President Barack Obama's abrupt decision to cancel his visit to Asia and skip the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting, letting China's new president, Xi Jinping, dominate the proceedings, is reverberating unpleasantly in an area of the world where symbols are often more important than substance. The President's absence from the Bali summit, where seventeen nations totaling 3 billion people were represented, was interpreted by many in the Asian press as a metaphor for an America that is decreasing its presence in Asia, and ceding leadership to China.
China's leadership, of course, will seek to propagate this notion to its advantage. To be sure, the United States may be pressed for resources, our economy still hobbled by the lingering effects of the 2008 economic crisis and our military power may be stretched thin by a decade of war and fiscal pressure, but there is still an affordable and realistic path forward for bolstering Asian security. It centers around the revitalization of Japan.
For quite a long spell now, Japan has been the sick man of Asia. In 1991, when its stock and real estate bubble burst, the Japanese economy went from miracle to morass almost overnight. An average GDP growth rate that had been 10 percent in the 1960s and 5 percent in the 1970s, fell to approximately zero and froze at that level for twenty years. Those lost decades were accompanied by a slow-motion demographic implosion, with Japan's population both shrinking and aging simultaneously. The 2011 tsunami came as if a final blow, causing widespread destruction and massive loss of life; but it was not a final blow. For the Fukushima nuclear power station, catastrophically damaged by the tsunami, continues to spew radioactive poison, and threatens to spew more, with crippling political effects on an energy source in which Japan had invested heavily.
The picture could not have appeared to be bleaker. Yet, Japan is by no means finished. Modern democracies possess a remarkable degree of resilience and in Japan we are seeing unexpected signs of a comeback.
Some of the evidence for the comeback is visible in the shifting relationship between its domestic politics and economics. In Shinzo Abe, Japan's youngest prime minister since World War II, the country finally has a leader with the political standing to take effective action to reinvigorate the economy. The package of measures known as Abenomics -- including especially letting the Yen depreciate by 20 percent since November -- has already begun to have a positive effect on economic growth. Over the next two to three years, Japan's GDP is expected to grow by 1 or perhaps 2 percent. Those numbers may sound modest, but compared to the stagnation of recent decades they represent significant progress.