraft were employed in the dispute. With Japanese business hurting on the Chinese mainland from anti-Japan protests, Abe will need to balance his tough talk with the need to maintain economic relations with China.

Finally, the Liberal Democrats are expected to embrace nuclear power more than the Democrats did to meet Japan’s domestic energy needs.

After the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear accident at Fukushima last year, the Democrats said that they would phase out nuclear power sometime in the 2030s. Abe has called that plan unrealistic. There remains deep ambivalence in Japanese society over nuclear power following Fukushima with many voters wanting Abe to adopt a policy like before the crisis and others in favor of what they see as safer sources of domestic power production.

Turning the economy around will be the new government’s top priority, in addition to strengthening the American alliance. Abe says he wants to improve relations with China too but it seems that the islands dispute will need to be resolved in order for that to happen.

Final election results are expected on Monday.

North Korea Surprises World with Successful Rocket Launch

North Korea on Wednesday successfully tested a long range rocket according to American and South Korean officials which promises to unnerve a region already concerned about the communist regime’s nuclear weapons program.

The test of the Unha 3 rocket came as a surprise because the North had announced a few days earlier that it was delaying the launch due to technical difficulties. South Korean officials reported that the missile was then taken off the launch pad for repairs.

However, there is speculation that the warning could have been a ruse in order to achieve maximum effect from a surprise launch. Also because Japan pledged to shoot down any North Korean missile that passed over its territory. Read more “North Korea Surprises World with Successful Rocket Launch”

North Korea Plans Missile Test Amid International Tension

North Korea announced on Saturday that it plans to launch a satellite in the next few weeks. The United States believes that the launch is really a cover for a long range missile test. If it occurs it will be the North’s first since its last test failed in April.

The State Department described the planned “satellite” launch as “highly provocative” and said that it would be in violation of United Nations Security Council Resolutions which bar the North from conducting tests in ballistic missile technology.

Confirmation of the launch, expected to take place between December 10 and 22, comes days after a high level Chinese delegation visited North Korea and delivered a letter from the newly appointed president Xi Jinping to North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. The contents of the letter are unknown but China’s Xinhua news agency reported that Li Jianguo, a member of the Politburo, met Kim and expressed China’s desire to “enhance communications and coordination on major global and regional affairs” with its neighbor.

The launch comes at a critical time in the region and around the world. Read more “North Korea Plans Missile Test Amid International Tension”

South Korean Presidential Election Starts With Surprise

The election for the presidency of South Korea crystallized over the weekend as a popular independent candidate abandoned his bid and instead endorsed the liberal challenger from the main opposition party.

With the two day official registration period for the candidates beginning on Sunday and the campaigns kicking off on Tuesday, in just 22 days South Koreans will go to the polls to elect their next president.

The election comes against the backdrop of slowing economic growth worldwide that threatens South Korea’s vital export markets, relations with Japan souring over an island dispute and ongoing tension with North Korea over its nuclear program. Read more “South Korean Presidential Election Starts With Surprise”

As Economy Slows, Japan’s Noda Backs Free Trade Deals

Economic data released on Monday has raised fears of Japan falling into recession again. It would be the Asian country’s third since 2008.

Prior to the release, Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda announced that he planned to pursue passage of the Trans Pacific Partnership, a multilateral free-trade pact between American and Asian nations, as well as a free-trade agreement with neighboring China and South Korea.

Noda’s support of these trade deals is speculated to be a last-ditch effort to lift the ruling Democratic Party of Japan’s sagging public approval ratings before calling lower house elections in December. He would then be able to follow through on his pledge to the opposition Liberal Democratic Party of calling elections “soon” as well as hope to generate some enthusiasm from the public. Read more “As Economy Slows, Japan’s Noda Backs Free Trade Deals”

Japan Seeks Upgrade in American Security Alliance

Reflecting an increasing uneasiness with China’s growing military might, Japan’s defense minister Satoshi Morimoto on Friday said that his country is interested in revising the guidelines of its mutual defense pact with the United States.

Morimoto explained that since the last time the guidelines were revised in 1997, national security risks, like China’s maritime reach, terrorism, cyber security and instability in North Korea, have changed.

But it is the dispute with China in the East China Sea over the Senkaku or Diaoyu Islands that has raised questions about America’s security commitment to Japan should it get into a war with China. Read more “Japan Seeks Upgrade in American Security Alliance”

Mounting Sino-Japanese Tension Amid Military Exercise

Japan and the United States began an eleven-day joint military exercise on Monday in Northeast Asia amid rising tensions between China and Japan over disputed islands in the East China Sea and a leadership transition in China occurring in the very near future.

Heightened Sino-Japanese tensions have caused concern in the region over the Senkaku Islands with reports that Chinese surveillance ships have been monitored sailing in the areas around what Japan sees as its territorial waters for seventeen days now, according to the Japanese Coast Guard. As such, there is an increasing risk of some sort of clash occurring from a miscalculation. Read more “Mounting Sino-Japanese Tension Amid Military Exercise”

Japan’s Politics in Game of Brinkmanship Over Budget

Japanese prime minister Yoshihiko Noda and the main opposition parties, the Liberal Democratic Party and New Komeito, are locked in a game of brinkmanship over legislation to close Japan’s budget deficit of ¥38.3 trillion ($474 billion) for the rest of the year.

Unless a funding bill is agreed upon, the government will run out of money and default on its debt obligations by the end of November. At issue is the timing of elections in the lower house of parliament that Noda pledged to call after his tax bill was passed in August when the opposition provided crucial support. Read more “Japan’s Politics in Game of Brinkmanship Over Budget”