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)
Senator Lindsey Graham had two options walking into the Doha Forum in Qatar this weekend: find a way to triangulate his full-throated support for Netanyahu policies in Israel for the largely Palestinian-supportive Muslim audience Sunday, or wave his own flag without reservation. He went with the latter.
The South Carolina Republican made it clear he was no stranger to the region — he touted a long friendship with his host the Emir of Qatar and lauded the kingdom's role as international mediator and host to America's Fifth Fleet. But he didn't bat an eye to tell this audience — thousands of Muslims assembled from across the Gulf and the broader Middle East, plus attendees from Global South nations and Europe — that the U.S. veto of the ceasefire was one of the few things he thought the Biden Administration got right.
"President Biden ...You have risen to the occasion after October the seventh," he said, addressing the audience Sunday. "I have a world of difference with President Biden on many things. But when he vetoed the ceasefire resolution, he did the right thing and let me tell you why. Every ceasefire Hamas has ever entered has been broken and we're not going to do a ceasefire until hostages begin to be released like promised and would give the Israeli military the time and space they need to make sure that Hamas ceases to be a threat to Israel and the Palestinian people."
"So as a Republican, I am standing behind President Biden's decision, that resolution and the one that comes next."
He also said the only way there will be peace in the Middle East and to get the real culprit — Iran — and to start building a state for Palestine, was for the normalization process between Arab States and Israel to continue, with the Israel-Saudi deal the icing on the cake.
"I pledge in front of the world to help President Biden secure the votes in the United States Senate to make it possible for Saudi Arabia to have a defense agreement with us, which would then make it possible for Saudi Arabia, to recognize Israel," he declared. "Before the world I pledge my support, to help reconstruct a new Palestine but none of this is possible until you have a less corrupt younger Palestinian Authority, replacing the one we have. And a Hamas can no longer wreak havoc on Israel, on their own people.”
That potential U.S.-brokered Israel-Saudi deal have been deemed all but dead after the Oct. 7 attacks in Israel. Graham contended that aside from hating Jews, Hamas launched the attacks to kill any hope for that deal to go forward. Observers have come to similar conclusions — that the so-called Abraham Accords had left the Palestinians on the cutting room floor, inciting anger among the militant elements in Gaza. But unlike Graham, these critics' hold that the agreements are the problem — that regional leaders' shouldn't have allowed Israel to shunt the peace process to the side in the first place.
Not only did Graham ignore this fatal flaw of the agreements, he reveled in his own blind spots, choosing to ignore any culpability of the Netanyahu government over the decades leading to the violence and what appears today, an endless bombardment and on-the-ground military operation in Gaza with chances for further talks between the two sides dwindling by the hour. Instead, he appeared to blame Iran for everything.
"The biggest fear of the Ayatollah is that the Arab world, in conjunction with Israel, marches toward the light away from the darkness. (Iran hates) the idea that everybody in this room can find a way to work with Israel and live with Israel where everybody makes money and can live in peace. Because let me tell you, their agenda is different than yours. So I believe we cannot let Iran win."
He said he was committed to a two-state solution, and if there was any moment in his talk where he put any responsibility on Israel it was this: "I'm going to Israel soon and here's what I'm telling Israeli friends — Saudi Arabia, Qatar, UAE, none of these Arab countries can help you. Unless you make a commitment for a two state solution. ...To my friends in Israel the best thing you can do to beat Iran is to give the Palestinians a life where they're not dependent upon terrorist organizations that they can live and work and be prosperous."
How Israelis could get there, from here, was not explained by Lindsey Graham, or whether he honestly thought that was possible given the "hell on earth" Gaza is becoming today. But we know he doesn't believe that the civilian crisis on the ground now will reduce the chances for peace tomorrow, because of the way he reacted to U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin's remarks earlier this month.
Austin said “the lesson is that you can only win in urban warfare by protecting civilians. In this kind of a fight, the center of gravity is the civilian population. And if you drive them into the arms of the enemy, you replace a tactical victory with a strategic defeat.”
“Strategic defeat would be inflaming the Palestinians? They’re already inflamed,” Graham continued. “They’re taught from the time they’re born to hate the Jews and to kill them. They’re taught math: If you have 10 Jews and kill six, how many would you have left?”
