I returned this past week from a trip to Japan with several colleagues at the Freeman Spogli Institute. The visit was organized by Kyoteru Tsutsui, head of FSI’s Japan Program, and included democracy expert (and American Purpose board member) Larry Diamond, and Dr. Oriana Mastro, an expert on the Chinese military at FSI’s Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center and a reserve Air Force intelligence officer.
Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida met with Joe Biden on January 13, and delighted the White House by announcing his country’s plan to double defense spending from one to two percent of GDP. This decision marks an enormous sea-change in Japanese attitudes that is comparable to Germany’s Zeitenwende last March when Chancellor Olaf Scholz announced a similar increase in German defense spending.
After 1945, both Japan and Germany renounced militarism and gave up part of their sovereignty by putting themselves under the protective wing of the United States. This was formalized by the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty and by German membership in NATO. Both countries also underwent a huge cultural change, as the generation that lived through war and defeat focused its attention on economic competition and turned decidedly pacifist. In the face of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, a new generation now needs to discard that pacifism and accept the reality that military conflict remains a live possibility into the foreseeable future.___STEADY_PAYWALL___
Much has been written about Germany’s hesitations and backtracking on its promises of support for Ukraine. This week we've seen Germany's continued unwillingness to provide Leopard tanks or to allow other NATO countries to do so (although there are signs that the government's perspective may shift in the coming days). Over the coming weeks and months, we will see similar hesitations on the part of Japan, as it faces an expanding China and the threat of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan.
The real possibility of such an invasion was the starting premise of our discussions in Osaka and Tokyo. Oriana Mastro has written extensively in Foreign Affairs and other places about Chinese plans and capabilities for using an amphibious assault to take the island. No one knows for sure whether Xi Jinping will take such an enormous risk, nor whether the American people would support war with China to prevent such a takeover. But it was our assumption that this risk would increase dramatically if the Chinese leader believed the United States and its allies would not act to defend Taiwan.
There are similar uncertainties in Japan’s future behavior. Former Prime Minister Shinzō Abe never succeeded in revising Article 9 of the American-written postwar Japanese constitution, but the document has been continuously re-interpreted to expand Tokyo’s freedom of action. The most recent revision came in 2015, when the Diet voted to permit cooperative action in the face of an “existential” threat to the country. This includes what is called “counterstrike” capability. What either of these terms mean has not been officially defined, and what actions they will permit in practice is far from clear. Clearly, Japan would use force to defend the Senkaku Islands from a Chinese attack since these are regarded as Japanese territory. But would Japan work together with the United States to defend Taiwan?
A lot will clearly depend on the precise scenario. The United States has a large force structure in the eastern Pacific, with a squadron of F-15s (now being replaced by F-22s) currently stationed at Kadena Air Force Base on Okinawa and a Marine regiment nearby—the closest U.S. forward deployment to Taiwan. A Chinese invasion of the island could begin with a pre-emptive strike against Kadena or any U.S. naval forces in the immediate vicinity, an act that would likely kill a significant number of Americans and make U.S. involvement in the conflict much more likely. Since this would also involve an attack on Japanese territory, there didn’t seem to be much hesitation on the part of our interlocutors that Tokyo would permit its territory to be used by the United States in a follow-up retaliatory operation.
Oriana’s view is that the Chinese would be more likely to avoid pre-emption against U.S. forces or attacks on Japanese territory, and simply move quickly to seize Taiwan. The question then would be whether such an invasion would be considered an existential threat to Japan, and the degree to which Japan would support an American response. There are several forms such support could take. From an operational point of view, the most helpful would be the Japanese Self-Defense Forces actively attacking Chinese amphibious ships heading towards Taiwan, something that would be critical in the early stages of an invasion while the United States was still moving its forces into the theater. The minimum amount of cooperation would be for Japan to simply grant the United States permission to use bases like Kadena for air ops. On these questions, there was a great deal of uncertainty on the part of our interlocutors. It is very clear that while there is strong public support in Japan for the overall strengthening of the country’s defense posture, there is much less support for active military involvement in a Taiwan contingency that didn’t involve direct attacks on Japanese soil.
The Japanese military, like its German counterpart, has not enjoyed high social status in the postwar decades. While Tokyo has invested in the latest F-35s, we were told about leaking 40 year-old washing machines in the service academies since there was no money to replace them. It is not clear that Japanese young people have any interest in joining an expanded military, much like their counterparts in other parts of Asia. And while the political prospects for greater cooperation with South Korea are there since the election of conservative Yoon Suk-yeol, there are virtually no ties between the militaries of these two U.S. allies.
Japan’s Zeitenwende, like that of Germany, will therefore be slow and hesitant. The potential for future cooperation is, on the other hand, enormous. For example, the United States is discovering in the course of the Ukraine war that its ability to produce ammunition and other defense goods has hit sharp limits with the withering of its defense industrial base since the end of the Cold War. While South Korea has become a major exporter of weapons, Japan has been politically constrained from doing this up to now. But it has the industrial capacity to produce U.S. weapons under license, and could greatly contribute to the broader defense effort in this manner.
American alliances in Asia and Europe, in other words, are proving to be very valuable after a long period of dormancy.
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