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Japan is back, without having left

Japan has always been with Southeast Asia in good and bad times, or in the years between. To say that Japan is back, as many scholars or new headlines claim, is quite a misnomer. Rather, Japan today is no longer the country that we are accustomed to, following the rise of nationalist Prime Minister Shinzo Abe over a year ago. The Land of the Rising Sun is building a new type of relationship - broader and deeper - with the region.

The Southeast Asian countries are used to a Japan that remains calm without saying a lot about anything, if at all. Over past decades, Japan has been among the great supporters of their economic development and technological transfers, bridging the fragmented region with different ideologies and levels of economic progress through long-standing investment and production-chained infrastructural construction. Without the country's generosity over the past four decades, peace and prosperity would not have been possible in this part of the world.

While these convictions remain, Japan will continue to speak out more and become proactive, not only in regional but global affairs. Most importantly, the world's economic No 3 wants it to be treated as a normal country - much like other industrialised countries - without the kind of artificial restrictions of the past.

Before Abe, the country did not have the required leadership that would overcome huge domestic and international hurdles. Frequent leadership changes were not helpful either.

For quite a long time, Japan had been stuck in a whirlpool with no way out in sight - just rhetoric and political drama.

In the meantime, other countries are moving on and becoming more powerful. In particular, China - one of Japan's aid recipients in the late 1980s and 1990s - has made much economic progress coupling with growing military might. It has surpassed Japan as the world's No 2 economic powerhouse and soon is expected to become No 1, ahead of the US.

Furthermore, economic recession and Fukushima's nuclear-related tsunami and earthquake wreckage have deeply impacted on the psyche of Japanese people and bureaucrats. They have never before encountered such a devastating national condition all at once since the end of World War II. That helps explain the shift in Japan's public mood and nationalistic furor in some quarters.

With his strong economic recovery plans and security policy, Abe, who has returned as Japanese prime minister for the second time, is not going to give it a miss. He knows his way around this time, embarking on new fields that Japan should become involved with to secure a "rightful" place in the world.

Japan must at first improve its moribund economy, lift living standards, restore confidence, and make people proud of their country, to protect it from external threats. These are prerequisites for a new Japan.

Without economic growth and power, Japan would not be able to regain the recognition and creditability it has long enjoyed. So Abe has quickly come up with "three arrows" which focus on bold monetary policy coupled with a more flexible fiscal power and promotion of private investment. His popularity is high due to economic betterment, which is still his strong selling point.

Abe's enthusiasm over the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) shows the country's future growth strategies would depend on opening its once tightly guarded market further. Tokyo is also negotiating the Asean-led free trade framework known as the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), expected to be completed by next year. China, India, Australia and New Zealand are the non-Asean RCEP members. Japan views TPP and RCEP as complementary to each other.

However, Abe wants to go further, making Japan stronger, able not only to defend itself but also its allies - a force to be reckoned with in a new strategic environment. His "Abe Doctrine" on security and planned reform of security infrastructure has attracted both supporters and detractors inside Japan and abroad.

Following this new security approach, the National Security Council was set up - along with its strategic blueprints for broader cooperation with alliances and Southeast Asian friends. What has brought much scrutiny, especially from China, has been interpretation of collective self-defence under the current constitution written by the triumphant US after World War II.

In the past, Japan concentrated on economic fields, providing development aid to countries around the world. Under present circumstances Japan's relations and cooperation with the region will become more multidimensional and complex. For now, expansion of maritime security cooperation with Vietnam, the Philippines and India has provided Abe's strategic benchmarks.

After Japan's high-profile participation in the settlement of the Cambodian conflict throughout the 1990s, the country has incrementally expanded its international role, engaging in peacekeeping and conflict prevention throughout Southeast Asia. Japan is now an active player among facilitators in Mindanao and a major funder for development in Aceh and East Timor.

Following Myanmar's dramatic reform in 2011, apart from economic development, Japan has crafted a role in the national reconciliation process in Myanmar through the Nippon Foundation, which received $1 million in funding last year from the Japanese government.

Japan is looking ahead, not looking back.


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