A Japanese perspective on how to implement an Indo-Pacific strategy

Nobukatsu Kanehara/Doshisha University

Photos by The Associated Press

Today, a liberal international order in the Indo-Pacific is emerging for the first time in modern history. Most people in this region came through different paths than those followed by most Westerners and Japanese. Many Indo-Pacific countries were colonized, and their people were racially discriminated against. After World War II, these nations proudly declared independence, but some had to fight for their freedom and suffered tremendous casualties. Immediately after achieving independence, they did not necessarily cherish the Western style of democracy because the colonial powers were mainly democracies, with the exception of Russia, which turned into a communist dictatorship. The liberated countries and territories explored types of dictatorship, including the communist variety tried in Vietnam; the military dictatorships tried by Indonesia, Myanmar, South Korea and Taiwan; and the populist dictatorship tried in the Philippines. Although the regimes were oppressive, some achieved spectacular economic development. In the 1980s, just before the end of the Cold War, some of these Indo-Pacific nations turned one by one to democracy and are now proud members of the club of freedom.

The region embraces 60% of the world’s population and soon will account for 60% of the global gross domestic product (GDP). This is an inevitable and historical necessity. The Industrial Revolution that began in Great Britain has changed the world forever. The harbingers of this economic change are today called advanced industrial democracies. Now the wave of industrialization has hit the shores of the Asian continent. China and India, given their size and might, are exerting influence on world politics and the world economy. China, which benefited most from the open and liberal international system, became the second-biggest economy on Earth. Unfortunately, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) now stands as a challenger to the liberal international order and wants to carve out its own sphere of interests. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) seems determined to survive as a dictatorship and dominate the Indo-Pacific.

The West faces the CCP’s challenge. The region is approaching a watershed moment that will determine whether the West expands its liberal order in the Indo-Pacific or surrenders the whole of the Indo-Pacific to Chinese dominance.

How the PRC Emerged

After Japan was defeated in the Pacific War in 1945, the United States curtailed its cooperation with a then-corrupt Kuomintang, also known as the Chinese Nationalist Party. Joseph Stalin, the communist dictator of the Soviet Union, rapidly increased help to Mao Zedong, the leader of the CCP, to conquer China. A brief honeymoon between the Soviet Union and China started. Mao established the PRC in 1949. It was born from the gun by an arm of the party for the communist revolution. Human dignity, conscience, freedom and religion were all denied for the sake of the revolution.

Mao’s attempt to transform the Chinese economy from agrarian to industrial in the 1950s through his Great Leap Forward plan failed dramatically, as tens of millions of people starved to death. Mao was criticized by some party leaders for his lack of leadership during the Great Leap Forward. To solidify his position and eliminate any rivals, he then started the Cultural Revolution. This movement incited youngsters known as the Red Guards to eliminate potential rivals and any ideas contrary to the notion of Mao controling the CCP. From the chaos, Mao retained control and practically turned his rule into a personal cult.

After Stalin’s death in 1953, Nikita Khrushchev became leader of the Soviet Union and initiated a thaw with the West. A power-driven Mao started to move away from Russia. In 1969, he started a military clash on Damansky Island on the Ussuri River on the Russia-China border in Siberia, which ultimately resulted in China controlling the territory. The Soviet army, however, repelled Mao’s attempt to make further inroads into Russia. A weakened Mao tried to initiate relations with Japan and the U.S., for whom it was a net strategic gain to separate the PRC from the Soviets.

After Mao died in 1976, his successor Deng Xiaoping sought to balance the old communist guard with reformers. He opened China to foreign investment and technology and implemented economic reforms. After normalizing relations with China, Japan provided development aid that today would be worth the equivalent of several trillion yen.

The end of the Cold War in 1989 brought the collapse of communist regimes throughout Eastern Europe, the Caucasus and Central Asia. Freedom’s victory was celebrated around the globe, and a liberal atmosphere spread quickly. Those developments terrified the CCP’s leadership. In response, Deng turned his back on democracy, pushing aside reformer Hu Yaobang, who had become his right-hand man. The events helped spark the 1989 Tiananmen Square protest by students who were calling for freedom and the subsequent massacre of civilians by the PLA in Beijing. Deng continued to accept foreign money and technology, however, and Japan continued to provide support after the massacre, believing that Deng was the only hope for reform and that the West should not drive China back to the extreme isolationism of the Mao era. In the end, China continued to lean toward the West.

