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Sheila A. Smith on Japan's Taiwan Policy, Cabinet Reshuffle, and Military Development

Japan expert Sheila A. Smith talks to CACR about former Prime Minister Taro Aso's August delegation to Taiwan, the improving state of Japan-South Korea ties, the Japan-US military relationship, and proposed increases in Japan's defense spending.

Sheila A. Smith is John E. Merow senior fellow for Asia-Pacific studies at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR). An expert on Japanese politics and foreign policy, she is the author of Japan Rearmed: The Politics of Military Power, Intimate Rivals: Japanese Domestic Politics and a Rising China (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), and Japan's New Politics and the U.S.-Japan Alliance. She is also the author of the CFR interactive guide Constitutional Change in Japan. Smith is a regular contributor to the CFR blog Asia Unbound and a frequent contributor to major media outlets in the United States and Asia.


I want to start by asking you about the importance of Taro Aso’s August 2023 delegation to Taiwan and the remarks that he made. According to a report from Reuters, Aso, who is a former Japanese prime minister and current vice president of the LDP, said during his visit that Japan has to show the resolve to fight to defend Taiwan from attack. After he made those remarks, another LDP lawmaker said on Japanese television that Aso had discussed that issue with Japanese government officials and that the comment “was not lawmaker Taro Aso’s personal remark but a result of arrangements with government insiders. I think the Japanese government clearly regards this as the official line.” Should we interpret this as a change in Japan’s policy towards Taiwan, or as an indication that they’ve made a decision about how to respond to a Taiwan contingency? Or should we disregard this because Aso is not in the government and apparently has a reputation for saying provocative things?

It’s a little bit of both. Taro Aso is a vice president of the LDP, as you know, the largest conservative party and largely, in coalition, the ruling party of Japan for decades. He is not an inconsequential political figure. So what he says matters. But that sentiment may not be shared by Japan’s Prime Minister, Fumio Kishida, or by everyone in the Liberal Democratic Party

The LDP has now sent a number of lawmakers of note to Taiwan to talk with counterparts about security, about security consultations between the two countries, and about common perceptions of what’s happening in the East China Sea, and of course of Chinese behavior. A couple years ago, the head of the foreign affairs committee of the LDP, a man by the name of Masahisa Sato, took a delegation of leading members of the DPP, and he called that a party-to-party 2+2. A 2+2 is a government security consultative mechanism with a foreign minister and a defense minister, so it’s a cabinet-level formal security consultative process between allies or between strategic partners. So he was saying, we’re not strategic partners, I am not the government, but this is the same as a party-to-party 2+2, and it kind of opened up the door for a conversation on what was happening and Japan’s interest in the cross-Strait relationship, but also Japan’s interests. And he’s quite hawkish– he’s a former SDF officer, so not everybody in the conservative party would share his views on what Japan should do, but what he was demonstrating to Taiwan and the DPP in particular was that we need greater consultations and that the dominant party on both sides was willing to have this conversation on their shared strategic interests. It’s not a commitment to an alliance or to military action, nothing like that, but it’s important nonetheless.

Abe Shinzo, when he was Prime Minister before he was tragically assassinated, never said this out loud this way, but when he stepped down, he did go to Taipei and give a very well-attended lecture in which he talked about how the security of Taiwan is linked to Japan’s own national security. So there have been indicators from the conservative party– not the government officials, but party officials, and people of consequence, of Japan’s interests in the cross-Strait situation and Japan’s support for Taiwan’s defenses.

Later, after the Pelosi visit, when the PLAN really upped its exercises in and around Taipei, you had several former defense ministers make a visit to Taipei. So there is an increasingly important political dialogue between Taipei and Tokyo these days about shared understanding of what’s happening in Northeast Asia and shared values. Obviously, democratic values are always emphasized in these visits, but also shared concern over the potential for the use of force by the PLA.

