Sheila Smith on Her Book “Japan Rearmed”

Sheila A. Smith, an expert on Japanese politics and foreign policy, is senior fellow for Japan studies at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR). She is the author of Japan Rearmed: The Politics of Military Power (forthcoming April 2019 from Harvard University Press), Intimate Rivals: Japanese Domestic Politics and a Rising China (Columbia University Press, 2015), which was released in Japanese as 日中 親愛なる宿敵: 変容する日本政治と対中政策 (Tokyo University Press, 2018), and Japan's New Politics and the U.S.-Japan Alliance (Council on Foreign Relations, June 2014). She is also the author of the interactive website, “Constitutional Change in Japan,” which will be launched on in March 2019. Smith is vice chair of the U.S. advisors to the U.S.-Japan Conference on Cultural and Educational Interchange (CULCON), a bi-national advisory panel of government officials and private sector members. She also serves on the advisory committee for the U.S.-Japan Network for the Future program of the Maureen and Mike Mansfield Foundation. She teaches as an adjunct professor at the Asian Studies Department of Georgetown University and serves on the board of its Journal of Asian Affairs. She earned her MA and PhD degrees from the department of political science at Columbia University.
Grace Hickey CMC '22 interviewed Dr. Smith on on March 24, 2022.
Photograph and biography courtesy of Dr. Smith.

Japan Rearmed highlighted China and North Korea as two key drivers of Japan’s defense policy. Since your book was published, North Korea and China have continued their expansionist tendencies, weapons tests, and high-risk behavior in Japanese-patrolled territory. Yet, China and Japan have also continued to work to ease tensions, with a key example being the recent development of a new military hotline between the two countries. Do you foresee tension between Japan and these two neighbors increasing or decreasing in the coming years, and how do you believe this will impact Japan’s development of its military?

There are a couple of key points here. One is that the nature of North Korea's threat to Japan and the Japanese assessment of North Korea are different than Japan’s assessment of China.  The North Korean threat continues to be a potential nuclear threat, and there is a growing arsenal of North Korean missiles. The challenge of North Korea for Japan as a US ally is extended deterrence. If North Korea has the capacity to threaten the United States with nuclear weapons, then it has the capacity to challenge the alliance in a new way. Right now, North Korean missiles are directly tested right off the shore of Japan. With or without nuclear weapons, North Korean missiles pose an immediate threat to Japan. 

Yet, the intercontinental ballistic missile that North Korea is trying to develop and is probably about to test in the coming weeks is the one that creates this extended deterrent challenge for the US-Japan alliance. The risk is the North Koreans could use this missile to decouple Japan from the US. This could be done if they threatened Japan and the United States response was that it won’t actually engage, because it is unwilling to sacrifice Los Angeles for Tokyo. 

The China threat is the real one for the Japanese, though. The Japanese refer to it as an existential threat. China is bigger, China’s economy is now larger, and for the foreseeable future, China will be acquiring more and more military capability. The Chinese are already operating in proximity to Japanese waters and airspace. The long-term challenge is going to be China. The extended deterrent quandary with China is a little bit more complicated. Japan genuinely questions whether the United States will reach some kind of accommodation with China, as two big superpowers. Then Japan would have to deal with China in its own right. That puts a different kind of pressure on the alliance. Japan will never compete with China militarily. The future of Japan’s existence as a sovereign state therefore depends on the United States continuing to be willing to be in an alliance with Japan. 

One additional issue is the Taiwan question. Recently, questions are being raised about whether China might actually be willing to use force to reunify Taiwan. The Chinese see Taiwan as a renegade province, but they see it as Chinese sovereign territory. 

Both Japan and the United States have said that they recognize that there is only one China, and so recognize implicitly that Taiwan is a part of China. Yet, they have also both said that they support the peaceful resolution of cross-strait relations. We have a diplomatic position that recognizes Chinese sovereignty, but also recognizes that Taiwan needs to choose if it is to become integrated with China. 

