TOKYO — Even before North Korea jolted the world with its nuclear test last week, it was clear that the Sept. 26 election of Shinzo Abe as postwar-Japan's youngest prime minister meant more than a change at the helm. Mr. Abe's ascension not only symbolizes the generational change in Japanese politics, but also the rise of an assertive Japan eager to shape the evolving balance of power in Asia.
Faced immediately with the crisis triggered by Pyongyang's provocative action, Abe is bound to accelerate the nationalist shift in policy instituted by his predecessor, Junichiro Koizumi.
Such is the international hype about China's growth that it is frequently forgotten that Japan remains the world's largest economic powerhouse after the United States, with an economy that is today more than double the size of China's, with only a tenth of the population.
As Asia's first modern economic success story, Japan has always inspired other Asian states. Now, with the emergence of new economic tigers and the ascent of China and India, Asia collectively is bouncing back from nearly two centuries of historical decline.
The most far-reaching but least-noticed development in Asia in the new century has been Japan's political resurgence. With its pride and assertiveness rising, the nationalist impulse has become conspicuous. Tokyo is intent on influencing Asia's power balance so as to forestall China's ambition to be the dominant power.
A series of subtle moves has already signaled Japan's aim to break out of its postwar pacifist cocoon. Abe, the son of a former foreign minister and grandson of a postwar prime minister who had earlier been imprisoned by the Americans as a Class-A war criminal, plans to revise Japan's US-imposed Constitution within five years, eliminating the military proscription enshrined in Article IX.
In the past decade, Japan, the "Land of the Rising Sun," began feeling threatened by the lengthening shadow of China's economic modernization. As if to make this threat look real, China's bellicose anti-Japanese rhetoric shook Tokyo out of its complacency and diffidence, setting in motion Japan's political rise. Now the North Korean nuclear test provides further justification for Japan to end six decades of pacifism.
Tokyo may not share Beijing's obsession with measures of national power, but Japan's military establishment, except in the nuclear sphere, is already the most sophisticated in Asia.
Economic recovery is a major reason for Japan's rising confidence. Leading-edge technologies and a commitment to craftsmanship will power its future prosperity, just as they did its past growth.
Last spring, Tokyo unveiled a plan to invest 25 trillion yen ($209 billion) in science and technology in the next five years.
This competitive edge, however, is threatened by the economic and social implications of a declining birthrate and aging population. With a fertility rate of just 1.29 babies per woman – America's is 2.1 – Japanese deaths surpassed births for the first time ever last year.
One response to this trend is to open its universities and technology centers to foreign researchers. This is no easy task for any of the homogenized societies of East Asia. But just as Japan has come to live with the discomforting fact that today's top sumo wrestlers are not Japanese, it will have to open its research institutions to foreigners in order to raise productivity through innovation.
Abe will surely build on Mr. Koizumi's efforts to make Japan's foreign policy more muscular. He has derisively compared Japan's past diplomacy to performing "sumo to please foreign countries on a ring they made, abiding by their rules...."
Asian security will be greatly shaped by the relations among the region's three main powers – Japan, China, and India – and their ties to the United States. Booming trade won't guarantee better political ties among these players.
Consider China. It is Japan's largest trade partner, but that has not prevented Beijing from aggressively playing the history card against Tokyo. China is India's fastest-growing trade partner, but that has not halted its actions against Indian interests.
To maintain the peaceful environment that promotes security and economic growth, Japan and China, and India and China, must build stable political ties.
Sour relations with Beijing would increase Tokyo's or New Delhi's need for strategic help from the US. For China, rising tensions with Japan or India would undercut its Asian and international appeal, limiting its geopolitical ambitions.
The emerging Japan is determined to take its rightful place in the world by using its economic clout to raise its political profile. It will stand up to a China that is keen to supplant America as the main player in Asia. With the elevation of Abe, born after the end of US occupation, Japan is now coming out of the postwar era.
• Brahma Chellaney, the author of "Asian Juggernaut: The Rise of China, India and Japan," is a professor at the Center for Policy Research in New Delhi.