Senior fellow of CFR Think Tank points out the dangers of populist nationalism

Senior fellow of CFR Think Tank points out the dangers of populist nationalism

In Washington, D.C., Sheila Smith, senior fellow for Japan Studies of the Council on Foreign Relations, asserted that populist nationalism is a dangerous thing.


May 4, 2013 Hideki Matsudo of Ryukyu Shimpo

There has been ongoing tension between Japan and China over the Senkaku Islands, which are administered as part of Okinawa. The Japanese government emphasizes the Japan-U.S. alliance as a diplomatic cornerstone and strives to gain the support of the U.S. government with regard to the Senkaku Islands dispute. At the same time, the Liancourt Rocks (Takeshima/Dokdo) dispute has been negatively affecting relations between Japan and South Korea.
Sheila Smith, senior fellow for Japan Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, a major Washington-based think tank, gave an interview with the Ryukyu Shimpo about the American perspective on what is happening in East Asia.

Interview with Sheila Smith by Hideki Matsudo of Ryukyu Shimpo
February 20, 2013

MATSUDO: These days there is ongoing tension in East Asia over territorial issues around the sovereignty of the islands of Takeshima and the Senkakus between China and Japan, and South Korea and Japan.

SMITH: I think that the role that the island disputes plays in each of those relationships, the Japan/South Korea and then the Japan/China … is very different. So they each have their own stories. But the fact that they happened in 2012 says a lot about the fact that I think the basic geostrategic balance in Northeast Asia is changing and I think Japan has had some setbacks … the triple disasters, economic challenges.
In the Takeshima/Dokdo case, as you know, the South Korean Coast Guard controls it. It’s a story that goes back to the 1960s and Syngman Rhee, and it has never been a real – except for Shimane Prefecture – it’s never been an issue that either side has felt they were going to change. So, Japan hasn’t tried to take away the islands from South Korea, and South Korea, of course, has control over them. So it exists, but it’s never been a serious piece of the relationship, I think, until President Lee Myung Bak went there. I think the motivations behind Lee Myung Bak’s visit last year had nothing to do with China, and so I don’t think it’s South Korea and China and ganging up on Japan. I think it had very much to do with internal South Korean politics. I think there is a growing sense in South Korea today of discomfort with the 1965 Treaty and the terms of the treaty. That story has a lot to do with South Korea democratization, activism, especially on the issue of sexual slavery of Korean women.
I think that on the Senkakus/Diaoyu Islands, Japan has never stationed people on the islands. It has never sent the Coast Guard there. It has not built a heliport, even though the Ishigaki City and in some cases others in the Okinawa prefectural government in the 1970s really wanted to be more forward-leaning in terms of an administrative presence on the island, Japan decided not to do that. That was for the sake of normalization of relations with China. So with the 1978 Peace Treaty, the issue of those islands really became quite important in the final stages of that negotiation. So Japan has restrained itself in some ways in order to maintain a peaceful relationship with China.
Last year, again for domestic political reasons I believe, the Tokyo Governor Ishihara Shintaro, decided to put pressure on the Prime Minister. I’m still not sure what motivated Ishihara, but clearly he’s now back in parliament. He has his own part, so clearly he saw his own political fortunes as being tied up with his position on the islands. So just like Lee Myung Bak, I think there was some kind of political opportunity that Mr. Ishihara was trying to exploit.

Q: How do you think the U.S. Government should comment on the issue? The U.S. government hasn’t taken any position on the sovereignty issue on the Senkakus.

SMITH: As you know, our basic legal position, which is true for everyone, is that we don’t take sides in disputes over sovereignty. But, we do strongly support their resolution by peaceful means.
But specific to the Senkakus, we have a historical role in the administration of those islands. We see them as being under the administrative control of Japan. Secretary Clinton, on January 18th, made it very clear that we do not recognize any unilateral action by any other party, China or otherwise, to change the status quo. We don’t recognize it. So any attempt to coerce or to pressure Japan, we don’t recognize that there is a change in administrative control over the islands. And, our Security Treaty covers any territory under Japanese administration.

Q: Why doesn’t the Security Treaty cover Takeshima/Dokdo?

SMITH: Because it’s not under the administrative control of Japan. It’s under the administrative control of South Korea.

Q: Earlier this month the Japanese Government announced that a Chinese warship targeted a missile at a Japanese destroyer. What do you see as the impact of this?

SMITH: I think that the Chinese ship’s commander was very lucky that your Maritime Self-Defense Force is calm. But, two things are interesting. One is that Beijing did not know that the incident had occurred. So clearly the central government was not aware. The Japanese media reported the incident, but the Beijing government didn’t know about it. So they then instigated an investigation and it took two days for that investigation to be complete. The Ministry of Defense announced that the incident never happened. However, they said that if it did happen, that radar lock, that the targeting lock, would be a dangerous activity. So, they did acknowledge in some way, whether they say the incident happened or not, they say that that practice is unacceptable, and that is heartening, I think. That is a positive that China understands the danger of allowing local commanders to not subscribe to international norms, to do dangerous activities without permission.

Q: Some people say that tension between China and Japan will benefit the U.S. side, because the U.S. can sell weapons to both countries.

SMITH: The United States is not selling weapons to China. I think the United States is not always selling weapons to Japan, frankly. Sometimes we don’t. But, I don’t think there is any benefit to the United States of this confrontation.

Q: The Liberal Democratic Party tried to repudiate the Kono Statement, the apology.

SMITH: When I hear most Japanese argue about the Kono Statement, it is a kind of a Left-Right, progressive-conservative argument. It’s the kind of argument that only makes sense inside Japan. Outside of Japan it makes no sense whatsoever. The Kono Statement was, I think, a very profound statement of Japanese compassion towards the victims, wartime sexual victims. I think it doesn’t satisfy many in South Korea who want to see a Diet statement, but I think it was a compassionate statement, and to take that away, to repudiate it at this stage, makes no sense outside of the country. It really doesn’t.
What happens in wartime is not always found in some archive or library. And I think when you are looking at post-war reconstruction and reconciliation, whether it’s in Japan or whether it’s in former Yugoslavia, or whether it’s in Africa or in Latin America or wherever it is, recovering from the trauma of conflict and war and occupation is a very long process of healing. And, the healing that needs to happen in South Korea is in large part the acknowledgement of what happened to these women.
Today, the South Korean, so-called Comfort Women, to a large part they’re trying to find some kind of peace. They are in their 80s. They are trying to contend with a very painful memory. And so for me, it is not a question of what’s in an archive or how many numbers you can find. It’s really a question of – Does Japanese society today have the compassion to understand the need for that kind of healing by many people in Asia, who were victimized or were part of the Japanese expansion during World War II.
Japan, I think, has a lot to offer in that global conversation and so I hope that that becomes the way in which Japanese leaders see their future, not in terms of denying what happened in the past, but really in terms of building the kinds of protections for vulnerable populations that are obviously needed.

Q: There is a trend in Japan these days by which young people in particular are becoming more right-wing, more nationalistic. They want the sovereignty issue of the Senkakus clarified. How do you view this trend?

SMITH: I think that the most dangerous thing in both countries in fact, is that kind of populist nationalism. I think that you find nationalism in every country. People are proud of their countries, whether it’s sports activities, or whether it’s the history of their countries, or whether it’s any kind of international competition. That’s a healthy thing. But when it becomes a kind of antagonistic nationalism, then I think there is a danger that that will push the country in directions that are not constructive.
(English translation by T&CT, Mark Ealey)
Go to Japanese

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