|Narushige Michishita speaks during a recent interview.|
By Hwang Jae-ho
He is a member of the National Security Secretariat Advisory Board of the Government of Japan and a global fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington DC. He has served as senior research fellow at Japan's National Institute for Defense Studies (NIDS), Ministry of Defense, and as assistant counselor at the Cabinet Secretariat for Security and Crisis Management of the Government of Japan.
He acquired his Ph.D. from the School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), Johns Hopkins University. In August 13, he sat with me to discuss the current status and way forward for regional security.
Q. People in South Korea think that the US-Japan relationship is in good shape. Are they right?
US-Japan relations are good but we face two challenges. First, Japanese security specialists think that the ability of the United States to maintain peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific region will decline over time due largely to the rise of China. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, China's defense expenditure has grown by 83 percent in the past decade while that of the United States has declined by 17 percent. The trend is clear: the United States will not be the predominant power in this region forever.
Second, President Trump is highly unpredictable. In May, Prime Minister Abe invited Mr. Trump as a state guest and gave him a big treat. The two leaders were smiling and shaking hands. Then in June, it was reported that Mr. Trump had discussed possible withdrawal from the U.S.-Japan alliance with his confidants. He also burst out in a TV interview and said, "If Japan is attacked, we will fight World War III. But if we're attacked, Japan doesn't have to help us. They can watch it on a Sony television." Mr. Abe is doing his best to maintain an amicable relationship with Mr. Trump, but there is a limit to what he can do.
Q. If the United States is not reliable, what will Japan do to deal with China?
Japan's approach to China is simple: cooperate and compete. Japan has already changed its approach to China's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Although skeptical at first, Japan reversed course and started to cooperate with China on BRI. Last year, President Xi Jinxing and Mr. Abe agreed to embark on "third country cooperation," a coded term for cooperation on BRI projects devised to save Japan's face.
While they cooperate, they also compete. Japan has started to make an asymmetric region-wide response, defying China's hegemonic attempts not only in the East China Sea but also in the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean. For example, Japanese naval vessels have visited ports in Malaysia, Brunei, and Sri Lanka in recent years. These are the ports where China's influence is becoming more visible.
Last year, a Japanese helicopter carrier, two destroyers, and a submarine conducted an anti-submarine warfare exercise in the South China Sea, inside China's controversial "nine-dash line." The message was clear: the South China Sea is open and free, and no country can monopolize it.
Q. North Korea has started launching missiles again. What kind of threat does North Korea pose to Japan and how is Japan responding?
When it comes to North Korea's threat, South Korea, Japan and the United States are in the same boat. If something bad happens on the Korean Peninsula, the United States will intervene on the South Korean side, and Japan will provide operating bases for the U.S. forces and the Japanese armed forces will likely support U.S. combat operations.
North Korea has developed nuclear weapons and medium- to long-range missiles partly to drive a wedge between South Korea on the one hand and the United States and Japan on the other hand. Japan has spent about $18 billion on ballistic missile defense systems to fend off such an attempt.
On the positive side, North Korea might take the Olympic Games in Tokyo as an opportunity to improve relations with Japan, as it did with South Korea using the PyeongChang Winter Olympic Games. Japan will respond positively in order to keep North Korea quiet while Japan hosting the Olympic Games, but substantial improvement will not be possible unless North Korea takes meaningful steps towards denuclearization.
Q. The relationship between South Korea and Japan is very bad. Where are we going?
We talk about "history issues," but they have become highly politicized. Not many politicians on either side can take a risk and argue how important the bilateral relationship is in the face of mounting anti-Japanese sentiment in Korea and anti-Korea sentiment in Japan. Unfortunately, there seems no good way out at this point. We will probably end up hurting each other, start feeling pain, and eventually realize how important Korea is for Japan and Japan is for Korea. Hopefully, we will start mending fences then.
Q. What should we do then?
From the strategic standpoint, it is easy to show how important the bilateral relationship is. International relations textbooks say that nations must balance against rising powers to prevent them from dominating their neighbors. Nations bandwagon with rising powers only if there is no other option. Bandwagoning is a dangerous option with which you sacrifice your sovereignty for security. So, naturally, South Korea, Japan, Australia, Southeast Asian countries, and India must work together to maintain balance here. That's what the textbook says and what Japan is doing today.
Among these countries, South Korea is a critical factor. According to SIPRI, South Korea was the tenth largest spender on defense in 2018 with $43.1 billion, and its defense expenditure had increased by 28 percent in the past 10 years. Japan was in ninth place with $46.6 billion spent on defense in 2018. South Korea has a tremendous strategic weight in the region. I sincerely hope that South Korea will find a good balance between cooperating and competing with China going forward as Japan has been trying to do.