Former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe offered sound advice to the US government in an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times last month.
Specifically, Abe argued that America’s position of “strategic ambiguity” — unclear whether or not it would defend Taiwan from Chinese attack — is an idea whose lifespan has expired. Washington must declare that it will defend Taiwan, according to Abe.
Abe explains how Russia’s invasion of Ukraine highlights a risk that, if left unaddressed, will encourage the People’s Republic of China to invade Taiwan.
What’s at stake
The bottom line is this: Ukraine is an independent country – and everyone knows that. Taiwan? Not really. Only a dozen countries recognize the fully self-governing, free, open and democratic nation as a country.
So, if China makes a Ukraine out of Taiwan, Beijing will argue that it is only settling an internal matter – not invading an independent country – and therefore not violating international law. And many countries will follow Beijing’s reasoning – or at least not challenge it.
share the burden
Abe also points out that American military superiority is no longer what it used to be. And he argues that Washington’s strategic ambiguity “fosters instability in the Indo-Pacific region by encouraging China to underestimate American resolve.”
In Abe’s words, “Now is the time for the United States to make it clear that it will defend Taiwan against any attempted Chinese invasion.”
The former Prime Minister may be right – and he articulates his case well. And sometimes a harsh and direct message needs to be heard from a friendly stranger.
But a fight to defend Taiwan would be bloody, and its regional and global effects would be immense – far more deadly and economically disruptive than the ongoing fight between Ukraine and Russia. So it’s also important that Abe doesn’t just talk about fighting for Taiwan “to the last American.”
Spend the right way
For months, Abe has publicly stated that Taiwan’s defense is Japan’s defense and that Japan must take the Chinese threat seriously. In a recent speech, he said that if Japan did not double its defense spending “it would be a laughing stock”, and that Japan needed to have its own “strike capability”.
He noted earlier: “No country fights alongside a nation that does not defend itself.”
Abe also deserves a lot of credit for pushing through revised guidelines on U.S.-Japan defense cooperation and reinterpreting “collective self-defense.” This allows Japan to play a bigger role in its own defense and be a more useful ally to US (and Quad+) forces – if it chooses.
But in his eight years of administration, Abe has largely failed to take the concrete steps needed to significantly improve Japan’s defense. What was needed? Adequately increase defense spending and improve the overall capabilities of the Japan Self-Defense Forces (JSDF) to include joint operations of the three self-defense forces (land, sea and air) acting together, as well as bilateral JSDF- United States.
(The U.S. and Japanese navies already had the latter capability, but the other services did not.)
Unfortunately, even during the Abe years, Tokyo mostly continued her decades-long practice of doing little or nothing more than she felt like doing, and at the rate she felt like doing it.
But, finally, things are changing – at least psychologically.
There’s a lot of talk in Japan these days about doubling the defense budget, deploying hypersonic weapons and counterattack capabilities, and rallying partners for a free and open Indo-Pacific region.
Japan has also made some progress on the amphibious capabilities front. And he fortifies his southern islands. Additionally, US and Japanese forces have recently been practicing more serious combat drills – unlike the all too often heartwarming but impractical maneuvers of years past.
What is needed most
Its good. But what needs to be seen is whether Japan has the real political will to systematically develop a properly resourced, equipped, organized and respected JSDF with the capabilities to deal with the threats it faces. So far, there is no indication that this is the case.
Indeed, even now that China is blowing on Japan, Japanese leaders sometimes give the impression that their capabilities and finances are “maxed out” – and that they can only make marginal defense improvements.
Excuses ? Not enough people, harsh budgetary conditions, politically difficult – you name it.
It might help if some of the good Americans sat down with some of the good Japanese and said, “This is what you have to do, and let’s work it out together.”
There are Japanese officers (active and retired) who already know what to do. But in Japan too, sometimes you have to hear a harsh and direct message from a friendly stranger.
So let’s hope former Prime Minister Abe has a second op-ed in the works.
This one would call for transforming the mantras into a bigger and much better performing JSDF. One that is also better able to operate with US forces and Japan’s other new friends.
And it could also call on Japan to end its own “strategic ambiguity” towards Taiwan. And state its unambiguous intention to intervene with combat power if Taiwan is attacked.
Indeed, nothing prevents Japan from acting first and making such a statement. If it leads, there’s no telling who might follow.
Grant Newsham is a retired American sailor and former diplomat and business executive who spent many years in Asia. He is a senior fellow at the Center for Security Policy. This article first appeared on JAPAN Forward and is republished here with kind permission.