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In half a century of public life, U.S. President Joe Biden has demonstrated unwavering support for Israel. In this photo Biden is welcomed by Israeli Prime Minster Benjamin Netanyahu, as he visits Israel amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas, in Tel Aviv, Israel, October 18, 2023. REUTERS/Evelyn Hockstein/File Photo
Of all the foreign policy challenges President Joe Biden faces, most difficult is the war in Gaza. That is not because of the apparent geopolitical stakes; as Biden often says, China poses the most important long-term challenge and Russia is next. But while important, what happens between Israel and the Palestinians, as well as elsewhere in the Middle East, has not been in the same league.
Yet because of the war in Gaza, with its linkage to overall Israeli-Palestinian relations and risks of escalation to other parts of the region, there may soon be an explosion dwarfing all other concerns facing Biden and his team.
There is also another important reason that the war in Gaza now occupies center stage for the Biden administration: America’s attitudes towards and relations with Israel. Since Israel’s creation in the wake of World War II, most Americans have considered U.S. ties with the Jewish state as special, both because of its founding as a democracy committed to values similar to America’s and a shared perspective of “never again” stemming from the Holocaust. Even when Israel has fallen short, as for many years in its treatment of Palestinians, most Americans have given Israel the benefit of the doubt. Except on a handful of occasions, Washington consistently “has had Israel’s back” in Middle East crises and conflicts.
For both interests and values reasons, therefore, it was natural that immediately following the horrendous October 7 Hamas assault on southern Israel, in which some 1,200 people were killed and 240 more taken hostage, Biden declared total support for Israel’s military retaliation. His position was initially supported by most Americans, largely on a bipartisan basis.
But then the toll of destruction in Gaza mounted — as of this past week, more than 16,000 Palestinians have been killed, at least 40,000 more wounded, and more than 85 percent of the Strip’s population of more than two million has been rendered homeless with no safe place to go. All of this has been vividly displayed on U.S. television and cable media. Thus, the Biden administration began to rethink its hands-off support for Israel’s military campaign — but only with respect to its tactics, not its overall policy of destroying Hamas.
Washington worked through intermediaries, principally Qatar, to obtain a ”pause” in the Gaza fighting in order to get Hamas to release some hostages and increase the flow of humanitarian assistance from Egypt into Gaza. Following the end of the pause, however, U.S. appeals to Israel have been limited to try to minimize civilian casualties in Gaza, or, as Secretary of State Antony Blinken put it, "taking more effective steps to protect the lives of civilians.” But so long as Israel continues to pursue the extirpation of Hamas, significantly limiting civilian casualties is impossible, as the Biden team must recognize. Notably, the world sees that Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has essentially rebuffed Biden, which impacts on U.S. credibility elsewhere, especially since the United States is universally seen as Israel’s sole patron. Certainly, America’s reputation for promoting humanitarian concerns has been severely damaged.
Both factors argue for the president to press Israel immediately to declare a cease-fire, not just a temporary “pause,” but one designed to end the war. Indeed, if we are to believe Israel’s own estimates, Hamas’s military capacities have already been heavily degraded, and the possibility of it again being able to mount a serious attack on Israel is low.
The gravity of risks in the Levant and potentially throughout the region means that the United States (and others) cannot once again return to indifference when this war ends. Biden has shown he is aware of this, and has recommitted himself to pursuing the so-called “two-state solution.” For years, however, it has been largely a mantra; and while it is the best outcome, its prospects are now even more remote given renewed Israeli fears provoked by the October 7 attack and its attendant atrocities, as well as increased Palestinian bitterness over the massive destruction and loss of life in Gaza.
Yet time is not on the side of “orderly diplomacy” that for a half-century has been the usual course. There is already a major risk of a new intifada on the West Bank, as most Palestinians have lost any hope of Israel’s willingness to recognize their basic human rights, much less permit a Palestinian state. They also see that Israel will not stop West Bank settlers from displacing and even murdering Palestinian civilians. The Palestinians also cannot count on support from Arab states. No Arab leader really cares for the Palestinians and none has even called into question their existing treaties with Israel or the so-called Abraham Accords.
Nor is it conceivable that, to do the necessary diplomatic work, the U.N. or countries other than the U.S. can lead or have any chance of success. Nothing will be possible unless Washington takes charge and makes clear to Israel that, as the occupying power, it must change its policies and practices toward the Palestinians.
