In East Asia in just the past few months, the U.S. pulled out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe flew to New York City to visit President Donald Trump prior to the inauguration, South Korea ousted President Park Geun-hye, North Korea launched four intermediate-range missiles into the Sea of Japan, and the U.S. sent attack drones to South Korea in response. Combined with a rising China and the legacies of World War II, the region is tense. World Policy Journal spoke with Sheila Smith, senior fellow for Japan studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of Intimate Rivals: Japanese Domestic Politics and a Rising China, about how Japan is faring amid domestic and regional uncertainty.
WORLD POLICY JOURNAL: Can you describe for our readers the current state of Japan-China relations, and how they arrived at this point?
SHEILA SMITH: There isn’t something dramatically different this year than there was last year, or the year before. It’s become difficult for the governments of both countries to solve problems together. Around 2015, which was the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, there were some efforts by Prime Minister Abe and President Xi to get the relationship back on track. They had virtually shut down contact over the islands dispute that erupted in 2010, but then intensified in 2012. So there was a fundamental confrontation. Not use of force, but certainly a confrontation between government forces around the islands and the sovereignty claims on both sides really complicated the relationship. After that, there were a couple of years of virtually no conversation at all until the two leaders finally met at the [Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation] meeting in November 2014 in Beijing. Then there was some diplomacy to set up a meeting; part of that diplomacy involved both governments acknowledging that they needed to get the relationship back on track. The Chinese wanted Abe to reflect more sincerely on Japan’s wartime history in China. The Japanese wanted the islands dispute to be put aside. But they didn’t say anything directly about either of those two issues. Rather they came to an opaque understanding that the tensions across the East China Sea were not in either country’s interest, and so they would begin a dialogue on how to reduce risk.
In 2015, China for the first time had a national commemoration of the end of the war. Abe was expected to issue a statement on the war, and of course there was a certain amount of worry both inside Japan and in the region that he would present a revisionist account of Japan’s policy, but he didn’t. Both governments around the Sept. 3 Chinese commemoration were still talking about the possibility of Abe visiting Beijing. It didn’t happen in the end, but what has happened is increased contact between leaders in both countries. The risk reduction agreement has not yet come to fruition, but the economic relationship between both countries has improved. There have been numerous, large missions of trade and investment led by senior business people as well as senior members of the Japanese Liberal Democratic Party. The tap of Japanese investment in China has opened again. On broader regional diplomacy, Japan and China have been able to discuss issues together. They’ve met in various regional meetings and global summits. The government-to-government relationship seems to be back on a regular track.
What used to motivate the leaders of Beijing and Tokyo was a sense that they needed further reconciliation. Today, that idea of reconciliation diplomacy no longer holds in either capital. There is a bit more pragmatism on both sides. The deterioration of the relationship impressed on people how bad it might get. You didn’t actually get Chinese and Japanese forces confronting each other, but it got very close. The East China Sea is a delicate spot as the countries in the region are increasingly at odds over maritime boundaries, territorial islands, and not being able to come to any broad vision that would take the sting out of these sensitive issues. So that’s where we are at the moment. There is a pragmatic approach. It’s not a strategic reconciliation by any means. And there is no grand bargain in the wake of the islands dispute to put things in a more positive light.
Japan concentrates on the alliance cooperation with the U.S. to ensure that deterrence is working. The U.S. government has just gone through a huge transition, so we’ll see when Xi arrives in May what Trump and Xi will articulate for a vision for U.S.-China relations. Clearly, there’s a lot of work to be done among the three countries in trying to stabilize the relationship and trying to defuse some of the tensions that have come out of that islands dispute.
WPJ: How will the U.S. decision to pull out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership affect Japan and its relationship with China?
SS: I think it’s a disappointment to Abe because he worked so hard with the Obama administration to realize this 12-nation trade agreement. It will be disappointing for many Japanese who saw U.S. leadership in TPP as an opportunity to further embed the United States in the changing Asia-Pacific. President Obama said, if we don’t make the move, China will. I’m not sure yet where we’re headed. I suspect countries like Australia, Japan, Vietnam, Malaysia, and other countries that were in the TPP will continue to discuss their options in light of the U.S. withdrawal. The ratification process can take up to two years, so we don’t have to rush to any judgment yet about what might happen to the other countries. We’ll just have to wait and see what happens in the United States. But I think China clearly feels that, at least rhetorically, it has gained a bit of the upper hand. I have heard from colleagues from Japan and the region that Americans don’t have the staying power. It’ll be interesting to see how China responds. They’ve already started to talk about RCEP (Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership) and they’ve talked about raising RCEP standards to approximate what the ambitions of TPP were. But again, all of this is still at the discussion stage.