Aso is known for gaffes and saying things even as Prime Minister that were not politically correct, let’s put it that way. But I don’t think this was a gaffe. And sure, it has a little bit of deniability, because it’s Aso. But I think we should take this as a signal from the LDP that Japan’s interest is very much engaged in what’s happening in Taiwan.

Now, I haven’t seen the text of his full remarks, I’ve only seen the media coverage from Taiwan and the Japanese press and the global press, but it is not entirely clear from the Japanese that he was talking about Japan’s will to fight. In context, it could equally be interpreted as Taiwan’s will to fight, or a more obtuse kind of reference to everybody’s willingness to fight. So we’re all talking about this when we’re looking and reflecting on the Ukraine experience and the Ukrainian example of their commitment to defend their nation. The context in which he spoke was a reference to Ukraine, and so if I look at the Japanese that’s in the press, in Japanese, the implication is that deterrence is not just about what kind of weapons you have, but an effective deterrent also includes the will to fight. And so I think that more abstract meaning might be the real context within which those comments got quoted, but I don’t have evidence to be absolutely sure of that.

Regarding the recent Camp David meeting, can you give us a sense of the scope and significance of the warming of ties between South Korean President Yoon and Japanese Prime Minister Kishida and what it might mean for US-Japan military cooperation?

The Korea-Japan relationship always has a political third rail, if you will– a very high sensitivity to issues of historical legacies, and over time, we can point to different issues where this has become a diplomatic challenge for the leaders of both countries. The issue of the moment is the supreme court cases in South Korea that deal with forced labor, the Koreans who lived in Japan or in Korea who were forced to work for Japanese corporations during WWII. They were mobilized on a wartime footing and forced to work in the factories. So that has been a real-time political challenge for the South Korean government to manage. The courts have had one ruling, the diplomats who are responsible for Japan-South Korea relations have had to try to manage this relationship during the Moon presidency, when the counterpart on the Japanese side was Prime Minister Abe, and that bilateral literally kind of went off the rails. The Japanese government took South Korea off the whitelist for export controls, things like that. So you had a state of relations between these two allies of the US that was probably the worst I’ve seen in most of my career.

President Yoon came into office determined to improve ties with Tokyo. I won’t say every conservative leader shares his point of view, because historical legacy issues affect South Korean conservative leaders as well as progressive leaders, but he did come in with the idea that Korea’s own national interest required a better relationship with Japan and the United States. There’s growing concern about Chinese economic coercion, there’s growing concern about supply chain resiliency, and there’s all kinds of maritime issues that South Korea obviously has a deep stake in. So I think that the Yoon administration came in with a slightly different conception of the priorities for national security from Seoul. I think to his credit, President Yoon began by inviting a lot of the really savvy Japan hands, regional hands, into his government to advise him on how to do this. You saw that across the board, including Foreign Minister Park Jin, first and foremost. So there’s been a strong effort with a certain degree of political risk assumed by President Yoon, because South Korean public opinion is of course quite critical of Japan and not as persuaded, always, that it’s a good relationship for them to think about in a strategic sense, so I give him a lot of credit.

Prime Minister Kishida had his own political calculus, of course. Some members of his party were very outspoken in criticizing the Moon government, so Kishida-san had to make sure that President Yoon was ready to carry through. But cautiously, he began to respond in this bilateral summitry that we saw leading up to the G7 at Hiroshima this year, May 19 to 21. Kishida invited President Yoon for the G7 as a special guest of Japan, inviting him into the Indo-Pacific conversation obviously as well. I think that was an important moment for the two.

As far as the trilateral is concerned, since the Biden administration came into office, we’ve paid a ton of attention to the Indo-Pacific and the Quad and all these new initiatives. But you should also give them credit for a very quiet but sustained effort to breathe life into that trilateral strategic dialogue with South Korea and Japan. That has been very successful. So at Camp David you see the political leadership of all three leaders, but you also see the maturation of that process of not only restoring trust, but moving beyond the peninsular agenda to incorporate the Indo-Pacific. Now, in the wake of Ukraine, there’s also this broader connection to NATO, so there’s this much deeper sense that this trilateral is not just about the narrow question of what happens on the peninsula, although that’s very critical, but it also is a really catalytic trilateral for other kinds of Indo-Pacific and global cooperation as well.

