More than a year has passed since the war in Ukraine broke out, with more and more voices arguing that “Taiwan is next.”
President Joe Biden has repeatedly said that the United States would defend Taiwan in the event of a Chinese attack. If Biden’s word is taken at face value, Japan will have to make a critical decision in case conflict actually breaks out. Japan’s position would strongly influence the outcome of such a war, especially regarding whether or not the United States can use bases in Japan.
It is naïve, however, to expect Japan to automatically fight China if the United States intervened militarily.
Two Choices for Japan
Despite hawkish public comments by some of its politicians and officials, Japan has neither the ability nor the will to defend Taiwan by itself. The problem for Tokyo arises when the United States decides to go to war with China in the event of a Taiwan conflict.
Simply put, Japan has two options. One is to fight China along with the United States. The other is to choose neutrality. Logically speaking, there could be a third option which we can call the Ukrainian model. Instead of directly fighting China, Japan and the United States could supply Taiwan with military support, while rallying Western nations to impose various sanctions on China. But Taiwan is an island country that is only about 1/16 the size of Ukraine. It is unlikely that China will acquiesce to our delivery of weapons and ammunition into Taiwan by air or sea when the entire island becomes a war zone.
Ultimately, this option is no different than fighting China.
War with China: Japan Could Help Defend Taiwan, but with Heavy Sacrifice
By fighting alongside the U.S., Japan could play a significant role. The participation of the Self-Defense Forces would surely help. But the most important contribution would be to permit U.S. forces to operate not only from U.S. bases in Japan, but also from SDF bases and other infrastructure, such as civilian ports and airfields. And that would comprise a formidable threat to the Chinese military.
Recent war games conducted by the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) suggests that the United States would lose a conflict over Taiwan if it were unable to access bases in Japan.
On the other hand, going to war with China would entail huge costs. It would be almost impossible for Beijing to force Taipei to capitulate if Japan allowed the U.S. Air Force to fly sorties from Japan. The Chinese military would have no choice but to attack U.S. bases and other military infrastructure in Japan to degrade the capability of the U.S. forces.
The CSIS war game concluded that such a scenario would result in devastating damage to all parties, including the SDF. But the damage to Japan would likely include civilian sectors as well. Although China’s ability to attack the U.S. mainland with conventional weapons is limited, it has sufficient power projection, consisting mainly of its missile arsenal, to strike nearby Japan. Japanese civilian casualties would be far greater than those suffered by the United States.
And since Japan would inevitably become part of the battle theater, its economy would suffer as well. The longer such a war goes on, and the more it escalates, the greater the destruction inflicted on Japan will be.
In the Ukraine war, two nuclear powers, the United States and Russia, have so far avoided direct conflict as the battlefield has largely been confined to Ukraine itself. That is because the United States does not want to risk nuclear war. But a war over Taiwan would pit two nuclear powers directly against each other. If U.S. military bases in Guam or Japan are hit by China, or if the war tilts strongly against Taiwan, the chances that the U.S. would attack mainland China cannot be dismissed.
And if the situation escalates further, the use of nuclear weapons can also not be ruled out. In war games conducted by the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) last summer, players on a Chinese team ordered a nuclear attack over Hawaii. Although the game ended at that point, Japan could itself become a nuclear target. We might even see a nuclear exchange between the United States and China.
Neutrality: Japan Intact, but Loses Taiwan and Alliance
The pros and cons for Japan will be basically reversed if Japan takes a neutral stance and refuses to allow the United States to use its bases on its territory. Under those circumstances, Beijing would have no reason to attack Japan. Indeed, any attack on Japan would almost certainly draw Tokyo into the conflict on the U.S. side. The damage to Japan both for the SDF and civilians would be negligible. This is obviously the biggest advantage of choosing neutrality.
Unable to use bases in Japan, however, the United States and Taiwan would suffer badly in war with China. Washington would be forced to think twice about any military intervention at all.