On December 6 , U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres reiterated his “appeal for a humanitarian ceasefire to be declared.” In the U.N. Security Council Friday, the United States vetoed the resolution and was joined only by Britain’s abstention. The Biden administration thus tied itself even more to Israel’s slaughter in Gaza, carried out in major part with U.S.-supplied bombs. The veto further cheapened U.S. political and moral standing and made it harder for Biden to be seen as credible as a diplomatic leader once the war ends.
Until October 7, President Biden and his team gave Israel-Palestinian relations short shrift. So far, everyone has been lucky that the crisis has not spread across the region, with the possibility of wider war. Even so, Israel and Hezbollah have come to blows; Yemen has taken some pot-shots; and while Iran has been careful not to get directly involved, its proxies in Iraq and Syria have been engaged in some incidents.
But luck is not a policy. The president must know that the Israeli-Palestinian crisis can’t again be pushed aside when this war ends. He needs to rebuild trust in the United States for strategic competence and then as an honest broker. He needs to show that the United States will place its own interests first, not anyone else’s. He needs to augment his foreign policy inner circle with outside experts in strategy and regional dynamics, but free from biases. And he needs to be prepared to run risks in American domestic politics.
It's a difficult agenda, but nothing less will enable President Biden to protect and promote U.S. strategic, political, and moral interests.
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Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov speaks at the 21st Doha Forum in Qatar on Dec. 10. (Vlahos)
DOHA, QATAR — In remarks Sunday at the 21st Doha Forum in Qatar, Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov seemed to revel in what is becoming a groundswell of international frustration with the United States over its policies in Israel. Despite Russia’s own near-isolated status after its 2022 invasion of Ukraine, Lavrov glibly characterized the U.S. as on the wrong side of history, the leader of the dying world order, and the purveyor of its own brand of “cancel culture.”
“I think everybody understands that this (Gaza war) did not happen in a vacuum that there were decades of unfulfilled promises that the Palestinians would get their own state,” and years of political and security hostilities that exploded on Oct. 7, he charged. “This is about the cancel culture, whatever you don’t like about events that led to the current situation you cancel. Everything that came before February 2022, including the bloody coup (in Ukraine) and the unconstitutional change of power … all this was canceled. The only thing that remains is that Russia invaded Ukraine.”
Lavrov, beamed in from Russia to the international audience in Doha, went fairly unchallenged, though his interviewer James Bays, diplomatic editor at Al Jazeera, attempted to corner him on accusations stemming from Russia’s own bloody record in Chechnya in the 1990s and and 2000s and its ongoing military campaign in Syria, which Lavrov noted was at the “behest” of the Syrian government.
On the issue of the failed ceasefire vote at the UN Security Council, of which Russia is a permanent veto member, Lavrov said, “we strongly condemn the terrorist attack against Israel. At the same time we do not think it is acceptable to use this (terrorist) event for collective punishment of millions of Palestinian people.” Did he condemn the United States for vetoing the ceasefire measure? “It’s up to the regional countries and the other countries of the world to judge,” he declared.
When asked if there was a “stalemate” in the Russian war in Ukraine, and what the Russians may have gained from their invasion in 2022, he said simply, “it’s up to the Ukrainians to understand how deep a hole they are in and where the Americans have put them.”
On whether a ceasefire may be in the offing in that war Lavrov said, “a year and half ago (Zelensky) signed a decree prohibiting any negotiations with the Putin government. They had the chance in March and April 2022, very soon after the beginning of the special military operation, where in Istanbul the negotiators reached a deal with neutrality for Ukraine, no NATO, and security guarantees…it was canceled,” he added, because the Americans and Brits wanted to “exhaust (Ukrainians) more.”
Lavrov gleefully piggybacked on themes from an earlier forum panel on the Global South. He accused “the United States and its allies” of building “the model of globalization, which they thought would serve them well.” But now, Lavrov contends, the unaligned are using “the principles and instruments of globalization to beat the West on their own terms.” As for Russia, Lavrov deployed a little “cancel culture” of his own, cherry picking the high points of his country's history over the last 200 years to project a nation that he boasts will emerge unscathed by Western assaults today.
“In the beginning of the 19th century Napoleon (rose European armies) against Russia and we defeated him; in the 20th century Hitler did the same. We defeated him and became stronger after that as well,” he said. With the Ukraine war, the West will find “that Russia has already become much stronger than it was before this.”