Japan – U.S. – Taiwan: Tokyo Should Take The Initiative


Japan’s Vice Defense Minister Yasuhide Nakayama said recently in an interview that Taiwan’s security is a ‘red line’ for both Japan and the United States.  He encouraged the incoming Biden administration 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.” 

Vice Defense Minister Nakayama, Japan

This is uncharacteristically direct talk for a Japanese official.

But the Vice Defense Minister is partly right.  Taiwan’s security is very important for both Japan and the U.S.  However, 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.

Joseph Biden was Vice President for eight years when the watchword for dealing with the People’s Republic of China (PRC) was deescalate.  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 American partners. 

It often seemed like the Obama team (like most previous administrations) considered Taiwan an irritant to the larger U.S.-PRC relationship.

Looking at Mr. 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. 

And Taiwan is not just another feature on the map of East Asia – as Vice Defense Minister 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 will be a springboard for the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) naval and air operations into the heart of the central Pacific – and U.S. and allied defenses.

And with Japan’s southern defenses in the southwest island chain (Nansei Shoto) outflanked, Chinese pressure in the East China Sea—and Japan’s Senkaku Islands – will become intolerable (as it almost is even now).   An eventual push by the PLA to take the Ryukyus will be in the offing.

And the reputational harm to the United States’ Indo-Pacific presence will be as great as the ‘operational’ harm.   Let a communist dictatorship enslave 24 million Taiwanese and nobody anywhere on the planet (including Japan) will take the U.S. and its promises seriously.

Other nations in Asia will scramble to cut the best deal possible with the PRC. 

Japan will only operate in Southeast Asia and elsewhere at Beijing’s sufferance.   Japan’s regional influence will wane. 

So Nakayama’s advice and his request for Washington aren’t off base.

But Japan doesn’t seem to think 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 Mr. Biden was certain to become president.  What does Tokyo need to spend if it is serious?  Roughly 10% more a year for the next ten years.  And it needed to start at least five years ago.

Japan’s Self Defense Force misses recruitment targets by 25% annually because it won’t spend what’s necessary to make it an attractive profession.  The JSDF can’t do 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 of course be the case that Vice Defense Minister Nakayama’s had too short an interview and didn’t have time to say everything he wanted.  If so, here’s 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.
  • Towards this end, Japan will enact it’s own version of the ‘Taiwan Relations Act’ – modeled on the American version.
  • The JSDF will exchange liaison officers with the Taiwan Armed Forces for starters.  The JSDF will cooperate in the humanitarian assistance/disaster relief field, making use of each nation’s amphibious forces.  Tokyo will ask the Americans to join in.
  • And the Taiwan Air Force and Japan Air Self-Defense Force (JASDF) will get together on Guam for joint training.  The JMSDF and Taiwan Navy 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 U.S. Air Force aircraft) join the Taiwan Air Force on escort missions when the Chinese PLA Air Force flies around Taiwan looking to intimidate.
  • 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 United States to take care of” Taiwan are over, and Taiwan cannot survive on its own.  The United States military is overstretched and needs the help Japan can provide. 

But won’t Japan’s public 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 Japan’s public tends to understand national security better than its politicians.  In many quarters it is taken as common sense that Japan should demonstrate its own ability to respond to regional issues – regardless of what happens in Washington.

So if the Japanese government wants Mr. Biden to stand up to Beijing and defend Taiwan, Tokyo ought to take the initiative and offer its own ideas for Taiwan.  And don’t forget the JSDF still needs a lot of work.

If Japan grows a backbone of its own, it’s more likely a Biden administration will too.