So I was happy to see the Camp David meeting, I was happy to see economic coercion being discussed, that Taiwan was mentioned, and the regional challenges that we can all see ahead. That was an excellent moment of conversation to really cap what has been a lot of hard work, I think, by all three administrations. The question is, is it sustainable? Again, electoral politics in democracies often challenge some of these accomplishments, and I hope that some traction can be made on the trilateral summitry that they’re undertaking between now and the time we have a change of leadership in any one of those three countries.

I want to also ask about the US-Japan relationship in a bilateral context. Whether at Camp David or in other settings, has there been any progress this year towards closer military coordination? You spoke in a Council on Foreign Relations podcast earlier this year about the lack of a combined command between the US and Japan, which I’ve also heard about from other Japan experts; should we interpret Camp David as momentum towards any closer military cooperation?

I don’t know the Japanese political decision making on whether or not a unified command is required. I don’t think the political consensus has moved yet, to be honest with you. I think the self-defense force within the next year or two will have a permanent operational command, so the three self-defense forces, air, ground, and maritime, will combine their national command into this operational command, what we call in the States our combatant commanders. So they’re going to do that for themselves in terms of their national defenses, which will then be the obvious natural counterpoint for our Indo-Pacific commander in case there is an actual use of force scenario or a crisis requiring that level of coordination. I think an integration of the full command structure is probably not going to come anytime soon. The politics of it is Article 9 of the Constitution, which says that Japan will not use force to settle international disputes. That gets into very tricky interpretive territory in the Diet, and I think politically, it’s a high hurdle to integrate fully to a combined command for the alliance.

Since December 16, all eyes have been on the new national security strategy and the ten-year defense plan. Those are Japan’s upgrade in its capabilities or commitment to capabilities, including close to 2% of GDP in security policy-related spending by 2027, but also in the acquisition of counterstrike capability. Defense technology innovation is another place where they wanted to put a lot of effort. Recently, they also began something that we do all the time but that Japan has never done in the postwar period, which is overseas security assistance. This will be the first time that they’re giving countries money for security or technology to help enhance other countries’ capabilities. This is a pretty important step by Japan. I think on one hand, it demonstrates that Japan is ready to partner with us in a whole host of what they call new domains like cyberspace, in addition to maritime domains. It also shows that Japan is ready to move in the direction of far more operational coordination with us, like contingency planning. This would mean moving from tabletop to actual serious discussions about what we would both do in the case of a contingency. The US-Japan alliance has not had a unified command, has not had one consolidated contingency plan, unlike NATO and the US-ROK alliance, so this is new territory for this particular alliance.

It sounds like Taro Aso’s comments, particularly in the context in which you’ve seen them, should not be seen as a very clear indication of Japan’s willingness to fight in the event of a Taiwan contingency.


When we look at this very comprehensive, impressive, and serious upgrading of Japan’s military capabilities, do we see anything that seems to be geared towards a Taiwan contingency?

What the Japanese SDF, their military, is tasked to do is defend Japan, first and foremost. So defense-of-Japan operations fully accommodate a Taiwan scenario. If you think about it and think about the map for a second, Taiwan is 100 to 200 miles from Japan’s southwest territories; anything that happens there involving the use of force, blockade, missile strikes, anything that we can imagine, would by definition impinge upon Japan’s own security. That may not be a territorial strike against Japanese territory, but it’s close enough that any kind of conflagration across the straits would affect Japan. So within the Defense of Japan operational concept, I’m absolutely sure that the SDF have at least thought about what such a contingency would look like.

On the bilateral level, even though we don’t have combined command or a shared contingency plan for a Taiwan contingency, our forces operate together and exercise together and do tabletops all the time. I think on the maritime dimension– and our Pacific Fleet commanders and others know this far better than I, of course– we mobilize our allies to test our ability to operate in a particularly imagined scenario. Those scenarios are largely imagined by the US. So in those bilateral exercises, we don’t have to say it’s Taiwan, but there are some functional things we can practice, and my guess would be that we have been doing that. It may not be sitting next to Taiwan the way the PLA does– maybe we do it somewhere else– but regarding those qualitative functional pieces of it, I’m sure we’re working at it more and more at a higher and higher level.

We often imagine a Taiwan contingency as that old-fashioned limited war, the idea that we can have a contingency in Taiwan and that would be it. If you think of a Taiwan contingency with what Biden has said now multiple times, as an American effort to defend Taiwan, then we’re not talking about a limited war. We’re talking about a major power war. On the front line of that major power war will obviously be Taiwan, but Japan is right there as well. So again, conceptually, I think there's still some work to be done, and I’m sure that those behind classified walls are doing that kind of work. This is an existential conflict for the Japanese, and how the Chinese would approach Japan in that scenario also might be different than what we’ve thought about in the past for the alliance.

I also want to talk about the political situation in Japan. In the same podcast in January, you said that there was a financing issue with the new military plans Japan came out with last December. Kishida chose to finance this with a defense tax, and even in his own party, a lot of people wanted him to finance it with debt instead, and that made it politically controversial. You mentioned that he was even thinking about calling a snap election to try to get a mandate for this. Has anything happened in the intervening period with regard to Kishida’s domestic political standing and his ability to guide these reforms in the future?

The government and the Prime Minister actually started talking about a defense tax even before those three documents came out in December 16, which surprised everybody. It was interesting to me that he put the cart before the horse, so to speak. He was saying that it was going to be partially debt-funded, partially funded by moving revenue from other parts of the government over to the defense sector, and partially funded by a defense tax. The interesting thing about that period was that the blowback to Kishida came from within his own party, and it came from people of the Abe faction. These were the people who are more pro-spending on defense, but they didn’t want the tax. They wanted it to be debt-driven, and they referenced former PM Abe’s preference for debt-based funding.

To your point about where Kishida is now, he’s just reshuffled his cabinet, and the defense and foreign minister portfolios were both changed, which was a surprise. It suggests to me that he’s preparing for an election sooner rather than later. I don’t see any other reason for taking Yoshimasa Hayashi out of the foreign minister's portfolio unless there’s election preparation to be done within the party. So I am wondering whether or not he might be looking at an election this fall rather than next fall.

Another thing to look for is that Kishida doesn’t have to have an election until 2025, so that’s his deadline. But next fall, 2024, is when the LDP will have a leadership election, and I’m wondering whether or not Kishida is going to stand for another term. He’s had a kind of remarkable run given that inside Japan he’s not looked at as a strong leader; outside we see him as far more effective a statesman than expected. Regardless, post-Abe, internal LDP politics may be the determinant factor. It’s not going to be whether the opposition parties are going to have more leeway against the LDP.

Kishida’s support rating went way up after the May G7 meeting in Hiroshima, to over 50%, but due to other things in the interim, he’s back down below the level he was before Hiroshima. So he’s got a very volatile approval; it goes up and it comes down again with the slightest whiff of scandal. So is this a good time to go to the polls with Kishida in the lead? I don’t know. Is there ever going to be a better time? I don’t know. I think it’s going to be hard for him. He’s got a pretty skeptical public, and it’s not just about the defense tax. The defense tax is kind of in the back of people’s minds. There are new things that have come up that bother the Japanese public.

In view of the opposition Kishida faces within the hawkish wing of the LDP, which is upset about how this military improvement would be funded, should Kishida lose his position and be replaced by someone else from the LDP, how likely is it that this military improvement will go forward?