Either way, a neutral Japanese stance would greatly increase the chances of China taking over Taiwan and establishing rule by the Chinese Communist Party. In such a scenario, the Japan-U.S. alliance would deteriorate considerably, and possibly include the abrogation of their Security Treaty. And, after the war, Japan may have to deal with an aggressive China without its close ties to the United States.
There Is No Right Answer
To be sure, it is important to protect Taiwan's democracy, but that is not all. If protecting another democracy were an absolute criterion for making foreign policy decisions, the United States and its allies would be fighting Russia directly on behalf of Ukraine by now. But NATO countries, including the United States, have clearly weighed the risks of such a scenario, including nuclear Armageddon, and limited their assistance accordingly. That is the correct approach.
In his January 13 speech at the School for Advanced International Studies in Washington Prime Minister Fumio Kishida reflected on Russia’s aggression against Ukraine and said, “It is Japan that must rise to this challenge to take action to defend our freedom and democracy.” When discussing China, he vowed to “never allow any attempts to unilaterally change the status quo by force.”
But Japanese leaders will have to carefully weigh the costs and benefits of each option if a conflict over Taiwan becomes a reality. The United States should not take it for granted that Japan will simply go along with Washington’s desires or expectations.
That said, choosing neutrality is also not an obvious answer. Japan will sacrifice a great deal to protect its own security and territorial integrity. Moreover, if Japan were to assume a neutral stance, China might be encouraged to use military force to realize its aim to bring Taiwan under its control.
Indeed, Japan’s response to a military conflict over Taiwan will ultimately depend on what provoked Beijing’s use of force. For example, if Taipei unilaterally declared independence, it is hard to imagine that Japan would be willing to risk the devastating consequences of a war to defend Taiwan.
On the other hand, if Beijing resorts to violence in order to unify Taiwan unilaterally, the “Japan is next” argument will become much more persuasive. In any case, Japan should make a final decision only when a war becomes truly inevitable.
Aren’t We Inviting War in East Asia?
Whether joining a war or taking a neutral position, the choice between the two will be a choice between two evils. If forced to choose either, Japan, as well as the United States, will face enormous risks and heavy costs.
Ultimately, Japan's top priority must be to prevent a war. Both Japan and the United States, together with Taiwan, are trying hard to enhance military deterrence to that end. At the same time, Washington appears to be using Taiwan as a key touchstone — and a very combustible one at that — of its strategic competition with Beijing. Japan also has been vocal in criticizing China and expressing support for Taiwan. This is akin to increasing fire insurance coverage while pouring gasoline around.
No matter how hard Japan, the United States, and Taiwan improve their deterrence capabilities, China will not be deterred if Beijing perceives that Taipei is moving decisively toward independence and that Washington and Tokyo are supporting that movement.
The Chinese leadership fears that the legitimacy of the Communist Party's rule of China will be lost if it tolerates Taiwan independence; a state of mind which offers little room for the logic of deterrence to function. History is full of examples of the failure of deterrence. The leadership of Imperial Japan decided to attack Pearl Harbor in an attempt to maintain its power in East Asia even though it did not believe the Japanese Army could win a war against the United States.
Putin's decision to invade Ukraine was at least partly due to his obsession with the fear that Russia’s survival was critically threatened by NATO's eastward expansion.
In order to prevent a war over Taiwan, it is essential for the United States and Japan to not only pursue adequate deterrence, but also to provide reasonable assurances to China that they reject the notion of Taiwan’s independence. Otherwise, the reckless rhetoric of “Taiwan will be the next Ukraine” may well become a self-fulfilling prophecy. And Japan will be forced to confront terrible decisions.
