Japan is no stranger to crises, whether the nuclear destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 or the Triple Disaster in 2011 — the Great East Japan Earthquake, the nuclear meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi plant and the giant Tsunami. A resilient nation, Japan has risen from the ashes, phoenix-like, each time. It is now confronting COVID-19, which has wreaked havoc on global financial and economic systems and disrupted production, supply chains and markets. Japan may not have yet suffered an explosive spread of the virus but it is certainly not sheltered from the raging global tempest.
COVID-19 received a high-rating televised start in Japan with the cruise ship, Diamond Princess, steaming into Tokyo bay on February 3 with 3,711 passengers on board and quickly being quarantined. Over the next month, with more than 700 cases of infection on-board, it remained the single-largest cluster outside China. Gradually, as numbers swelled exponentially elsewhere and the incidence of new cases remained low locally, the Japanese went back to their ways, with holiday crowds celebrating the annual Hanami (sakura viewing) season in idyllic spots and thronging to the famous tourist landmark at Shibuya junction well into the second half of March. It seemed as if the Japanese had dodged the bullet even as it delayed until April 3 the blocking of tourists from 70-odd countries, including China, which accounted for nearly 9.6 million tourists in 2019, one-third of the total. With new infections mounting in recent days, the reprieve, it seems, was as ephemeral as the bloom of the sakura.
The biggest collateral damage of the fresh wave of COVID-19 infections in Japan is the belated decision to postpone the Tokyo Olympics to 2021. It reminded the nation of the jinxed Olympics of 1940, which Japan was to host but fell victim to the Second Sino-Japanese War. If the 1940 Olympics were intended to showcase Japan’s industrial and economic resurrection after the devastation of the 1923 Great Kanto earthquake, the 1964 Tokyo Olympics had symbolised the economic miracle in Japan after the ravages of the Second World War. The 2020 Olympics, dubbed by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe as the “Recovery and Reconstruction Games”, were to demonstrate Japan’s mojo in the aftermath of the 2011 Triple Disaster.
The pandemic could not have come at a worse time. The IMF has confirmed that COVID-19 has pushed the global economy into a recession, potentially much worse than the one in 2009. The Japanese economy now faces the daunting prospect of a sharp contraction, with the OECD Report for March 2020 forecasting its GDP growth at 0.2 per cent in 2020. Even before the global pandemic struck, Japan was dealing with the adverse effects on consumer spending of the hike in consumption tax from 8 per cent to 10 per cent.
Dwindling demand from China, where Japan has huge economic stakes, can only worsen the regional economic outlook already strained by US-China trade friction.
Abe’s decision this week to declare a month-long state of emergency in Tokyo and six other prefectures, alongside the release of a gargantuan stimulus package worth nearly $1 trillion, including cash doles and financial support to households and businesses, may help turn the tide. However, providing healthcare to a rapidly ageing population in the face of an abrupt disruption in the sizeable inward flow of foreign care-givers will prove a daunting challenge. Meanwhile, several prefectures that depend heavily on tourism from China and the Republic of Korea have suffered deep losses. Reports indicate that Japan has already spent $12.6 billion on the preparations for the Olympics. Nikkei and Goldman Sachs estimate that the postponement of the games would easily set Japan back by another $5-6 billion.
As one of the world’s richest countries, Japan can perhaps hope to cushion itself from such blows. Whether the economic distress unleashed by COVID-19 also adversely impacts some of Japan’s commitments to its Official Development Assistance (ODA) or outlays for regional infrastructure and connectivity under flagship programmes such as the Expanded Partnership for Quality Infrastructure (EPQI), the Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD) and the Indo-Pacific Business Forum, including the Blue Dot Network and LNG projects, remains to be seen. This could well be true of the US too, in the context of the International Development Finance Corporation under the BUILD Act, aimed at countering China’s expanding writ across the region.
The pandemic could have broader implications for military postures in the Indo-Pacific, as seen in the outbreak of the COVID-19 virus onboard the US Navy’s Theodore Roosevelt, a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier that heads the eponymous Theodore Roosevelt Carrier Strike Group (TRCSG), which had sailed from San Diego in January for a scheduled Indo-Pacific deployment. It is at the centre of a controversy involving the sacking of its captain and the vessel’s ill-advised port visit to Da Nang in Vietnam earlier in March despite the high risk of contagion. Of course, China’s PLA Navy (PLAN) could well be grappling with similar problems out at sea but, unlike in the democratic world, these facts will be treated as “state secrets”.
As China gradually recovers from the pandemic, relatively earlier and faster than the West, Beijing’s “charm offensive” and leveraging of its deep pockets may help it to further its geopolitical influence. Its assistance to developing countries in mitigating the impact of COVID-19 will create new scope to proselytise its governance and development models.
A high-profile casualty of the pandemic is Chinese President Xi Jinping’s long-pending visit to Tokyo, but Japan’s “mask diplomacy” and generous assistance to China at the start of the pandemic augur well for Sino-Japanese ties, which have improved in recent years, their inveterate differences notwithstanding. Abe’s postponed visit to India, earlier scheduled to take place at the end of 2019, will be hard to resurrect before the pandemic is completely under control. Nevertheless, the fundamental convergence of interests and the extraordinary political capital invested in the relationship by both PM Modi and Abe in recent years ensures that the Special Strategic and Global Partnership between India and Japan will remain robust. The pandemic opens up new vistas for cooperation in healthcare, non-traditional security and global governance, including reform of the UN and affiliated bodies such as the WHO whose contributions in the battle against COVID-19 are moot.
So far, Japan had relied on its customary discipline and prevention methods, with an exhortation to the public to avoid the “three Cs” — closed spaces, crowded places and conversations at close proximity. Japan has shied away from taking the bold approach that Modi took in announcing a 21-day nationwide lockdown. The declaration of a state of emergency covering the megacities of Tokyo and Osaka and some prefectures would give local governors in the hardest-hit areas greater legal authority to impose curbs, albeit without the power to impose penalties. Japan’s case-by-case approach to the reopening of schools by regional authorities has been criticised. There have been calls for a strict lockdown before it is too late to avert the same fate as Italy, Spain and the US.
With formidable scientific prowess at its disposal, Japan remains at the forefront in the race to develop a vaccine against COVID-19. Already Japan’s longest-serving prime minister, Abe is in his third term as Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) president, and correspondingly as PM, until September 2021. He is viewed by voters as a leader capable of taking bold decisions. If Abe’s administration overcomes the COVID-19 crisis despite the odds, and succeeds in staving off a recession, there is every chance that the LDP might again amend its rules to grant him a fourth term. After all, it is not easy for any of his political rivals to step into his shoes in the middle of such a crisis.
This article was first published under the title ”The wilting Sakura”
The writer is a former ambassador of India to Japan and is currently the director general, Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Views are personal
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