Media  Global Economy  2023.03.16

Addressing the risk of a Taiwan contingency calls for diplomatic efforts rather than counterstrike capabilities

The key to deterring such a contingency is policy cooperation among Japan, the US, Europe, and the rest of Asia aimed at reconciliation toward China

The article was originally posted on JBpress on January 17, 2023


1. The three new security documents have dispelled a sense of taboo surrounding national defense

On January 13, Japan-U.S. summit meeting was held at the White House and both sides agreed to strengthen bilateral defense cooperation in anticipation of a possible Taiwan contingency.

The Japan-US joint statement released immediately after the summit meeting states that the two leaders stress “the importance of maintaining peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait” and “encourage the peaceful resolution of cross-Strait issues.”

To counter China's military build-up in recent years, it is essential to increase Japan's defense capabilities, which are based on the Japan-US Alliance. Its goal must be deterrence.

In fact, the latest plan to reinforce Japan’s defense capabilities is primarily aimed at strengthening deterrence against China.

It should be noted, however, that the Chinese economy is more than four times larger than the Japanese economy in terms of GDP (gross national product) and expected to be five times larger in a few years.

A nation’s military power is generally proportional to its economic power, and Japan has long restrained its defense budget. This is why China has already dwarfed Japan in terms of military power.

Under these circumstances, any counterattack attempt by Japan alone would not be effective.

On top of that, China is just across the water, while the United States, a one-time enemy in the Pacific War, is at the other end of the Pacific.

The whole of geographically small Japan falls within the range of missile attacks from China. Thus, the idea of reinforcing the counterstrike capabilities of Japan alone sounds hollow to me and perhaps many others.

After the three security documents were endorsed by the Cabinet in December 2022, the Japanese public at large are beginning to form an idea of exactly what the Japanese government anticipates in the case of a Taiwan contingency.

They are beginning to understand that US bases and bases of the Japan Self-Defense Force (JSDF) could be the target of missile attacks from China. Now the media often reports on the ingenuous idea that Japan should think of ways to avoid war first before ways to counterattack.

The frequent exposure to such reporting is gradually weakening a sense of taboo that the general public should not express their views about defense issues.

On January 11, the Japan-US Security Consultative Committee (“2+2”) agreed to deploy a composite watercraft company of the US Army at Yokohama North Dock by as early as this spring.

The mayor of the city of Yokohama has expressed regret over this agreement. Citizens of Yokohama have reportedly begun to fear that the planned deployment will increase the risk of the city being targeted by China.

Such a local reaction, which was primarily limited to Okinawa before, is beginning to be seen in other parts of Japan as well.

Before the three security documents were approved, specific war risks in the case of a Taiwan contingency – the nature and extent of possible damage in each part of Japan – should have been clearly recognized by the Japanese public.

What kind of diplomatic and defense efforts would be effective as a deterrent should have been discussed based on such public understanding.

In reality, however, such discussions and media reports have rarely been seen.

This has something to do with the conventional sense of taboo that the general public should not discuss security issues in specific details.

Given this traditional problem, the latest series of media reports on security-related issues are significant in that they can prompt the Japanese public to extricate themselves from a sense of taboo and to freely discuss security issues with a sense of ownership.

At last, an environment has been put in place where the general public can discuss defense issues in specific detail, thus setting the stage for the Japanese to squarely face the risks of war.

2. Simple questions about Japan-US defense cooperation

Although defense issues are outside my specialty, I wonder why a key defense policy issue is not openly discussed.

It is the issue of what the most effective approach is if Japan is to increase its defense capabilities within the limited defense budget based on Japan-US defense cooperation.

Given the unambiguous gap in military power between Japan and China, Japan alone could not possibly counter China’s military power, which is underpinned by its enormous economic power. What Japan should count on, then, is the offensive capabilities of the US military.

The US enjoys dominant military power, for which Japan’s military power is no match even if Japan doubled its defense budget. The effective approach is to strengthen defense cooperation arrangements that Japan and the US jointly can make good use of.

For that to happen, the integration of the JSDF and US forces should be promoted.

Specific steps to that end may include making English the working language of the JSDF, reorganizing the JSDF to better work with US forces, and promoting the integration of cyber and space defense systems of the two countries.

It seems that the rational approach for Japan is to consider what needs to be deployed to reinforce its counterstrike capabilities based on such steps.

Yet I have never seen such discussions in general media reports in Japan.

If discussions on specific steps needed to address defense issues were freed from taboos, one could expect such simple questions to be raised freely and that Japan’s defense capabilities would be improved in ways that are acceptable to many of the Japanese public.

