Or, How U.S. “Alliance Managers” & Joe Let Japan Off The Hook
Amid the barrage of analyses of the April 16th summit meeting between President Biden and Japanese Prime Minster Yoshihide Suga, an article in Japan’s Asia Nikkei stood out – and offered a telling, if not amusing, look into the Japanese view of things.
Here’s how Asia Nikkei says it went: The Biden administration’s Asia Czar, Kurt Campbell, made the rounds in Tokyo before Prime Minister Suga’s trip to Washington. Campbell reportedly asked the Japanese to enact their own version of America’s Taiwan Relations Act (TRA). This act – which is in fact a law – requires America to provide Taiwan with the necessary resources to defend itself. And it raises the possibility that the U.S. just might fight to protect Taiwan.
The TRA was drafted shortly after President Jimmy Carter’s recognition of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) (and ‘de-recognition’) of the Republic of China (ROC)) – Taiwan – in 1978. It intended to handcuff President Carter owing to fears on Capitol Hill that Carter would give the Chinese a ‘green light’ to seize Taiwan. Congress was a different place in those days. It was long before Chinese Communist Party (CCP) money spread to just about every corner of D.C. – either directly or via U.S. corporate interests.
A Japanese TRA would be a big deal as the most important free country in Asia firmly laid out its support for Taiwan (to include military support) and obligated Japanese governments to act. Beijing would be furious.
If Campbell could have pulled it off, Team Biden would have had something serious to boast about.
According to the Asia Nikkei article, the Japanese expressed ‘reluctance’ (a Japanese way of saying ‘hell no’) to Campbell. But there was still fear that Biden might directly ask Suga to move on a Japanese Taiwan Relations Act. Brushing off Kurt Campbell is one thing, telling the U.S. president ‘no’ – to his face and in the Oval Office – is another.
The article claims that Suga attempted to ‘alter (the) narrative.’ According to the story, it was Suga who raised the issue of China with Biden – to include offering that “Japan needs to bolster its defensive capabilities.” And laying it on thicker, the article says Suga declared: “We need to engage in frank dialogue with China and tell them what we need to tell them.”
Ultimately, Biden did not push Suga on the Japan Taiwan Relations Act.
According to the Asia Nikkei, a Japanese foreign ministry official speculated: “Perhaps the U.S. side was satisfied when they heard the prime minister speak sternly about China.”
While bypassing the TRA issue, the Prime Minister and President’s joint statement did express their mutual concern over the situation in the Taiwan Strait. This was the first mention of Taiwan in such a joint statement in 52 years.
Suga reportedly told his aides afterwards: “I think things went well.”
And well he might, having just ‘rolled’ the Americans. Once again Japan wriggled out of a tight spot — and the Americans once again backed down when they needed to keep the pressure on Japan. Watch this trick performed for a few decades and one knows what’s coming.
But isn’t it significant that Japan agreed to mention Taiwan in the joint leaders’ statement?
Maybe to American ‘alliance managers’ who consider a smooth meeting and a 6,000 word joint statement the measure of success.
But Japan didn’t really promise to do anything specific on Taiwan or on defense.
And unfortunately most American ‘alliance managers’ aren’t the types to translate vague statements from the Japanese into something concrete. That’s not surprising. It’s not as if being an ‘alliance manager’ requires one to actually produce tangible things – say, for example, Tokyo creating a Japan Self-Defense Force (JSDF) that can and will fight (and alongside the Americans).
If the current struggle with China is to be decided by who issues the best ‘statements of concern’ or drafts the cleverest essays in Foreign Affairs magazine, the Americans will win by a mile.
But doing the things necessary to frighten off China or to sink them if it comes to that? Fuhgeddaboudit (in pidgin Brooklynese). ‘Forget about it’ in standard English.
And one of those things is to have Japan get serious about defending itself – and that includes saying whose side it’s on when it comes to Taiwan – and then taking necessary steps to show it means it.
The saying: “Taiwan’s defense is Japan’s defense” is not an exaggeration.
Let Taiwan come under PRC control and Tokyo will find out quickly how vulnerable it really is – as Japan’s shipping routes (and energy shipments) through the South China Sea are cut. And Japan’s southern Ryukyu Islands are outflanked, and Chinese ships and aircraft start operating on Japan’s eastern approaches. In other words: Japan is nearly surrounded.
But won’t the Americans step in and take care of things? Don’t bet on it. The U.S. can’t handle it alone anymore. And if it can’t keep Taiwan free, the PRC won’t think the Americans will do any better protecting other countries in the region. And don’t think other nations won’t have figured that out too.
At that point, Prime Minister Suga sliding through the April 16th summit meeting with President Biden without being asked to do anything much (or without having to eat the hamburger set out for him) won’t seem like such an achievement to either side.
Indeed, when Yoshi and Joe (first names always show the depth of the alliance, don’t you know) stood in front of the press and stated their mutual concern over China and Taiwan, the only thing missing was Suga saying: “Joe and I agree that China is a problem and we worry about Taiwan. So I (Yoshi) am going to put my best man on it. That’s Joe. He will take care of things.”
And ‘Joe’ will have offered up thousands of unnamed Lance Corporals and Sailors to die on Japan’s behalf should China get rough with Taiwan. No matter that Japan’s military misses recruitment targets by 25% a year. The Americans will make up the difference.
Of course, when the “butcher’s bill” comes due some day in a war that could have been avoided if everyone hadn’t been so diplomatically clever, the alliance managers’ names (or their childrens’) won’t be on it. They never are.
According to an Asia Nikkei Online article, an anonymous Japanese Foreign Ministry official involved in the Suga visit noted: “Professionals in diplomacy have returned to the White House and State Department with the Biden administration.”
I should say so. One always likes the parent who doesn’t make you eat your vegetables – and lets you load up on dessert instead.
One can’t really blame the Japanese. It’s the US ‘alliance managers’ who have been letting them get away with this for quite a few years now.
And Beijing must hope they continue.