Japan has negotiated free trade agreements with a number of countries. If it turns out that the Trump administration wants to bilateralize the TPP, then some of that market access work has been done. I don’t think there will be much appetite to reopen those conversations. I think Tokyo is waiting until our administration has sorted out how we’d like to proceed.
WPJ: Have some of Trump’s comments—such as his accusation that Japan is devaluing its currency, not contributing enough to the relationship, and suggesting that Japan go nuclear to deter North Korea—threatened the strong alliance between the countries?
SS: The rhetoric of the campaign was alarming to most Japanese and Chinese. You saw the Japanese foreign minister last year, after that comment about how Japan could get nuclear weapons, talk about how Japan will not get nuclear weapons and reminding the (at the time) presidential candidate of the history of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But since we’ve shifted into the new administration, we’ve watched that conversation on Japan evolve. Abe went to visit Trump when he was president-elect, which is fairly unheard of. He went early because he wanted to talk about the TPP, and to press the president on the value of and the commitment to the alliance and how the alliance feeds into broader Asia-Pacific stability. I think the Trump administration now has moved back to the basic understanding of the alliance and what it does. Secretary Mattis has been an important player in that. Even before the Abe-Trump summit, he visited Tokyo and Seoul, largely to reassure our Asian allies and also to say that he thought Japan’s host-nation support was appropriate because one of the pieces of the Trump campaign was the candidate’s reference to reciprocity in the alliance. I think there’s been some ironing out of some of those more scary parts of the rhetoric of last year, and I think the Japanese government feels that the relationship is back on a more predictable track.
The economic piece is going to be interesting to watch. At that summit, the two leaders announced that Vice President Pence and Deputy Prime Minister Asō, who is also the finance minister, will begin an economic dialogue. And I expect that’s where this issue of currency manipulation will be discussed.
In the Japanese-U.S. conversation, the Plaza Accord, which depreciated the U.S. dollar relative to the Japanese and Germany currencies, was at the request of the United States in the 1980s. So this is not something the Japanese have done to us. You could almost make the argument it was the other way around, but nonetheless currency revaluation as a way of managing trade disputes harkens back to the dialogue with Japan in 1980s. Today, I don’t see the Japanese as similarly motivated, but they do now have a monetary policy that affects currency. Part of the conversation with Pence and Asō will be, of course, to explore how the Bank of Japan is doing. There’s a little bit more learning that has to happen on both sides about the future direction and why it matters, as well as the details about trade and currency. I don’t expect it to be a problem yet unless there is a broader legislative push to have currency manipulation put back into future trade agreements.
WPJ: Nationalism has been on the rise around the world. Has this trend affected Japan?
SS: We saw nationalisms across Northeast Asia when it came to the 70th anniversary of WWII. Issues of historical memory have always been part of the diplomacy in Northeast Asia. What I sense with the territorial disputes is a similarly formed wave of populist sentiments, often anti-Japanese, focused now on territory. It’s a pretty poisonous mix. In my book Intimate Rivals, I looked at it in a context of domestic policy in Japan. What I found when I was looking at various case studies on the Japan-China relationship is that the people who get very motivated by Yasukuni Shrine visits—people we associate with the conservative nationalists in Japan—can also have similar reactions to the Senkaku Islands territorial dispute. But the dynamics of the two cases are actually quite different. In fact, when you look at the dynamics on the policy issue, you find quite different actors and not always the same groups and advocates who attempt to influence public opinion at home.
It’s a part of Asia that continues to harken back to the events of the early 20th century. China sees its aspirations for the future very much in terms of that 100-year evolution of the loss of Chinese sovereignty, and its ability to govern itself. Likewise, Japan sees the last 100 years in terms of the failed imperial project and its attempt to build a sphere of influence in Asia. Japan suffered tremendously as a result of that failure. Korea was divided at the end of World War II. Every day it experiences the legacy of that vulnerability to both China and Japan. In Northeast Asia, there is potential for political leaders to exacerbate some of these sentiments. And issue by issue, whether you’re looking at the so-called comfort women issue or the islands dispute or how each of these countries educate their children on this history, you’ll find grounds to promote a kind of nationalist vision if you choose. So I think these issues have to be dealt with diplomatically, and they must find ways to make political leaders disinclined to use divisive rhetoric and make the public feel that the costs of this sentiment are high and the potential for cooperation is positive. And I think Northeast Asia is still in a place where it’s not quite there in terms of a vision for the future that would bring the people of Japan, Korea, and China together in a sense of shared destiny.
