Japan is in a bind. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s plan to revive Japan’s stagnant economy, informally known as “Abenomics,” is starting to encounter some hurdles. Abenomics is based on three “arrows”: fiscal stimulus, monetary easing, and structural reform of the economy. The Japanese government boldly followed through on the first two arrows, which resulted in appreciable short-term gains.
The government has left something to be desired when it came to structural reform, which is crucial for driving up investment and sustaining Abenomics’ recent gains into the future. With an important upper house election this month, it is reasonable for Mr. Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) to not want to pick an early fight with special interest groups like Japanese agriculture. And while reforming corporate governance, addressing the labor market, introducing regulatory changes, and encouraging female participation in the workforce (among other reform proposals) will not be easy tasks, they will be crucial to Abenomics’ success.
In light of the yen’s new weakness, which makes Japanese goods cheaper abroad, exporting firms have benefitted from that competitive edge. However, a weaker currency also means that foreign products are more expensive to import. Thus, despite a recent boost in exports, Japan recently posted a 10% increase in its trade deficit in May. The importation of oil and natural gas is at the heart of this trade deficit.
Fossil fuel imports have been rising ever since the 2011 earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster forced Japan to cut off its nuclear energy plants, which used to provide some 30 percent of the country’s electricity. As a result, fuel imports now constitute over a third of Japan’s total imports, and continue to rise sharply. An April report, for example, showed a 14.9 percent increase in liquefied natural gas imports and a 5.3 percent increase in petroleum purchases last year – while Japan’s imports from the Middle East(much of which is oil and gas) increased by 11.5 percent in May from a year earlier.
Tokyo has wasted no time in addressing the trade deficit, especially in support of its plan to boost the economy. While Prime Minister Abe has made an effort to bolster Japanese exports in general, he has put particular emphasis on promoting the sale of Japanese nuclear power infrastructure and technology. Mr. Abe’s nuclear push may serve a dual purpose: on the one hand, to help alleviate the trade deficit in the run-up to this month’s Upper House elections and, on the other, to rebuild confidence in a highly skeptical Japanese public regarding Japan’s own atomic energy industry.
In order to promote Japan’s peaceful nuclear technology exports abroad, Tokyo has recently reached out to a number of countries including the United Arab Emirates (UAE), France, Turkey, India, and the Visegrad Four (V4), which is composed of the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia.
In the UAE, Mr. Abe and Prime Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashif al-Maktoum established a nuclear cooperation agreement under which Japanese firms would supply the UAE with components for the ongoing construction of a nuclear power facility. Mr. Abe then signed a deal with the Turkish government for a consortium of Japanese and French companies to build a nuclear power plant and to then supply it once it is completed. Back in Tokyo, Mr. Abe hosted French President François Hollande last month, engaging a would-be competitor in an agreement to cooperate in nuclear technology exports.
Further targeting emerging nuclear power markets, Mr. Abe received Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in Tokyo last month, where the two accelerated negotiations that, if successfully concluded, will allow Japan to sell the second most-populous country in the world the nuclear technology it needs to address its own energy shortfalls. In Europe, Mr. Abe lobbied vigorously on behalf of Japanese nuclear power reactors and technology in Japan’s first V4 summit – where he and his counterparts agreed to cooperate in atomic energy development in Central Europe
Abe also traveled to Saudi Arabia to discuss nuclear technology while protests in Brazil caused its President, Dilma Rousseff, to postpone a trip to Tokyo where, like India, she was set to accelerate nuclear cooperation with Japan to build more atomic power reactors. Given Brazil’s growing energy problems and the government’s plan to expand nuclear power generation, it is likely that Brasilia and Tokyo will have an agreement in the near future.
Prime Minister Abe’s nuclear export push by no means constitutes a “fourth arrow” in Abenomics, but it is certainly a move that is meant to clear the way for his economic reforms to proceed unhindered. In particular, his effort will mostly go toward achieving a reduction in the trade deficit and to boost exports. Whether or not Japan’s nuclear engagement with the outside world raises confidence in atomic power at home remains to be seen.
Sebastian Sarmiento-Saher is an editorial assistant at The Diplomat