The 10-year defense plan and all the innovations on technology and military security assistance does not yet seem to be causing political friction. I think the defense tax will be an issue for the opposition parties to hit the LDP about, because of course taxpayers don’t like new taxes. But I think inside the party, it was really Abe’s faction and Abe’s supporters surprisingly that came out publicly against a new tax. The LDP defense committee largely got what they wanted in the National Defense Plan, and the Abe faction supported the idea of aiming for 2% of GDP for Japan’s defenses. So I think you’ll get pretty strong support for a continuation.

At the polls, new taxes do badly, so are they going to put the defense tax aside? Perhaps. In the interview that you referenced that I spoke about earlier in the year, I was surprised, because I had heard Kishida relatively recently make a reference that the Japanese people should decide, therefore putting it out in the next election. The Japanese people are nervous about their security environment, but are they nervous enough that they’re going to put 2% of their GDP into it? Are they going to put their money where their mouth is? If the LDP wins an election with that as one of their questions to the electorate, then they’ve got a mandate for it, as painful as it’s going to be. Way back in the 2005 election, Koizumi Junichiro wanted to reform the Japanese financial system and take apart the postal system, and he took it to the voters. Some in his own party opposed him, but he kicked them out and then took it to the election, and he had a resounding victory for the LDP, and he had his mandate for financial reform.

You already mentioned that you see the cabinet reshuffle as a possible election ploy, but do you see it as having any implications for China or the United States?

No. It’s very clear to me this cabinet was less about policy, especially foreign policy, and more about getting the LDP senior folks onside and ready for the next election.

Because your listeners are China experts, I would tell them to watch very closely the Japanese interpretation of the Taiwan election, because that’s the next piece in our larger puzzle about cross-straits and the relationship with Beijing. Japan has just announced for the first time that it’s sending an active government official to Taipei. In the past, they were always retirees, so now it’ll be an active government official who’ll be representing Japan– not officially, but in the liaison office in Taipei. So you see them following the American precedent-breaking in terms of the Taiwan relationship.

Beijing is not playing ball with Tokyo at the moment. For the United States, at least the conversations are beginning, but the Japanese are getting a big no. There’s no Chinese interest in those channels of communication right now.

Donald Trump is very strong in the Republican Party right now. Is the Japanese government thinking about this? Are they concerned, and are they preparing for him to get back in power?

I think it’s fair to say that every US ally is thinking about that, because of the destructive nature of the Trump administration for many of our allies.

Prime Minister Abe managed to create a personal relationship with the former president that navigated some of the hurdles and bumps that some of our other allies couldn’t avoid. Think about the golf games, and Abe sitting in the golf cart trying to persuade Trump to come back to TPP. Abe just kept at it, even when things were very uncomfortable in some settings, references to Pearl Harbor and things like that in state meetings, that kind of thing which you have to have a bit of a thick skin for if you want to continue.

Many of my Japanese colleagues would say that we don’t have a Plan B, we don’t have an alternative to the United States, and so we’re going to make it work no matter who you guys elect. The Japanese government will get to know the candidates. They’re excellent at following our political process and making sure that anybody who is going to be running for president understands the stakes of the alliance.

Before I let you go, can you tell us what you’re working on now and what we can look forward to seeing from you?

I’m in a new phase of book writing. The title is going to be The Politics of Japanese Power, and it’s taking a look at the debate inside Japan, among Japanese interests, over Japan’s role in the world. It’s about foreign policy choice, but particularly about the domestic interests and how their thinking has changed over time.

My colleague Manjari Chatterjee Miller, who’s a South Asia/India expert, also began a project on women’s voices, to elevate the voices of the women of the region. She did a lovely series of essays and interviews with Indian women leaders, and I’m beginning the year with Tokyo governor Yuriko Koike. This is the year of Japan, so we’re going to introduce a number of Japanese women thinkers, and then I think my colleague Scott Snyder is going to follow up with Korea next year.


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