I’ve been looking at this question of Japanese nationalism over the last several years. Ironically, compared with Europe and the United States, Japan looks pretty stable today. Everybody was focused on Japanese nationalism three years ago, but today, Japan’s prime minister has 60 percent support ratings—he and his party keep getting elected. There’s no immigration issue or similarly divisive popular issues that would bring a candidate to power like Le Pen in France or Trump in the U.S. I think the Japanese case study offers the insight that this populism in advanced democracies is not driven solely by economics. Japan has had a decade and a half of no growth, or negative growth, and still we don’t see the same outcome. My sense of what could motivate popular outrage against the government would be some kind of economic scandal or an actual use of force incident. It’s important to remember that the Japanese military has never been in combat since it was formed in 1954. As we talk about these ideologies or currents of thinking about national identity, it’s important to remember it has not translated into actual conflict with any other country. Were we to have such an incident, I think you could quickly see an escalatory path, especially in the absence of a risk reduction agreement. But we’re not there yet.
WPJ: Speaking of immigration, Japan has been criticized in the past for not accepting as many migrants and asylum-seekers as Europe. Do you see that changing? Especially considering its population decline has created a surplus of jobs?
SS: Late last year a law was passed in the Japanese Diet [parliament] that reformed the steps by which people could get permanent residency in Japan. I don’t think Japan will ever look like the United States in the sense that it will open its doors, and I don’t think Japan’s history or sense of its own society is conducive to the American approach to immigration. Likewise, I think Europe and the United States are very different in the way they have thought about immigration in the past. I don’t know whether Japan is still going to be able to manage immigration as carefully as the Japanese political leaders would like to. But for now, it focuses on people from certain sectors, people with certain job skills, and people from countries with which the Japanese have a long relationship. I think there’s an attempt to continue to manage immigration in a way that will be conducive to economic performance. Until we see a social backlash against it, I think that’s the way the government will continue to want to work.
Asian countries have very different ways of thinking about immigration—it’s not just Japan. The mythology of these countries is that they’re homogenous. But that is part of the identity, whether you’re Chinese or Korean or Japanese. Immigration is not part of how those countries and societies describe themselves. For a while, you had a pretty strong conversation in Japan about the need to globalize the country—to become less parochial and more integrated in terms of welcoming other people to Japanese society and having Japanese global citizens. You’ve got the same tug and pull conversation as in the United States, but with a different history of the pattern of immigration.
WPJ: We’ve mentioned how the legacy of WWII and Imperialist Japan affects the region’s politics. Do you think Japan will ever be able to smooth things over with its neighbors regarding accountability and historical memory?
SS: That’s another part of the mythology—that the Japanese government has never addressed any of it. It’s always addressed, all the time. Now there are complaints about whether it’s sufficient. I hear often from Chinese and Korean colleagues that the Japanese lack sincerity when they apologize, or they don’t use the right words at the right time. I don’t think this is an issue that the right statement or the right words will take care of. And it’s always important to remember that we are three generations, coming on four, away from those experiences of the war itself. When any country, including Japan, starts to talk about WWII and what it meant, it’s often not about the past. It’s often very much about what’s happening today or aspirations for the future. Abe, in his 2015 statement, said it was the responsibility of his generation to make it possible for his children and grandchildren not to have to apologize anymore. That’s an interesting take, because I think what you’re seeing from the Japanese people is not a desire not to talk about the past, but a desire to no longer be asked to apologize over and over and over for what happened at the time of their grandparents.
Similarly, I think you’re starting to see in societies like Korea and China, and a bit in Japan, that the courts have become the place for individuals to address grievances with their governments. They feel the government-negotiated peace treaties did not sufficiently take into account the damages they experienced. This is happening across the region. It is a new dimension of the problem that has nothing to do with diplomacy or peace treaties or agreements reached by government. It’s really about citizens who feel they had been treated in ways their governments did not address. For example, U.S. and Chinese prisoners of war that suffered at the hands of the Imperial Japanese have taken those issues to court. In South Korea, the constitutional courts heard the plea of the “comfort women.” Also, people who have been used as labor by companies during wartime have sought redress in the postwar period. This is a new development that’s coming from the people. The governments are caught off guard because they are required under the legal systems of their countries to go back to the drawing board, even if they don’t think diplomatically it’s the right answer.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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[Interview conducted by Yasmin Merchant]
[Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons]