Japanese State Minister of Defense Yasuhide Nakayama recently said in an interview that Taiwan’s security is a “red line” for both Japan and the US. He encouraged the incoming administration of US president-elect Joe Biden to “stay strong.” Nakayama also asked the Americans to state their intentions:
“So far, I haven’t yet seen a clear policy or an announcement on Taiwan from Joe Biden. I would like to hear it quickly, then we can also prepare our response on Taiwan in accordance.”
This is uncharacteristically direct talk for a Japanese official.
However, Nakayama is partly right. Taiwan’s security is very important for both Japan and the US.
Yet, his comments also sounded like the all-too-familiar Japanese refrain: “You Americans go first and then we will think about what we might do.”
Nakayama does have reason to be afraid of what a Biden administration might do — or better said not do — for Taiwan.
Biden was vice president for eight years when the watchword for dealing with the People’s Republic of China (PRC) was “de-escalate.” Even referring to Beijing as an adversary would bring down the White House’s wrath. The PRC took full advantage of this opportunity — building up its military while taking de facto control of the South China Sea and intimidating US partners.
It often seemed like the administration of then-US president Barack Obama — like most previous US administrations — considered Taiwan an irritant to the larger US-PRC relationship.
Looking at Biden’s incoming “foreign policy” team — most of whom held positions during the Obama era — one is hard-pressed to identify anyone with an established track record of success at handling the PRC.
Taiwan is not just another feature on the map of East Asia — as Nakayama knows.
Taiwan is strategic geography, sitting in the middle of the first island chain that effectively hems in PRC military movement into the Pacific. And it is adjacent to the sea lanes through which much of Japan’s energy supplies and trade flow. Take Taiwan, and China can cut these whenever it wants.
A PRC-controlled Taiwan would be a springboard for the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) naval and air operations into the heart of the central Pacific — and US and allied defenses.
And with Japan’s southern defenses in the southwest island chain (Nansei Shoto, also named the Ryukyu Islands) outflanked, Chinese pressure on the East China Sea and Japan’s Senkaku Islands, known as the Diaoyutai Islands (釣魚台) in Taiwan, would become intolerable — as it almost is even now. An eventual push by the PLA to take the Ryukyus would be in the offing.
The reputational harm to the US’ Indo-Pacific presence would be as great as the “operational” harm.
Let a communist dictatorship enslave 24 million Taiwanese and nobody on the planet — including Japan — would take the US and its promises seriously. Other nations in Asia would scramble to cut the best deal possible with the PRC.
Japan would only operate in Southeast Asia and elsewhere at Beijing’s sufferance. Japan’s regional influence would wane.
So Nakayama’s advice and his request for Washington are not off-base.
However, Japan does not seem to think that it needs to do anything more than it already is.
Tokyo recently increased defense spending by a paltry 1.1 percent — and this after it was clear that Biden was certain to become US president. What does Tokyo need to spend if it is serious? Roughly 10 percent more a year for the next 10 years — and it needed to start at least five years ago.
The Japan Self-Defense Forces (JSDF) miss recruitment targets by 25 percent annually, because it would not spend what is necessary to make it an attractive profession. The JSDF cannot conduct joint operations, and it buys hardware in dribs and drabs, and without any clear sense of the requirements of a coherent defense strategy.
It could be the case that Nakayama has had too short an interview and did not have time to say everything he wanted. If so, here is what he might have usefully added:
Japan will help Taiwan and its military break 40 years of isolation and demonstrate Japan’s support for Taiwan.
Toward this end, Japan will enact its own version of the Taiwan Relations Act modeled on the US version.
The JSDF will exchange liaison officers with Taiwanese armed forces for starters. It will cooperate in the humanitarian assistance and disaster relief field, making use of each nation’s amphibious forces. Tokyo will ask the Americans to join in.
The Taiwanese air force and Japan Air Self-Defense Force (JASDF) will get together on Guam for joint training. The Japanese and Taiwanese navies can train anywhere, and will.
Japan will invite Taiwan to participate in missile-defense activities and North Korean sanctions enforcement operations.
And Tokyo will aim to have JASDF fighters from Okinawa — ideally along with US Air Force aircraft — join the Taiwanese air force on escort missions when Chinese military aircraft fly around Taiwan looking to intimidate the nation.
In closing, now that Japan’s intentions are clear, the Biden administration “can prepare its response on Taiwan in accordance.”
The days when Tokyo could rely on the US to “take care of” Taiwan are over, and Taiwan cannot survive on its own. The US military is overstretched and needs the help Japan can provide.
However, would the Japanese public not oppose military involvement with Taiwan? Nagatacho might be surprised. Opinion polls routinely show large majorities with negative opinions of the PRC and its behavior.
And the Japanese public tends to understand national security better than its politicians. In many quarters it is taken as common sense that Japan should demonstrate its ability to respond to regional issues — regardless of what happens in Washington.
So, if the Japanese government wants Biden to stand up to Beijing and defend Taiwan, Tokyo ought to take the initiative and offer its ideas for Taiwan — and do not forget that the JSDF still needs a lot of work.
If Japan grows a backbone of its own, it is more likely that the Biden administration will too.
Grant Newsham is a retired US Marine Corps officer, a former US diplomat and a senior research fellow at the Japan Forum for Strategic Studies.
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