In the last couple of years since the book was published, Chinese military capabilities have grown. The Indo-Pacific commander Admiral Davidson, who left his position recently, testified to Congress that within six years, he thought that China would use force to get Taiwan back into the fold. That, of course, has a lot of Japanese worried about a Taiwan contingency, and if that would involve direct China-US military action. 

Taiwan is only a couple hundred kilometers off of Okinawa. It is right next door to Japan, and US bases are located there. If there is a China-US war, then Japanese territory could come under attack. The inverse is also true that the United States would expect Japan to do more to help in that kind of military conflict. So, since the Biden administration has come into office, the alliance has become very focused on Chinese behavior, and the Taiwan issue has been put on the front-burner once more.

Your book outlines the complex history of Article 9 of Japan’s constitution, which was written by the United States when it occupied Japan and has long fueled political debate in Japan. At the time of your book’s publication, Prime Minister Abe had stated his intention to revise the Japanese constitution, and one change he intended to make was to clarify the legality of the Japanese Self-Defense Forces in Article 9. While this goal was not realized by Abe, do you think another LDP leader will achieve this? How significant would this amendment be for the operations of the SDF? 

Japan has significantly increased its military capabilities, and it has become much more militarily engaged with the United States, Australia, India, and other countries across Southeast Asia. So, Japan is doing much more militarily in the region, but it has never changed the constitution. This is all within the existing article. The real question then is, how elastic can Japan be at interpreting Article 9? So far, the Japanese government has managed to be quite elastic in its interpretation. 

There are two big decisions coming up that that may lead to pressure on the Japanese government to revise the constitution. One of them is that the Japanese government has begun to speak as if it will massively increase defense spending, perhaps to the level of our NATO allies, up to 2% of their GDP. Right now, it is at 1%. If the government decides to quickly move from 1% of GDP to 2% of GDP, it would get a lot of push-back on whether the constitution allows them to do that.

The other issue on the table is conventional strike capability. This would be a new acquisition of a military capability that would allow Japan to attack enemy bases either through missiles or other kinds of weapon systems. Those enemy bases could be in North Korea or China. The capability to reach out and destroy enemy bases in either of those countries would be a significant change in Japan's force posture. A lot of people in Japan would say that that is a violation of Article 9.

The government likely does not think it is violating Article 9 with these changes, but the politics of both of those issues are intensifying. Increasing defense spending or acquiring offensive strike capabilities will increase the political debate about revision of the constitution. Whether any other political leader wants to push the frontier of constitutional revision remains to be seen. There are some smaller conservative parties now in Japan that might help the LDP accomplish this. But the Japanese public is still quite wary about outright revision of Article 9. 

Japan’s military developments up to this point have been geared towards both defense and complementing American forces. Is it in Japan’s interest to shift the SDF from a focus on defense to one of offense, or to shift to more independent forces, rather than ones that complement the U.S.?

Right now, the Japanese government policy is that whatever capability Japan acquires is defensive and complementary to the US forces. This is why the conventional strike capability on the policy agenda is probably going to trigger a debate later this year. 

Japan is certainly not willing or interested in its own nuclear capability yet. It will have only conventional forces. Even if it gets offensive conventional strike capabilities, it will still be confronted with the fact that at least two of its neighbors are major nuclear powers, China and Russia. Now, of course, North Korea is also joining the ranks. Japan is surrounded by large, nuclear great powers. Unlike the South Koreans, who are also our allies and a non-nuclear power, there is no political appetite in Japan to advocate for the acquisition of nuclear weapons. For the foreseeable future, you could see Japan move in the direction of conventional strike, and integrating that into the force posture of the US and Japanese forces in Japan. Yet, they will stop short of this idea that they themselves can independently acquire strategic capability, meaning nuclear capabilities. 

Japan Rearmed described Japanese concerns about the U.S.-Japan alliance that arose from the Trump presidency. Has Japanese confidence in the United States’ commitment to their alliance since been rekindled? 

The book was published in 2019 when the Trump administration was in government, so he was the focus of the ending. 

