Shinzo Abe has a spring in his step. Who can blame him? On September 20 the Japanese prime minister faces a leadership contest in the ruling Liberal Democratic party. He expects to win by a landslide. Victory would see him preside over the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and leave office the following year as Japan’s longest-serving prime minister.

Mr Abe is standing on his record. The expansionary economic strategy dubbed Abenomics has nurtured a return of steady if unspectacular growth, employment is high and, barring occasional squalls, politics has been predictable. The prime minister has usefully re-interpreted the country’s pacifist constitution to clarify the role of the national self-defence forces in promoting regional security.

Growth of one or one-and-a-half per cent a year is not enough for many rich nations, but after almost two lost decades and faced with an ageing, shrinking population, Mr Abe deserves two cheers. A permissive monetary policy and expansionary fiscal stance have broken Japan’s economic trance. The prime minister has made a start on structural reforms — what he calls the third arrow in the quiver of Abenomics.

Abroad, US president Donald Trump’s fight about trade with China has eased tensions between Tokyo and Beijing, offering a window to underscore the two nations’ economic interdependence. Mr Abe has sometimes seemed a touch obsequious in his many contacts with Russia’s Vladimir Putin, but he can claim rhetorical progress at least towards an agreement on a formal end to second world war hostilities between the two nations.

Japanese voters like stability. Before Mr Abe’s appointment in 2012 the prime minister’s office had something of the feel of a railway station — five leaders came and went in as many years. Japan vanished from sight on the international stage. Former US president Barack Obama joked that as soon as he had greeted one Japanese leader at the White House another was being anointed in Tokyo. Mr Abe is secure. His longtime LDP rival Shigeru Ishiba looks set to win over only a fraction of the activists voting in the election.

The prime minister, however, would be mistaken to treat victory as a blank cheque. If he wants a legacy beyond mere longevity, Mr Abe needs an agenda amounting to something more than hosting the Rugby World Cup in 2019 and welcoming the world to the Olympics during the following year.

Mr Abe is keen to pass a substantive constitutional reform, making explicit the legality of Japan’s armed forces. This is a legitimate endeavour, but not deserving of significant political capital. The prime minister should make economic reforms — the third arrow — his first priority. Restoring momentum to reform means making good on a commitment to raise the retirement age, scrapping tax rules that help to keep women out of the workforce, and making wealthy pensioners pay more towards their health costs. Mr Abe has amassed significant political capital. He can afford to spend it.

Then there is Mr Trump. Mr Abe’s strategy so far has been to hug the US president close. It has not always been edifying, but Japan does not have many choices. It has much more to lose than its US ally if Mr Trump dismantles the postwar alliance system. Tokyo rightly has been alarmed by White House readiness to lump together trade and security issues when dealing with China and to discount Japanese interests in talks with North Korea.

Time on the golf course with Mr Trump may help, but Mr Abe faces a big task to persuade the president to cherish east Asia’s most important alliance.

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