The PRC took advantage of the West’s open system and has emerged as a successful economy in the 21st century. Many believed that China would become like the West one day. The expectation was bitterly betrayed. The CCP leadership feared losing power through the infiltration of Western liberalism. The CCP’s fears only intensified as the communist ideology started fading as a result of Deng’s reforms and the nation’s economic development. The leadership needed a new legitimacy.

The car carrying Yoshihide Suga, then Japan’s prime minister, arrives at the White House in Washington, D.C., in April 2021 for Suga’s meetings with U.S. President Joe Biden and U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris.

A Corrupt, Coerced Legitimacy

To create its supposed legitimacy, the CCP fabricated the legend of the glory of the party that is building today’s China. The party uses selective history to emphasize the narrative. It cites such events as the Opium Wars, the Arrow Incident, the Sino-French War over Indochina, the Sino-Japanese War over Korea, the Boxer Rebellion and subsequent uprisings in Beijing, the loss of large parts of Siberia to the Russians, the Manchurian Incident by Japan, the Second Sino-Japanese War and the civil war with Chinese nationalist Chiang Kai-shek. The CCP seeks to evoke the emotions of the Chinese people by spinning its purported historical narrative as a tale of humiliation by foreign powers. This also stokes a sense of revanchism among the people.

 The legend is also used to fan the flames of nationalism. The CCP builds the glory of 5,000 years of Han civilization into its narrative. The tale can’t survive academic scrutiny, but it is a political thought-control device necessary for the CCP’s leadership. It also neglects the fact that the CCP inherited the Qing dynasty rather than the Han dynasty. Many northern ethnic groups, such as Mongols, Tibetans and Uyghurs, were key insiders in the Qing dynasty. Today, China’s ethnic minority population exceeds 100 million, and they do not share Han nationalism. To counter this reality, the CCP has instituted their forcible and cruel assimilation.

The combination of a historical sense of revanchism and mounting nationalism propels the CCP’s expansionism, in particular, its maritime expansionism. The CCP believes it must carve out a vast maritime area to defend the heart of China. It continues to militarize islets and shoals in the South China Sea, largely using its coast guard to seize and control territory. Since 2012, China has also been attempting to bully Japan, the main U.S. ally in the region, over the Japanese-controlled Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea.

CCP General Secretary Xi Jinping is adding new aggression to China’s expansionism. Xi belongs to the extreme Maoist generation of Red Guards and does not share Western values. In fact, under Xi, the Chinese people are prohibited from discussing the universal values, such as freedom, democracy and human rights, that are championed in Western societies. By extending his term beyond 2022, Xi seeks to become a despot like Mao. And his trophy to outshine Mao could be the invasion of Taiwan.

Allying the West, Like-Minded Nations

No nation other than the U.S. is capable of facing China alone. China will likely become the world’s biggest economy by about 2030. China, however, will not be bigger than the West if those nations are united and, especially, if they are joined by Australia, India, New Zealand and Southeast Asian nations in a club of freedom and democracy. The size of the PRC’s population has already plateaued and is declining, which means that a united West allied with like-minded nations can still engage the PRC from a position of strength. How to realign the West is the first key strategic issue to address.

Then-Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe first unveiled a Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy in 2016. It proposed that Indo-Pacific nations, many of which are industrial democracies or at least free market supporters, should be realigned so that the growing region becomes a major piece of the liberal international order. The key alliances in implementing this strategy will be among Australia, Japan, South Korea and the U.S. 

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, center, speaks during the virtual Association of Southeast Asian Nations’ East Asia Summit in October 2021.

India, however, is the most important element for securing a successful Indo-Pacific strategy. It soon will surpass China as the world’s most-populous nation, with an average age 10 years younger than that of China. India’s economy, meanwhile, will surpass Japan’s in 15 to 20 years. India has not forgotten the PRC’s invasion of Tibet in 1950 and remains upset with the PRC’s close relationship with Pakistan. Now that China stands against the West, India, although it is faithful to nonalignment diplomacy, is gradually shifting its weight toward the West and nations such as Japan and the U.S., with which it shares values. The future Western strategic framework with India will be based not only on strategic interests but also on the universal values.

As the threat posed by the PRC to the liberal international order becomes clearer, new and expanded groupings of like-minded nations are taking shape. For example, the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or Quad, should grow beyond its current members of Australia, India, