US marines and Japan Ground Self-Defense Force joint training at Camp Fuji, Shizuoka prefecture, in March 2022. Photo: Japan Self Defense Forces

Former Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe offered well-reasoned advice to the US government in an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times last month.

Specifically, Abe argued that America’s position of “strategic ambiguity” – leaving unclear whether it would or would not defend Taiwan from a Chinese attack – is an idea whose 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 would be bloody and its regional and global effects would 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: “No country fights alongside a nation that is not defending itself.”

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 States (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 Forces (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.

(The American and Japanese navies already had the latter capability, but not the other services.)

Regrettably, even during the Abe years, Tokyo mainly continued its decades-long practice of doing little or nothing more than it felt like doing, and at the speed at which it felt like doing it.

But, finally, things are changing – at least psychologically. 

These days, there’s a lot of talk in Japan about doubling the defense budget, fielding hypersonic weapons and counter-strike capabilities and rallying partners for a free and open Indo-Pacific region. 

Japan has also made some strides on the amphibious capability front. And it is fortifying its southern islands. In addition, American and Japanese forces have recently been training in more serious combat exercises – unlike the too often feel-good but not very practical maneuvers of years past.

What’s most needed

This is good. But what needs to be seen is if Japan has the real political will for systematically developing a properly resourced, equipped, organized, and respected JSDF with the necessary capabilities to deal with the threats it faces. So far, there is little indication that this is the case.

Indeed, even now with China breathing down Japan’s neck, Japanese leaders sometimes give the impression that their capabilities and finances are “maxed out” – and they can only make some marginal defense improvements. 

The excuses? Not enough people, severe fiscal conditions, politically difficult – you name it. 

It might be helpful if some of the right Americans sat down with some of the right Japanese and said:  “Here’s what you have to do, and let’s work it out together.” 

There are Japanese officers (active and retired) who already know what needs doing. But in Japan, too, sometimes a tough and direct message needs to be heard from a friendly outsider. 

So let us hope that former prime minister Abe has a second op-ed in the works.

This one would call for turning mantras into a bigger and much more capable JSDF. One that is also better able to operate with American forces, and Japan’s other newfound friends. 

And it might also call for Japan to end its own “strategic ambiguity” toward Taiwan. And declare its unambiguous intention to pitch in with combat power should Taiwan be attacked. 

Indeed, nothing prevents Japan from going first and making such a declaration. If it leads, there is no telling who might follow. 

Grant Newsham is a retired US marine and a former diplomat and business executive who spent many years in Asia. He is a senior fellow with the Center for Security Policy. This article first appeared on JAPAN Forward and is republished here with kind permission.