Kiyoshi Sugawa is a senior research fellow at the East Asian Community Institute (EACI), an independent private think tank based in Tokyo. His research areas include Japan’s grand strategy, foreign policy, and national security policy, as well as analysis of Japanese domestic politics.Kiyoshi graduated from Waseda University in Tokyo and worked for Sumitomo Bank. After earning an MA in international relations from the University of Chicago, he worked for the Democratic Party of Japan and its successor parties. From 2009 to 2012, he served as a Special Researcher on Foreign Policy at the Cabinet Secretariat of the Prime Minister’s Office of Japan, advising three Prime Ministers under the DPJ government. After his government position, he directed the overall policy-making process of the party and advised party leaders on various issues as a senior director. From 1999 to 2000, he was a visiting fellow at the Center for Northeast Asian Policy Studies (CNAPS) of the Brookings Institution.Kiyoshi is the author of "How to Enhance Japan's Diplomatic Power" (Kodansha, 2008) and "Second Korean War Scenario and Japan" (Kodansha, 2007). At EACI, he publishes newsletters on various policy topics, with a special emphasis on Japan’s relationship with the United States and China.
The Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force Takanami-class destroyer JS Makinami (DD 112), front, and the Murasame-class destroyer JS Inazuma (DD 105), second, the Ticonderoga-class guided-missile cruiser USS Bunker Hill (CG 52), third, and the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Preble (DDG 88), rear, transit the western Pacific Ocean in 2017 (U.S. Navy photo)
Ukraine would consider inviting Russian officials to a peace summit to discuss Kyiv’s proposal for a negotiated end to the war, according to Andriy Yermak, the Ukrainian president’s chief of staff.
“There can be a situation in which we together invite representatives of the Russian Federation, where they will be presented with the plan in case whoever is representing the aggressor country at that time will want to genuinely end this war and return to a just peace,” Yermak said over the weekend, noting that one more round of talks without Russia will first be held in Switzerland.
The comment represents a subtle shift in Ukrainian messaging about talks. Kyiv has long argued that it would never negotiate with Russian President Vladimir Putin, yet there is no reason to believe Putin will leave power any time soon. That realization — along with Ukraine’s increasingly perilous position on the battlefield — may have helped force Kyiv to reconsider its hard line on talking with the widely reviled Russian leader.
Zelensky hinted at a potential mediator for talks following a visit this week to Saudi Arabia. The leader “noted in particular Saudi Arabia’s strivings to help in restoring a just peace in Ukraine,” according to a statement from Ukrainian officials. “Saudi Arabia’s leadership can help find a just solution.”
Russia, for its part, has signaled that it is open to peace talks of some sort, though both Kyiv and Moscow insist that any negotiations would have to be conducted on their terms. The gaps between the negotiating positions of the two countries remain substantial, with each laying claim to roughly 18% of the territory that made up pre-2014 Ukraine.
Ukraine’s shift is a sign of just how dire the situation is becoming for its armed forces, which recently made a hasty retreat from Avdiivka, a small but strategically important town near Donetsk. After months of wrangling, the U.S. Congress has still not approved new military aid for Ukraine, and Kyiv now says its troops are having to ration ammunition as their stockpiles dwindle.
Zelensky said Sunday that he expects Russia to mount a new offensive as soon as late May. It’s unclear whether Ukrainian troops are prepared to stop such a move.
Even the Black Sea corridor — a narrow strip of the waterway through which Ukraine exports much of its grain — could be under threat. “I think the route will be closed...because to defend it, it's also about some ammunition, some air defense, and some other systems” that are now in short supply, said Zelensky.
As storm clouds gather, it’s time to push for peace talks before Russia regains the upper hand, argue Anatol Lieven and George Beebe of the Quincy Institute, which publishes Responsible Statecraft.
“Complete victory for Ukraine is now an obvious impossibility,” Lieven and Beebe wrote this week. “Any end to the fighting will therefore end in some form of compromise, and the longer we wait, the worse the terms of that compromise will be for Ukraine, and the greater the dangers will be for our countries and the world.”
In other diplomatic news related to the war in Ukraine:
— Hungary finally signed off on Sweden’s bid to join NATO after the Swedish prime minister met with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban in Budapest, according to Deutsche Welle. What did Orban get for all the foot dragging? Apparently just four Swedish fighter jets of the same model that it has been purchasing for years. The prime minister blamed his party for the slow-rolling, saying in a radio interview prior to the parliamentary vote that he had persuaded his partisans to drop their opposition to Sweden’s accession.
— French President Emmanuel Macron sent allies scrambling Tuesday when he floated the idea of sending NATO troops to Ukraine, according to the BBC. Leaders from Germany, the United Kingdom, Italy, Poland, and other NATO states quickly swatted down the idea that the alliance (or any individual members thereof) would consider joining the war directly. Russia said direct conflict with NATO would be an “inevitability” if the bloc sent troops into Ukraine.
— On Wednesday, Zelensky attended a summit in Albania aimed at bolstering Balkan support for Ukraine’s fight against Russia, according to AP News. The Ukrainian leader said all states in the region are “worthy” of becoming members of NATO and the European Union, which “have provided Europe with the longest and most reliable era of security and economic development.”
— Western officials were in talks with the Kremlin for a prisoner swap involving Russian dissident Alexei Navalny prior to his death in a Russian prison camp in February, though no formal offer had yet been made, according to Politico. This account contrasts with the one given by Navalny’s allies, who claimed that Putin had killed the opposition leader in order to sabotage discussions that were nearing a deal. Navalny’s sudden death has led to speculation about whether Russian officials may have assassinated him, though no proof has yet surfaced to back up this claim. There is, however, little doubt that the broader deterioration of the dissident’s health was related to the harsh conditions he was held under.
U.S. State Department news:
In a Tuesday press conference, State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said the situation on the frontlines in Ukraine is “extremely serious.” “We have seen Ukrainian frontline troops who don’t have the ammo they need to repel Russian aggression. They’re still fighting bravely. They’re still fighting courageously,” Miller said. “They still have armor and weapons and ammunition they can use, but they’re having to ration it now because the United States Congress has failed to act.”
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Janet Yellen, United States Secretary of the Treasury. (Reuters)
On Tuesday, U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen strongly endorsed efforts to tap frozen Russian central bank assets in order to continue to fund Ukraine.
“There is a strong international law, economic and moral case for moving forward,” with giving the assets, which were frozen by international sanctions following Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, to Kyiv, she said to reporters before a G7 meeting in San Paulo.
Furthermore on Wednesday, White House national security communications adviser John Kirby urged the use of these assets to assist the Ukrainian military.
This adds momentum to increasing efforts on Capitol Hill to monetize the frozen assets to assist the beleaguered country, including through the “REPO Act,” a U.S. Senate bill which was criticized by Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) in a recent article here in Responsible Statecraft. As Paul pointed out, spending these assets would violate international law and norms by the outright seizure of sovereign Russian assets.
In the long term, this will do even more to undermine global faith in the U.S.-led and Western-centric international financial system. Doubts about the system and pressures to find an alternative are already heightened due to the freezing of Russian overseas financial holdings in the first place, as well as the frequent use of unilateral sanctions by the U.S. to impose its will and values on other countries.
The amount of money involved here is considerable. Over $300 billion in Russian assets was frozen, mostly held in European banks. For comparison, that’s about the same amount as the entirety of Western aid committed from all sources to Ukraine since the beginning of the war in 2022 — around $310 billion, including the recent $54 billion in 4-year assistance just approved by the EU.
Thus, converting all of the Russian assets to assistance for Ukraine could in theory fully finance a continuing war in Ukraine for years to come. As political support for open-ended Ukraine aid wanes in both the U.S. and Europe, large-scale use of this financing method also holds the promise of an administrative end-run around the political system.
But there are also considerable potential downsides, particularly in Europe. European financial institutions hold the overwhelming majority of frozen Russian assets, and any form of confiscation could be a major blow to confidence in these entities. In addition, European corporations have significant assets stranded in Russia which Moscow could seize in retaliation for the confiscation of its foreign assets.
Another major issue is that using assets to finance an ongoing conflict will forfeit their use as leverage in any peace settlement, and the rebuilding of Ukraine. The World Bank now estimates post-war rebuilding costs for Ukraine of nearly $500 billion. If the West can offer a compromise to Russia in which frozen assets are used to pay part of these costs, rather than demanding new Russian financing for massive reparations, this could be an important incentive for negotiations.
