JAPAN MUST BRACE ITSELF FOR NEW TENSION IN ASIA FOLLOWING PELOSI’S TAIWAN VISIT
Despite some difficult problems US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan has created with China, I still welcome her action. Given the circumstances, Pelosi probably had no choice but to go ahead with her visit despite mounting pressure from China.
As of this writing (August 2), Pelosi is already in Taipei, having arrived close to midnight from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. She will be conferring with President Tsai Ing-wen tomorrow before visiting South Korea and Japan. Opinions among US experts and politicians are mixed about her Taiwan visit, but I believe her action will significantly determine the course of America’s Taiwan policy going forward, inevitably influencing Japan’s foreign and security policies as well.
The US will likely abandon its “strategic ambiguity” towards Taiwan—as proposed by our late former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe—and demonstrate its readiness to function as the pillar of Taiwan’s defense against a Chinese attack. Japan for its part will be prompted to make clear its policy of protecting Taiwan along with the US. It is time for Japan, the US, and Taiwan to band together to declare a collective resolve to not allow China to determine the shape of the world as it likes.
Looking at the US-China relationship following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, one can get a good sense of the balance of power between the two nations. Xi Jinping, while backing Russian President Vladimir Putin financially through such measures as increasing the imports of Russian crude oil, has yet to give him military support. During their summit in Beijing in February preceding the Winter Olympics, the two dictators boasted that there were “no ‘forbidden’ areas of cooperation” between their two nations and that their countries’ friendship had “no limits.” But Xi has yet to respond to Putin’s request for military aid. The US government is keenly aware of this distinction.
Why has China yet to assist Russia militarily more than five months into the war? Professor Tadae Takubo, an expert on diplomatic strategy who serves as Deputy Director of the Japan Institute of National Fundamentals (JINF), a privately financed policy and foreign affairs think tank that I head in Tokyo, cites “a very strong American pressure” as the reason. Takubo explains:
“China at present is not strong enough to grapple squarely with the US. The Xi Jinping regime is said to be rock-solid, but it actually has its weaknesses. I don’t think Beijing is in a position to aggravate its relations with Washington.”
Sense of Isolation of Xi Administration
On July 9, on the heels of a G20 ministerial meeting, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi for more than five hours in Bali, Indonesia. Although details of the meeting weren’t disclosed, the US reportedly strongly warned China against aiding Russia militarily. I assume Blinken’s message to Wang was along this line: the US will never overlook any hint of Chinese military assistance to Russia and that, should China ignore the warning, Washington will impose stricter sanctions to further slow the Chinese economy.
Some five weeks earlier, on June 12, Chinese Defense Minister Gen. Wei Fenghe reacted angrily to statements made by U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin in Singapore during the annual Shangri-la Dialogue on Asian security. The previous day, Austin defined Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) as the core of America’s grand strategy for the region, articulating its positive vision for the region.
As regards Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, Austin asserted: “…(this) is what happens … when big powers decide that their imperial appetites matter more than the rights of their peaceful neighbors.” Although Austin did not name names, his criticism was clearly directed at China.
While Austin emphasized that the US is resolutely committed to protecting the freedom and democracy of the world with its enormous power and iron will, Wei vigorously refuted the secretary’s assertions, accusing the US of “smearing” Beijing and claiming that Washington was trying to “hijack” countries in the Asia-Pacific. Wei combatively repeated China’s longstanding position:
“To us, FOIP is an attempt to build an exclusive small group in the name of a supposedly free and open Indo-Pacific…Taiwan is first and foremost China’s…If anyone dares to try to separate Taiwan from China, we will not hesitate to fight. And we will fight to the very end. Foreign forces that try to intervene are bound to fail.”
Compared to Austin, who delivered his address resolutely but calmly, Wei was clearly emotional. But I suppose such a reaction on the part of Wei to criticism of China must reflect the collective mindset of the Chinese communist leadership headed by Xi. Why does the Xi administration always strike one as emotional rather than rational? Does this have anything to do with the obvious sense of isolation from the rest of the world that the Xi administration apparently is feeling?
Judging from how the UN member nations vote, some 90 of them align themselves with G7 nations. About 40 others constantly side with China and Russia, leaving some 60 others uncommitted. China is not necessarily alone on the basis of these numbers, but I suspect it is rather disconcerted by how the world sees it. A majority of the advanced nations, reasonably well equipped with economic and military power, generally are in conflict with China and/or Russia one way or another. Many of the UN members that follow China are poor and forever ‟developing,“ with no small number of them trapped by China’s military and financial power. I suppose China’s sense of international isolation is traceable to its awareness that the Chinese are in fact not truly respected or liked in the international community.
On July 28, President Joe Biden and Xi had a 140-minute phone chat—their first conversation in about four months designed to “responsibly manage our differences and work together where our interests align,” according to a White House statement. As regards Taiwan, Xi was quoted as telling Biden: “Playing with fire will set yourself on fire.” Emulating their leader, who has taken to making threats in the manner of North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, China’s Foreign Ministry and military have also taken a more belligerent tone.
The US Will Defend Taiwan
As soon as news of Pelosi’s possible visit to Taiwan reached Beijing, the Foreign Ministry warned: “If the US side is bent on going its own way, China will take strong measures to resolutely respond.” Meanwhile, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) started military drills in five areas across the East and South China Seas. On July 30, China conducted live-fire exercises in waters near Pingtan Island in Fujian Province opposite Taiwan. Then on August 1, the PLA’s Eastern Theater Command released a 2 1/2 minute video showing its “readiness for action,” with scenes of troops being deployed on the seas and missiles hitting their targets.
While it is difficult to predict how Pelosi’s Taiwan visit will end up, tension between the US and China over Taiwan will continue to rise. The one thing Japan must by all means learn from Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan is to never bow to China’s pressure. The 82-year-old Speaker of the House visited Taiwan, taking advantage of her trip to Asia. But Yasukuni Shrine, where the spirits of Japan’s war-dead are enshrined, is right in the center of Japan. Japan should not remain a country in which its prime ministers cannot decide on their own which institutions they should or should not visit, unable to pay reverence to those who gave their lives for their country. Japan should not yield to China’s threats.
Bearing this firmly in mind, we must clearly be aware of the imminent crisis in Taiwan. As mentioned earlier, the Biden administration will have no choice but to clarify its resolve to defend Taiwan following Pelosi’s visit, abandoning America’s long-established policy of strategic ambiguity and further stepping up generous security assistance.
An attack on Taiwan is an attack on Japan, as the late former Prime Minister Abe kept reminding us. Defending Taiwan, therefore, is synonymous with defending Japan itself. We must keep this firmly in mind as we strive to implement an early revision of our constitution along with an increase in our defense outlay to at least 2% of our GDP. The Wall Street Journal in a recent editorial quoted press reports speculating that Xi could launch an invasion of Taiwan within the next 18 months. Should we fail to address this threat in time, we will not be able to sustain our future as a sovereign democracy.
(Translated from “Renaissance Japan” column no. 1,011 in the combined August 12-19 issue of The Weekly Shincho)