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Book Review: Japan Rearmed: The Politics of Military Power

Posted by Scott Holstad on January 30, 2020

Japan Rearmed: The Politics of Military PowerJapan Rearmed: The Politics of Military Power by Sheila A. Smith
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Before I say anything about this book, I need to confess I know the author (to whatever degree), highly respect her expertise on Japan (she’s the Council on Foreign Relations’ Senior Fellow for Japan), so this commentary and rating possibly may not be as reasonably objective as I try to make most of my ratings/reviews. That said, when she came out with this book recently, I was elated and dived in. It’s taken me a long time to work my way through because I have this horrible habit of reading far too many books simultaneously, which just slows everything down. And I’ve been meaning to contact her and give her some kudos for producing a great work here, but I’ve been too tied up to even keep up with people like I typically have over my life.

That said, I can hardly think of a more timely book. Particularly as it relates to the topic at hand. Millions (okay, maybe fewer, but still quite a lot) have been “China watchers” for years now and while it’s sensible, advisable, necessary, etc., to keep eyes trained on Beijing, and particularly as variables within the South China Sea become more clusterf*cked, more hostile, as the PLAN continues its progression into the India Sea, now being joined by Russia and Iran in a potential new axis of maritime adversaries, and as China has already tangled with the Philippines and Vietnam, and as India strives to become another possible regional hegemony, I think many of us in the west (understandably, perhaps) tend to lose track of some other states of import, most notably our longtime allies, at least one of whom is now feeling completely abandoned by the current US Administration and any defense agreements we’ve had since WWII (Australia), which I think is a travesty considering what a great and faithful ally Australia has been to the US over that time period, joining the US with only a couple of other states in fighting alongside us in the various “conflicts” we’ve found ourselves — unlike the vast majority of other, more “prominent” allies. Australia is so panicked that debate as been ongoing there on what to do regarding China, the Indo-Pacific region, and defense of their own country as they lack any form of serious navy, having built their defense doctrine on dependence on the USN. Which no longer looks like a sure thing, so major leaders are actually calling for the country to withdraw from the NPT and illegally go nuclear for survival’s sake! Which is a sad commentary.

Meanwhile, South Korea is facing its own challenges due to not only China, but their northern neighbors, whose leader seems cleverly insane. Plays a tough game. But the focus here is obviously the one that seems to get forgotten in all of these geopolitical games — Japan.

It’s great to see this major Asian/East Asian state that has been basically boxed into a corner it’s trying to get out of become the focus of some good new research and analysis produced and published just at the right time. Because for those caught up in the SCS BS going on daily, all too many people seem to neglect the games being placed in the ECS (East China Sea). Between China and Japan. Or more accurately, between the PLAAF/PLAN over the Senkaku Islands, or the Diaoyu Islands as the PRC insists on referring to them as, and the JCG and JASDF. And it couldn’t be any more stupid than this, but it is, and yes, it’s merely symbolic, but the fact that one state feels so aggressive about a group of small uninhabited islands that Japan legally owns, per international law and recognition, that it’s willing to take “testing” the much smaller and spreader thinned out JCG and JASDF by sending hundreds or even thousands of Chinese fishing boats into the contested waters or a larger number of aircraft buzzing the islands constantly, itching for an “opportunity” to do who knows what at the very plausible risk of a regional war that could spread once you bring contesting hegemonies into the equation … well, that’s either a sign of supreme confidence (maybe Pillsbury was right, but was too generous in his predictions of when the CCP would show its hand?), supreme stupidity if it actually is willing to risk a potential world war by hedging its bets the US won’t want to enter such a war merely because of decades-old defense commitments and treaties between the US and Japan (which is actually NOT a bad gamble on their part circa early 2020 as I write this), or typical CCP craftiness in pushing all as far as possible to get as much as possible by whatever means necessary — short of all out war. Which is my take on it at the present, but I’m willing to adjust that analysis as events transpire.

One may be a follower of issues, variables, geopolitical tensions, etc., throughout the greater Asian and East Asian regions, and they may be aware to some degree of what potential threat a burgeoning regional hegemony may present, but they may not possess the context Sheila provides in this book, such as how Japan has historically had its political and hence military hands tied when it came to defense spending, military building, etc., due largely to the constitution the US drew up for the country upon its surrender in 1945, and due to a combination of war guilt, the struggle to rebuild a country and economy, and to yes, abide by the constitution they now were governed by which has limited their ability and indeed desire to “go military.” And with China incessantly goading them eternally for the atrocities committed during the last century, the most famous of which was Nanking, those historically cautioning against appearing antagonistic in building up a (smallish) military for defense are now being countered by those who, like our other traditional allies in that area (such as Australia and South Korea), are getting sick and tired of Xi throwing his weight around yet fear if conflict comes, they’ll be on their own — hence the topic of the book titled “Japan Rearmed.” Frankly, there’s much more than simply what I’ve described or alluded to (and I’ve possibly even gone off track, inadvertently — a bad habit), but if I went into more, I’d be writing a book myself (another major element is merely the concept of an offensive militarized Japan with all of the possible regional implications that might entail…)! This is really one of the best books on the topic I’ve seen come along in a very long time. And again, so relevant and timely. I couldn’t urge people around the globe, let alone in the west and US, to read this more strongly than I am now, because I think it’s essential that we understanding the changing dynamics of a newly multi-polar world that’s been shifting to the east for over two decades. There are more variables than one cares to think about, but think about them one must (or should).

I feel like I didn’t do the book or the author sufficient justice in what I’ve written, but my health has sadly deteriorated to the point where I rarely write long, meaningful or in-depth book reviews like I did for many years, and I just don’t have the time and energy I once did. So my hope is the author will forgive any shortcomings in this review and will appreciate the overall spirit of support and enthusiasm I have for this book because I think it’s the best one I’ve seen published in the last several years amongst the Asian “experts” out there, no others being specifically named or mentioned at this time. Personally, there may be one or two experts out there who have very high profiles, and everyone seems to dote on every word they produce, but for my money Sheila Smith can think, research, analyze and write her way around all of them, and if this book isn’t proof, I’m not sure what would be. Most strongly recommended for those who are into international relations, Asia, East Asia, China, Japan, geopolitics, the growth of regional hegemonies, the global shift to the east, the dynamics being played out daily, etc. Literally one of the best of hundreds of books I’ve read over the past couple of years. Get a copy.

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