In contrast, monetizing the assets outside of a peace process could signal that the West intends to continue the conflict indefinitely.
In combination with aggressive new U.S. sanctions announced last week on Russia and on third party countries that continue to deal with Russia, the new push for confiscation of Russian assets is more evidence that the U.S. and EU intend to intensify the conflict with Moscow using administrative mechanisms that won’t rely on support from the political system or the people within them.
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Activist Layla Elabed speaks during an uncommitted vote election night gathering as Democrats and Republicans hold their Michigan presidential primary election, in Dearborn, Michigan, U.S. February 27, 2024. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook
A protest vote in Michigan against President Joe Biden’s handling of the war in Gaza dramatically exceeded expectations Tuesday, highlighting the possibility that his stance on the conflict could cost him the presidency in November.
More than 100,000 Michiganders voted “uncommitted” in yesterday’s presidential primary, earning 13.3% of the tally with most votes counted and blasting past organizers’ goal of 10,000 protest votes. Biden won the primary handily with 81% of the total tally.
The results suggest that Biden could lose Michigan in this year’s election if he continues to back Israel’s campaign to the hilt. In 2020, he won the state by 150,000 votes while polls predicted he would win by a much larger margin. This year, early polls show a slight lead for Trump in the battleground state, which he won in 2016 by fewer than 11,000 votes.
“The war on Gaza is a deep moral issue and the lack of attention and empathy for this perspective from the administration is breaking apart the fragile coalition we built to elect Joe Biden in 2020,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), a progressive leader who has called for a ceasefire in Gaza, as votes came in last night.
Biden still has “a little bit of time to change this dynamic,” Jayapal told CNN, but “it has to be a dramatic policy and rhetorical shift from the president on this issue and a new strategy to rebuild a real partnership with progressives in multiple communities who are absolutely key to winning the election.”
Rep. Ro Khanna, a prominent Biden ally, told Semafor the vote is a “wake-up call” for the White House on Gaza.
The “uncommitted” option won outright in Dearborn, a Detroit suburb with a famously large Arab American population. The protest vote also gained notable traction in college towns, signaling Biden’s weakness among young voters across the country. “Uncommitted” received at least 8% of votes in every county in Michigan with more than 95% of votes tallied.
The uncommitted campaign drew backing from prominent Democrats in Michigan, including Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) and state Rep. Abraham Aiyash, who is the majority leader in the Michigan House. Former Reps. Andy Levin and Beto O’Rourke, who served as a representative from Texas, also lent their support to the effort.
“Our movement emerged victorious tonight and massively surpassed our expectations,” said Listen to Michigan, the organization behind the campaign, in a statement last night. “Tens of thousands of Michigan Democrats, many of whom [...] voted for Biden in 2020, are uncommitted to his re-election due to the war in Gaza.”
Biden did not make reference to the uncommitted movement in his victory speech, but reports indicate that his campaign is spooked by the effort. Prior to Tuesday’s vote, White House officials met with Arab and Muslim leaders in Michigan to try to assuage their concerns about the war, which has left about 30,000 Palestinians dead and many more injured. (More than 1,100 Israelis died during Hamas’s Oct. 7 attacks last year.)
The president argues that his support for Israel has made it possible for him to guide the direction of the war to the extent possible, though his critics note that, despite some symbolic and rhetorical moves, he has stopped far short of holding back U.S. weapons or supporting multilateral efforts to demand a ceasefire.
Campaigners now hope the “uncommitted” effort will spread to other states. Minnesota, which will hold its primaries next week, is an early target.
“If you think this will stop with Michigan you are either the president or paid to flatter him,” said Alex Sammon, a politics writer at Slate.
Meanwhile in the Republican primary, former President Donald Trump fended off a challenge from former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley. With 94% of votes in, Trump came away with 68% of the vote, while Haley scored around 27%.