Media  Foreign Affairs and National Security  2021.04.28

Will the U.S. end its ambiguity over Taiwan?

the japan times on March 29, 2021

National Security The U.S.A.

Here they go again. Kyodo and Jiji ran another misleading article. They reported that in his Senate confirmation hearing on March 23, Adm. John C. Aquilino, a nominee for commander of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command (INDOPACOM), requested that Japan improve its military capability to cope with threats from China and North Korea.

The next day, Japanese media naturally asked Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato whether the U.S. would make the request to Japan in the upcoming Japan-U.S. summit meeting. “I recognize it is important for Japan to enhance its defense capability to further strengthen the alliance with the United States,” Kato replied.

I was perplexed because I could not find any request to Japan after watching the whole Senate hearing. Instead, what Aquilino said was: “I am extremely happy with the interoperability, coordination and relationship we have with the Japanese. I think it’s a strong cornerstone in executing deterrence in the region.”

To be precise, in a separate document titled “Advance Policy Questions” previously submitted to the committee but not used in the hearing, Aquilino wrote that Japan “must continue to invest in improvements to interoperable air and missile defense, air dominance, maritime security, and ISR (intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) capabilities.”

Japan’s ability to defend itself is vital,” he also wrote in the document. “Cooperation in this critical capability will inevitably strengthen our deterrence. If confirmed, I intend to work with my Japanese counterparts to improve discrimination capabilities, sensors for detection, and the ability to defend against hypersonic weapons.”

Aquilino’s answers are hardly a request to Japan. With that said, however, my intention is not to discredit the Japanese media. In fact, it’s easy to point out similar simplified, if not twisted or distorted, reports worldwide. Below are examples of such reporting in South Korea and India.

In Seoul, Yonhap News, a key South Korean news agency, reported from Washington that “A strong and robust U.S. military presence in and around the Korean Peninsula is needed to help support the efforts to denuclearize North Korea, the nominee for commander of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command said Tuesday.”

The report, which focused on the security in the Korean Peninsula, continued by quoting Aquilino. “‘I do not believe sanctions alone will lead to the denuclearization of North Korea,’ the four-star admiral said in a statement to the Senate Armed Services Committee prior to his confirmation hearing.”

In New Delhi, the Hindustan Times quoted Aquilino as saying, “The mistrust between China and India is at an all-time high. In addition to the rupture of bilateral relations as a result of the LAC (Line of Actual Control) skirmish, India is deeply suspicious of Chinese activities as part of the ‘One Belt, One Road’ initiative.”

These reports are fine. They are not fake news. Having reviewed the video of the entire hearing, however, my view is that those points are not necessarily the most important news items out of the two-hour confirmation hearing.

The attention of other news media in Aquilino’s hearing was paid to Taiwan. The Hill, for example, carried an article titled, “Top admiral: Possibility China tries to invade Taiwan ‘closer to us than most think.’”

What the admiral really stated in the hearing is actually more concerning. He said, “The most dangerous concern is that of a military force against Taiwan. To combat that, the forward posture west of the international dateline is … forces positioned to be able to respond quickly, and not just our forces.”

When asked about how soon China could execute a military takeover of Taiwan, he said: “I know (outgoing commander) Adm. (Philip) Davidson said six years. There are spans from today to 2045. My opinion is this problem is much closer to us than most think. And we have to take this on, put those deterrence capabilities in place, in the near term and with urgency.”

What does it mean to Tokyo if what Aquilino said is more realistic than hypothetical? His argument will eventually lead to two fundamental questions: The first is how we deter China over Taiwan and the second is what Japan should do once deterrence fails.

Last September, Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote in Foreign Affairs that American support for Taiwan must be “unambiguous.” Similarly, Robert Gates, former secretary of defense, recently said “We ought to think seriously about whether it is time to abandon our long-time strategy of strategic ambiguity toward Taiwan.”

Recently, however, former national security adviser H.R. McMaster told the Senate Armed Services Committee that he saw no reason for the new Biden administration to change the U.S. policy of “strategic ambiguity” concerning Taiwan.

Naturally, in his hearing, Aquilino was asked about the benefits and risks of such a policy change. His answer was ominously ambiguous. He said: “The United States maintains its longstanding commitments as outlined in the Three Communiques, the Taiwan Relations Act and the Six Assurances. We will continue to assist Taiwan in maintaining a sufficient self-defense capability.”

After these official lines, he continued without denying a possible policy change, “If confirmed, I would be open to conversations with the Secretary of Defense to understand the risks and rewards of a potential policy change to ensure our efforts are supporting Taiwan and contributing to our ultimate objective to maintain peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait and within the region.”

In my view, this is arguably the most important part of the confirmation hearing and the debate will continue until the Biden administration finishes its policy review vis-a-vis China. That will also be when Tokyo should think seriously about Japan’s options to deal with a Taiwan contingency, which could come sooner rather than later.