A fight to defend Taiwan will be far more deadly than Ukraine. So what if Japan takes the lead by ending its own strategic ambiguity first?
Former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe offers well-reasoned advice to the United States government in an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times last month.
Specifically, Abe argues that America’s position of “strategic ambiguity” – leaving unclear whether it will or will not defend Taiwan from a Chinese attack – is an idea that’s shelf life has expired. Washington must declare it will defend Taiwan, in Abe’s opinion.
Abe explains how Russia’s invasion of Ukraine highlights a risk that, if left unaddressed, will encourage the People’s Republic of China to invade Taiwan.
What’s At Stake
The core of it is: Ukraine is an independent country – and everybody knows it. Taiwan? Not so much. Only around a dozen countries recognize the fully self-governing, free, open and democratic nation as a country.
Thus, if China does a “‘Ukraine” on Taiwan, Beijing will argue that it is just settling an internal matter – not invading an independent country – and is therefore not violating international law. And many countries will go along with Beijing’s reasoning – or at least not challenge it.
Sharing the Burden
Abe also points out that American military superiority is not what it once was. And he argues that Washington’s strategic ambiguity is “fostering instability in the Indo-Pacific region by encouraging China to underestimate American resolve.”
In Abe’s words:
The time has come for the US to make clear that it will defend Taiwan against any attempted Chinese invasion.
The former Prime Minister may indeed be correct – and he articulates his case well. And, sometimes a tough and direct message needs to be heard from a friendly outsider.
But a fight to defend Taiwan will be bloody and its regional and global effects will be immense – far more deadly and economically disruptive than the ongoing Ukraine- Russia fight. So it’s also important that Abe is not just talking about fighting for Taiwan “down to the last American.”
Spending in the Right Direction
For months Abe has been publicly declaring that Taiwan’s defense is Japan’s defense, and that Japan needs to take the Chinese threat seriously. In a recent speech he stated that if Japan doesn’t double defense spending “it will be a laughingstock”, and that Japan must have a “strike capability” of its own. He earlier noted that, “No country fights alongside a nation that is not defending itself.”
Prime Minister Abe also deserves much credit for pushing through revised US-Japan defense cooperation guidelines and reinterpreting “collective self-defense.” This allows Japan to play a bigger role in its own defense and be a more useful ally to United Stats (and Quad+) forces – if it wants to.
But during his eight year administration, Abe largely failed at achieving the concrete measures necessary to markedly improve Japan’s defense. What was needed? Adequately increasing defense spending and improving overall Japan Self-Defense Force (JSDF) capabilities to include joint operations by the three Self-Defense Forces (ground, maritime and air) acting together, as well as bilateral JSDF-US operations.