Book review: Intimate Rivals - tensions in the South China Sea

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 06 June, 2015, 11:47pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 06 June, 2015, 11:47pm

China is expanding its claims over the South China Sea, growing as a global economic power and flexing its military muscles. No country feels the impact of these changes more than Japan.

Intimate Rivals examines the effect China's rise has on Japan, and does so using remarkably clear arguments and comprehensive context for an increasingly complex and sensitive situation.

Sheila A. Smith, a senior fellow for Japan studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, an American research organisation, focuses on recent history, from the period of normalisation between the two countries beginning in the 1970s to the present day. She delves into the visits by Japanese politicians to the Yasukuni Shrine, conflicts at the East China Sea boundary, concerns about food security and safety, and strategies of island defence.

China's recent reclamation work on a reef near the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea makes this book all the more timely. The newly built island is now home to a runway large enough to handle military aircraft and aerial surveillance appears to show port facilities that can handle military vessels.

Those are clear threats to Japanese influence in the region and they up the ante as China seeks to extend its zone of influence at sea.

Another factor is Japan's close relationship with the US, which brings another superpower to an already delicate balancing act, and Smith suggests Japan's experiences with China may be repeated with other countries as China grows in international power.

Smith argues that the rise of China does not have to mean the decline of Japan, but she does show that the Sino-Japanese relationship extends far beyond diplomatic negotiations to include a broad array of domestic Japanese social factors. She documents how Japan is being forced to reconsider its political system and national security, which were designed to maintain its position of power in Asia.

However, impeding the Japanese government's effectiveness are its insecurity over its diminishing role in Asia and abroad, and its inability to bring about change at home. Smith interprets domestic situations such as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's move to roll back the pacifist constitution and the debate over whether politicians should visit Yasukuni Shrine, which is as much about honouring Japan's war dead as showing defiance to China.

The book commits considerable space to examining the issue of food trade between the two countries, focusing on the gyôza poisoning case in 2013. The value of Japan's food imports from China has tripled in the past two decades, and Japan's imports of agricultural produce from China has outpaced those from other parts of the world.

"Japan's response to China's rise has not been just a government policy response, nor has it been defined solely in terms of Japan's strategic interests," Smith writes.

"Despite the diplomats' best efforts, a series of unpredictable run-ins with China have altered the way Japanese perceive their largest neighbour. Popular feelings about China are gradually changing how Japan's government negotiates with Beijing."

Intimate Rivals is not a particularly entertaining read - it contains few colourful anecdotes - but it is well written with coherent narrative, producing a strong academic work that's accessible to the lay person.

This book is essential reading for anyone interested in Sino-Japanese relations and their impact on Japan. The fact that it focuses on how the relationship affects Japan, rather than further plumbing of China's policies, is a refreshing change in these days of obsessive China-watching.

The world is preoccupied with what is happening in China and how it impacts the US and Europe. This book instead looks at the nation with the most to lose and to gain: Japan.

Intimate Rivals  by Sheila A. Smith (Columbia University Press)