5 questions with Japan expert Sheila A. Smith

Sheila A. Smith is senior fellow for Japan studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, a think tank specialising in US foreign policy and international affairs. She is currently visiting New Zealand as the 2019 Sir Howard Kippenberger Chair in Strategic Studies at the Victoria University of Wellington. She spoke with the Asia Media Centre about Japan’s difficult relationships with South Korea and China, and why we need a rethink of the region.

Sheila A. Smith

Sheila Smith is an expert on Japanese politics and foreign policy.

1. You’ve recently published a book titled Japan Rearmed. What does that title mean?

For me, the title is all about how people keep saying Japan is “rearming”, or “remilitarising”. That’s factually wrong. What people miss is that Japan has been rearmed for decades; it completed its rearmament process in the 1970s. Sure, it hasn’t fundamentally changed its doctrine — but it is a powerful and professional military. This is not a country we should think of as a “weak” military power, it’s a substantial military power and has been for some time. So, the title emphasises that Japan has already rearmed.

2. What does a strong Japanese military mean for the Pacific?

I think the big push for Japan has been largely Northeast Asia-focused, because that’s where it sees its neighbours increasingly putting military pressure on Japanese defences. Whether it’s the North Koreans and their nuclear programme — or more importantly for Japan, their missile programme — or China and its across-the-board increase in power, those are the two countries where Japan is quite focused. I think Japan looks to Oceania and largely sees in Australia a good partner. From the vantage point of Wellington, Japan’s military has become much more interested in sea lanes, working with partners to make sure they are open. Those partners are of course the United States, but also now Australia and India. It’s working far more closely with ASEAN countries as well.

3. New Zealand has had a complicated relationship with China this year. What are Japan-China relations like right now?

There’s a whole book right there (laughs and points to a copy of her book Intimate Rivals: Japanese Domestic Politics and a Rising China). Obviously the one everyone pays attention to is the island dispute in the East China Sea — remember when The Economist had on its cover, “Could China and Japan really go to war over these?” It went on to the global stage, everybody was involved — everybody was on edge. And that hasn’t changed, frankly, because more and more Chinese military forces are operating in and around Japanese territory. It’s an increasingly fraught region. After that 2012 clash, Japan and China went through a long period of just not having any contact. But in 2014, [Chinese President Xi Jinping] and [Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe] finally met on the sidelines of APEC, and since then they’ve been slowly trying to work their way back. Xi was just in Japan for G20, and Abe went to Beijing at the end of last year. It looks like Xi will be visiting Japan in the spring — at G20, he made a public statement along the lines of, “I understand the cherry blossoms are beautiful, I have to come back and see them” (laughs). But that would be the first time a Chinese leader has made a state visit to Japan since Hu Jintao went in 2008.

4. So China is back on track – but now things with South Korea are kicking off. Can you explain what’s happening there?

In early July, the Japanese government announced it would be reviewing the exports of certain materials used in smartphones and tech products. Japan has what they call the ‘white list’ — a list of all the countries that have robust export control systems. South Korea is on that white list. But what they were saying when they made that announcement was, they needed to review it because they were getting evidence that some of these materials were ending up in places they weren’t supposed to. Unfortunately, the South Korean government went ballistic, and started saying this was payback for court cases which happened at the end of last year — the South Korean courts basically ruled that Japanese companies had to pay compensation for forced labour during the war. The Japanese government was furious, because they said they had already made accommodations for forced labour in 1965 when the two countries signed a peace treaty. But in 1965, Korea wasn’t a democracy. There was no voice for the individual citizens who had grievances against the Japanese. South Korea has undergone a tremendous domestic transformation since then and now has a robust democratic process, including a very sensitive court system to these kinds of wartime grievances. So there are a lot of variables here that are not just about tit-for-tat diplomacy. There’s a deep history, obviously a colonial history by the Japanese that is still, to this day, very entwined with South Korean identity debates. And there’s a consistent reiteration of some of these issues. 

5. Why do you think these history wars keep resurfacing?

I think it goes beyond that. I recently wrote a piece titled Seoul and Tokyo: No Longer on the Same Side. I was writing it for our American audience — our policymakers tend to be like, “oh god, here they go again, history, they don’t like each other”. But there’s this lack of awareness that Seoul and Tokyo actually don’t have the same long-term strategic interests. Sure, they’re both allies of the US, and they’re on the same side in the sense of deterring war on the Korean Peninsula. But South Koreans want a unified Korean Peninsula. Japan may not be all that comfortable with that idea. We don’t really think about this because it’s been divided for such a long time, and the alliances are all structured around a potential war across the DMZ. But as we start to see things softening up a little bit — diplomacy taking a more frontline role — I don’t think Seoul and Tokyo see the long-term picture of Northeast Asia the same way. The old ways of going, "oh, Koreans and Japanese" — yes, that is definitely there, and it’s more complicated than ever. But add to that this rapidly changing Northeast Asia and I think you’ve got a recipe for at least a rethink of how we try to manage the alliance relationships and understand their depth.

Interview and editing by Siobhan Downes.

- Asia Media Centre