For more than 76 years, Japan has stuck to its war-renouncing peace constitution since its promulgation in 1946. This historical commitment, the kind of which is unrivaled in the world, is widely appreciated.

Many Japanese people consider it a source of national pride.

Still, Japan has yet to start discussions on how to communicate such commitment of its people to the world.

3. Diplomatic efforts to deter a Taiwan contingency

Discussions about counterstrike capabilities and Japan-US defense cooperation are primarily based on worst-case scenarios of a Taiwan contingency.

It is more important, however, to consider how to prevent worst-case scenarios from happening in parallel with such discussions.

The most important goal of the Japan-US Alliance is to deter war, not fight together.

Clearly, defense cooperation arrangements in which Japan is put under the nuclear umbrella of the US military and many US bases are deployed across Japan have a measure of effect as a deterrent.

What should come before defense cooperation, however, is diplomatic cooperation aimed at forestalling war.

A Taiwan contingency could be triggered by friction between the US and China. Easing such friction should be the top priority for near-term deterrence.

This will result in “maintaining peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait” as called for in the latest Japan-US joint statement.

The risk of a Taiwan contingency will increase sharply if a Republican Party candidate wins in the 2024 presidential election and the new president supports the independence of Taiwan. Not allowing this to happen is the top priority for Japan.

The commitment to increase defense cooperation between Japan the US alone does not suffice to that end.

Diplomatic cooperation in refraining from any action that might increase the risk of a Taiwan contingency should be higher on the joint agenda of the two countries.

Specifically, the scope of such Japan-US cooperation should include dissuading influential representatives of the US Congress and government – not least the House of Representatives speaker – from visiting Taiwan, as well as restraining military cooperation with Taiwan.

Many experts in the West note that such provocative actions by the US in relation to China have a high risk of triggering a Taiwan contingency.

The joint statement issued after the latest Japan-US summit meeting fails to mention such diplomatic cooperation. It is not mentioned either in the webpage of Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs on the overview of the Japan-US Security Consultative Committee (“2+2”), which was held earlier.

This raises concerns that discussions will be dominantly based on the premise that a Taiwan contingency is sure to occur.

4. A China policy that reduces the risk of a Taiwan contingency

The significance of Japan and the US taking a conciliatory policy approach toward China especially in terms of economic exchanges, in parallel with diplomatic cooperation between the two countries, is considerable.

China welcomes such a conciliatory policy as it also wants to prevent a Taiwan contingency, i.e., a war between the US and China.

Such a policy is explained below.

Governments in the world now share the common goal of implementing policy cooperation aimed at recovering from the economic recession caused by the pandemic.

Economic activity always builds on a win-win relationship; it is not that economic policy cooperation will benefit China only. Japan, the US, and China can gain from mutual cooperation.

If the movement of people between Japan and China returns to pre-pandemic levels, Japan will benefit from inbound tourism, and Chinese people will appreciate the policy that allows for the free movement of people across borders.

This is especially true of the lifting of bans on trips to Japan, which are highly popular among the Chinese.

Easing trade and technology frictions between the US and China and invigorating economic exchanges between the two countries will increase the effect of bolstering both economies. Lowering tariffs on imports from China will be effective in stabilizing inflation in the US.

On November 30, 2022, US Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo said the US would continue to welcome Chinese students and immigrants.

Highly qualified Chinese students and researchers will continue to play a powerful role in supporting research and development at leading universities and businesses in the US.

China has applied for membership in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). If China focuses on doing what needs to be done to be admitted to the TPP – improving the domestic investment environment, treating foreign and domestic firms equally, and protecting intellectual property rights, among other steps, foreign corporations will increase their investment in China.

The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), which was launched in 2022, is now facilitating economic exchanges among Japan, China, and the member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). The expansion of horizontal specialization in Asia based on RCEP can constitute an engine for economic revitalization.

Meanwhile, European countries, especially Germany and France, are working to strengthen economic ties with China. It is important for Japan to involve Germany, France, and other EU countries in promoting closer and more dynamic trade and investment relations among Japan, the US, European countries, China, and other Asian countries.

Building on the arrangements described above, Japan should promote reconciliation between China and Japan, the US, and European and other Asian countries in a wide range of sectors to deter a Taiwan contingency. It should also take the lead in supporting post-pandemic economic recovery by paving the way for facilitating to enjoy benefits from win-win economic relationships.

I hope that Japan will exercise leadership in that direction at the G7 summit meeting it hosts in May.