There are two parts to my answer to your question. The first part concerns politics in the United States, and a new wave of public opinion. Beyond President Trump, there is a certain American idea that is coming to the fore now that we fought too many wars on behalf of our allies or other powers. Why should we continue? Why can't our allies defend themselves? Why do we have to be there? President Trump raised that on the campaign trail. It's not a position I support, by the way, but it's a valid political question for the American public to ask. 

During the crisis with North Korea in 2017, there was a lot of rhetoric flying back and forth between the US and North Korea. At that moment, I think our allies in both Seoul and Tokyo were quite worried about real military confrontation with North Korea. The threat perception was definitely there. 

The second part was related to President Trump’s position on US forces in Korea. Trump actually felt that it would be okay to take US forces out of Korea. He thought that the forces were provocative, and he thought about removing some of them. That made a lot of other governments quite nervous about how easily American public opinion could shift. 

Another issue is the credibility of the alliance. This is not contingent on the political leadership of the United States, but rather is the age-old dilemma of extended deterrence. For example, in the specific scenario in which China invaded Taiwan, would we be willing to threaten the use of nuclear weapons? if China said, we're going to take out your bases in Japan, would the U.S. be willing to use American nuclear weapons and thereby invite a Chinese nuclear attack on the American homeland? 

In addition, there hasn’t been an instance, in Northeast Asia, of real nuclear brinksmanship. Yet President Putin now, right after the invasion of Ukraine, is basically saying he is willing to go up a level if NATO gets involved. We are watching it play out in real time in the European context, with an alliance where you have multiple members in NATO who act. Yet, in the Asian context, there hasn’t been that level of threat, at least not nuclear threat for Japan. It is a new kind of dilemma for the Alliance and it is especially a concern for the Japanese, of course, because they are so dependent on our strategic protection.

If the US were to abandon the alliance, that would be the end of Japan. Thus, that strategic dependency is very, very deep for Japan. Japan is invested in it, because it believes it's the right way to provide for its security. But that does not mean that the country is any less nervous about our decision-making. 

Overall, Trump was shocking to all of our allies. For our NATO allies in particular, but also for our Asian allies, his rhetoric began to raise some serious questions. What if Americans decide that they don't want to defend South Korea? Or Japan? China was also on the rise at the time. It was exactly at the moment where Japan felt its security becoming more undermined by the rise of Chinese military power and the behavior of China, that the United States started to look less committed to a long-term security arrangement. 

Yet, as I wrote at the end of the book, Japan is not going willy-nilly back to militarism. They are not about to go nuclear. The real question is whether or not the alliance is going to be reliable or not. That will be the real deciding factor about whether or not Japan will change its security policy. 

Japan Rearmed examined the preparedness of the SDF for a conflict. You note a lack of clarity within the Japanese government on the legal capabilities of and control over the SDF, as well as the uncertainty in the U.S.-Japan alliance over exactly how military collaboration would play out in various conflict scenarios. What are first steps that can be taken to improve Japan’s preparedness?

It took until 2004 for Japan to pass a law that allowed the Self Defense Force and civilian authorities to understand how they would share power. It took the entire postwar period before the Japanese civilian authorities were comfortable with allowing that conversation to move forward, and with passing these contingency laws. The power has been jealously guarded by civilians, because in the pre-war period, the military had too much power. There has been a deep clamp-down on the military institutions, even to the point where they might not even be able to do their job, which is to respond if Japan were attacked. 

This shows the strong legacy of the pre-war period on postwar institutions. Today, operational clarity still depends on the Japanese Prime Minister saying what the SDF can do. In the United States, the president’s military advisors advise him on what to do, but the ultimate decision on the use of force or the beginning of combat reside with the civilian elected authority. It is the same in the Japanese system. The prime minister will make the call at the end. 

After new laws in 2004, and especially an additional law in 2005, which was about ballistic missile defenses, the prime minister is allowed to say to the national and regional commanders of the Self Defense Force that they have permission to act as needed to defend Japan. Japan has relaxed a little bit of civilian control, mission by mission. There is now a much more comfortable civil-military conversation about what the SDF might need to do to defend Japanese territory. This represents a symmetric maturation of the postwar relationship between civilian and military professionals. 

