Last week I received a call from a reporter with the terrible news that Japan was being attacked by China.
The reporter was from the BBC, where I worked. She explained that five ballistic missiles hit Japan’s exclusive economic zone. Fortunately, she added, they all landed at sea. We agreed that although the situation was alarming, it did not appear to mark the imminent outbreak of war.
The journalist then invited me to participate in live broadcasts to cover the crisis. She was right to point out the seriousness of the threat. It is frightening to think what might have happened if a Chinese missile hit a Japanese Coast Guard vessel, or even hit an island.
Serious security threat
Fortunately, this was not really an “attack” by the People’s Republic of China, although it was a stark illustration of the danger posed by the PRC, following a visit to Taiwan by US politician Nancy Pelosi.
Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi looked solemn as he stood before reporters in Tokyo, stressing the incident was “a serious issue that affects our national security and the safety of our citizens”.
The missiles were fired during China’s largest-ever PLA military drill around Taiwan, which is near Japan’s western islands. The Chinese Air Force conducted sorties involving around 100 aircraft. Drones, ships and submarines were also involved.
call for peace
The timing was bad for Prime Minister Fumio Kishida. A few days earlier, he had delivered a speech at the United Nations in New York, in favor of a treaty on the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons. He chose to portray himself as the leader of a peace-loving nation determined to defuse the risk of war.
Ms Pelosi traveled to Tokyo on August 5, following her trip to Taiwan and a stopover in Seoul. Mr. Kishida – at this point back from America – agreed to host him for breakfast.
At a press event that followed, they shook hands with the cameras and there were positive words about the importance of a “free and open Indo-Pacific”.
Ms Pelosi echoed President Joe Biden in saying that “the world faces a choice between democracy and autocracy,” adding that “America’s resolve to preserve democracy in Taiwan and around the world remains at stake. any ordeal”.
For Mr. Kishida, the rhetoric was familiar. After all, he leads the Liberal Democratic Party of Japan, which has much in common with American and Taiwanese Democrats.
That meant he had no choice but to meet Mrs. Pelosi and wish her well. (His approach contrasts with that of South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol, who avoided a meeting with Ms Pelosi in Seoul by insisting he was “on vacation.”)
When BBC TV and radio presenters asked me to explain the policy, I said that Mr Yoon was trying not to upset Xi Jinping and aimed to “sit on the fence” by regarding Taiwan. I also said that I perceived a discrepancy between Mr. Kishida’s public actions and his true feelings.
Such discrepancies are common in Japan, where people expect their leaders to present a polite front in public – known as tatemae 建前 or “facade” – while hiding their true emotions, known as honest 本音, or “true sound”.
In my view, Mr. Kishida’s true view of Ms. Pelosi’s trip to Taiwan was similar to that of Joe Biden: disapproval. In July, when asked about Ms Pelosi’s trip, President Biden said: “The military thinks it’s not a good idea right now.” In other words: “She shouldn’t go but there will be all sorts of problems if I try to ban her.”
If Mr Biden could have held off Ms Pelosi then I suspect he would have gone down that road and the same goes for Mr Kishida, although it is not his job to thwart foreigners’ travel plans to d ‘other countries.
On the other hand, as I explained on air, it could have been seen as a surrender to China if Ms Pelosi had canceled her trip to Taiwan following threats. The United States and Japan did not want to give China an excuse to feel emboldened in its bullying of Taiwan.
China regards the island as a breakaway province, to be reunited with the homeland, peacefully if possible but by force if necessary. Neither Japan nor the United States maintains official diplomatic relations with Taiwan.
Kishi in trouble
For Defense Minister Kishi, the timing of the crisis was dire. He clings to his job after it emerges he has financial ties to the Unification Church of Korea – commonly known as the Moonies.
A disgruntled relative of a Moonies member is under arrest for killing former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Mr. Kishi is Mr. Abe’s brother. Over the weekend, some sections of the Japanese media dug up the dirt on Mr Kishi, suggesting his days in power are numbered.
From a security point of view, it’s a shame. Japan and America have just witnessed China’s behavior when it gets angry.
Japan rightly protested through diplomatic channels and signed a G7 statement condemning the military exercises.
Fireworks on TV
On one level, China’s fireworks were a propaganda stunt and they caught the attention of world television. On CGTN, the missile launches were accompanied by dramatic music, although I noticed that the BBC’s picture editors cut out this soundtrack in their bulletins.
Another audience watched the display intently – spies.
They can now use recent and very clear images from satellites to study the functioning of the People’s Liberation Army in combat mode.
Tellingly, during his speech at the UN, Mr. Kishida urged countries to “enhance transparency about their nuclear capabilities”. Perhaps China has made some of its own nuclear ambitions more transparent through its exercises around Taiwan.
Under normal circumstances, now would be the perfect time for the generals in Tokyo to brief the defense minister on what they’ve discovered and help him assess the risks to Japan. Still, if Mr. Kishi is about to be fired, another politician will need to be made aware of the matter, having passed the highest level of security clearance.
Prime Minister Kishida remained in the public eye on Saturday August 6 as he returned to his hometown of Hiroshima to mark the anniversary of the atomic bombing 77 years ago.
He brought with him UN Secretary General António Guterres, who said: “Nuclear weapons are nonsense. They guarantee no security, only death and destruction.
Mr. Guterres added: “Crises with serious nuclear undertones are spreading rapidly” in the Middle East and on the Korean peninsula. “We are one mistake, one misunderstanding, one miscalculation away from Armageddon.”
In his speech at the Hiroshima Memorial Park, Mr Kishida said: “Japan will follow its path to a world without nuclear weapons, however narrow, steep or difficult it may be.”
Mr. Kishida will host a G7 meeting in Hiroshima in May 2023. He intends to keep his non-nuclear pledge in front of the peace monument and encourage his fellow leaders “to come together to protect peace and an international order based on universal values of freedom “. and democracy.
That’s exactly the kind of phrase Nancy Pelosi used on her trip to Asia. However, when the summit comes next year, she will be safe at home in California or Washington. It will then be Mr Biden’s turn to deliver a speech outside the Atomic Dome in Hiroshima, while Japan remains – literally – in the crosshairs.
Author: Duncan Bartlett
Duncan Bartlett regularly contributes to JAPAN Before. You can read his more articles and essays here.