No, the headline is not a typo. Shocking as it may seem to those who for years viewed Japan’s government as a big, gridlocked mess, today, Tokyo looks like a contender for best return on taxpayer’s money. To compare: the US Government just shut down, China recently sentenced a former top leader to life in prison, the UK’s divided ruling coalition is losing support every day, Greece just began a purge of the country’s far-right party, and France’s Hollande was recently ranked Europe’s worst leader.
And then there’s Shinzo Abe, regularly derided in the worldwide liberal media as a rightwing nut job more suited for a bit part in Dr. Strangelove than an actual world leader. Since bringing his party back to power (although admittedly, he set the stage for their loss in 2009) late last year, Abe has forcefully followed through on his major policy promises. On economics, he just announced the first of two planned sales tax increases, which will probably be followed by corporate tax reform. Additionally, he assured that Japan would be part of the TPP free trade talks and fired off two of his three macroeconomic “arrows”: fiscal expansion and monetary easing. The result was impressive growth in the beginning of the year, though a slowdown occurred in the last quarter. His legacy will be determined by whether or not he comes up with serious structural reforms that promote long-term growth; so far, Abe’s economic policies are far more cohesive than many expected.
On foreign policy, Abe has steered a difficult course between building up Japan’s national security and maintaining stable relations with China, Korea, and other Asian nations. Not satisfied with how the world’s third-largest economy continues to play an undersized global role, Abe increased Japan’s defense spending for the first time in a decade. He also revived a blue-ribbon commission, which will make suggestions about how to revise the country’s self-imposed ban on participating in collective self-defense activities. Previous plans for setting up a national security council and possibly a centralized intelligence department are also being dusted off. Top academics and bureaucrats are writing the country’s first national security policy to link it all together. In foreign policy, moreover, Abe held a firm line on the Senkaku Islands dispute with China, without provoking Beijing or overreacting to continued Chinese pressure. At the same time, he doubled down on Tokyo’s outreach to Southeast Asia and India.
Not everything is perfect, of course. Relations with China and South Korea are at their worst in decades, but that is neither of Abe’s making nor solely Japan’s fault. The economic wunderkind labeled “Abenomics” may be losing steam before it gets up to full speed. But in terms of having a clear plan thought out over many years, having won a clear electoral majority to carry it out, and quickly fulfilling key promises, Abe looks like a rock of stability in comparison with his fellow G-20 leaders. I never thought I’d look to Nagata-cho rather than Capitol Hill for more functional government, but such are the times we live in.