On the other hand, this is a balancing act that every democracy has, which is how much power should the military have? How much consultation with civilian leadership is necessary? This is especially important in the case of an urgent and immediate threat. Ballistic Missile Defense is a great example because you have to act fast.  If there's an incoming missile, there are minutes to make a decision, so there is not a question of calling up the prime minister and asking what he or she thinks. By that time, the missile would have landed. A certain level of approval needs to be given to the military to act in situations where Japan is going to be threatened. The technology requires a quick response. Because of the military forces in Russia, as well as China and North Korea threatening Japan, there has been a lot more exercising and practicing. Japanese civilians and the military see the danger less abstractly and thus more comfortable with the military acting independently.

In terms of the US-Japan alliance, the US has basically followed Japan's lead, as Japan developed more comfort with its own military making operational decisions. In the book, I talked about collective self-defense, and allowing the Japanese military to operate with the United States, and to use force to protect the United States forces should it need to. The US now has more trust in the alliance because there's more civil-military trust in Japan.  They don't have to second guess the political decision-making over whether the SDF has the capacity to make decisions on what operational needs are required. Yet, at the end of the day, this alliance is an alliance of two democracies. So, when it comes to issues of war and peace, and the initiation of the use of force, then the political leaders of both countries are going to have to agree on that. 

You outlined three scenarios that could seriously damage the U.S.-Japan alliance in Japan Rearmed: a North Korean missile strike, the United States abandoning its naval dominance in Asia, and a failure of the alliance in a crisis. At present, which of these scenarios is the most likely? Could any of these scenarios trigger a full Japanese departure from its reliance on American military control?

I laid those three out because those were the things that I could see. First, North Korean missiles are real, concrete, and practical. Second, an American crisis has already happened once in the Senkaku Island dispute. So, we've had an example. That's why that makes sense. The last scenario, a failure of the Alliance where we actually come to Japan's defense, has not yet happened because Japan has not been attacked. That last one is also subject to interpretation. Japanese politicians could interpret how much the Americans were there to defend them. 

Japan has strategies to deal with all three of these. At the end of the day, the U.S. and Japan have had enough practice with limited North Korea missile attacks. The challenge for their posture is missile defenses. An incoming missile would be dealt with by missile defenses. If the North Koreans launch lots of missiles in the direction of Japan, some would land and, because that technology is not perfect, that wouldn't necessarily be the fault of the United States. It is technologically hard to defend against multiple incoming missiles. Yet, the U.S. and Japan do have a pretty good understanding of how they would respond in a combined way to a missile launch by the North Koreans. 

The more complicated scenario is a crisis that we can't imagine yet. There has already been the Senkaku crisis in the East China Sea. The alliance’s response was okay. The US and Japan created an alliance coordination mechanism such that if we detected a crisis beginning, the alliance could talk back and forth about how to respond. We have learned, and we have adapted, because we had a crisis. 

The most concerning scenario is failure. That one is a harder for me to imagine. Our Indo-Pacific Command and the Japanese talk all the time about what kind of scenarios might happen. The potential of a crisis over the Taiwan Strait is the big one. People have that one at the front of their minds right now because it raises the most difficult questions to answer: should Japan get involved? Would China attack Japan to take out US forces? The PLA released a video over a Chinese Communist Party website threatening a nuclear attack on Japan. This was an intimidation technique, because they know Japan is the only country that has ever been attacked by nuclear weapons. China could use the threat of a crisis as coercion, by utilizing signaling, cyberattacks, and disinformation. Given the state of the Alliance right now, we are in a good position. Yet, these underlying questions are too hard to answer until the moment arises. The alliance is as prepared as it can be for a bigger, more consequential challenge, such as the Russian invasion of Ukraine, from which we can extrapolate for thinking about Taiwan. In the end, though, I don’t think we could be positioned any better. 


Grace Hickey CMC '22Student Journalist
Share this:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *