Troops of the Japanese Ground Self-Defense Force's Amphibious Rapid Deployment Brigade, Japan's first marine unit since World War II, gather at a ceremony activating the brigade at Camp Ainoura in Sasebo, on the island of Kyushu. Photo: Reuters / Issei Kato
Troops of the Japanese Ground Self-Defense Force's Amphibious Rapid Deployment Brigade, Japan's first marine unit since World War II, gather at a ceremony activating the brigade at Camp Ainoura in Sasebo, on the island of Kyushu. Photo: Agencies

Japan’s State Minister of Defense 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, a Liberal Democratic Party parliamentarian whose title places him directly under Minister Nobuo Kishi, 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.” 

Japan’s State Minister of Defense Yasuhide Nakayama. Photo: AFP/Mandel Ngan

While this is uncharacteristically direct talk for a Japanese official, Nakayama is partly right. Taiwan’s security is very important for both Japan and the US.

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, might not do – for Taiwan.

Biden was vice president for eight years when the watchword for dealing with the People’s Republic of China was “de-escalate.” Even referring to Beijing as an adversary would bring down the White House’s wrath.

The PRC took full advantage of that 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 US-PRC relationship.

Looking at 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 Nakayama knows.

Taiwan is strategic geography sitting in the middle of the first island chain, which effectively hems in PRC military movement into the Pacific. And it is adjacent to the sea lanes through which much of Japan’s energy supply and trade flow.

Take Taiwan, and China can cut those sea lanes whenever it wants.

Map: Resarchgate

A PRC-controlled Taiwan would be a springboard for the People’s Liberation Army naval and air operations into the heart of the central Pacific – and US and allied defenses.

Also, with Japan’s southern defenses in the southwest Ryukyu Islands chain outflanked, Chinese pressure in the East China Sea — and on Japan’s Senkaku Islands – would become intolerable, as it almost is even now. An eventual push by the PLA to take the Ryukyus would be in the offing.

And the reputational harm to the United States’ Indo-Pacific presence would be as great as the operational harm. Let a communist dictatorship enslave 24 million Taiwanese and nobody anywhere on the planet including the Japanese would take the US and its promises seriously.

Other nations in Asia would scramble to cut the best deal possible with the PRC. Japan would operate in Southeast Asia and elsewhere only at Beijing’s sufferance. Japan’s regional influence would 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 doing.

Tokyo recently increased defense spending by a paltry 1.1% – and this after it was clear 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.

The Japanese military misses its recruitment targets by 25% annually because the government won’t spend what’s necessary to make military service an attractive profession.  Japan’s Self Defense Forces can’t do joint operations. And they buy hardware in dribs and drabs 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 interview was too short for him to 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.

Toward this end, Japan will enact it’s own ‘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 Maritime Self Defense Force 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 US 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 accordingly.

The days when Tokyo could rely on the US to take care of Taiwan are over, and Taiwan cannot survive on its own. The American military is overstretched and needs the help Japan can provide.

But won’t Japan’s public oppose military involvement with Taiwan? The denizens of Nagatacho might be surprised. Opinion polls routinely show large majorities with negative opinions of the PRC and its behavior.  

Japanese Special Defense Forces in a file photo. Image: AFP/EPA

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 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 that the Japanese military still needs a lot of work.

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

Grant Newsham, a retired US Marine Corps officer and former US diplomat, currently is a senior research fellow at the Japan Forum for Strategic Studies and the Center for Security Policy.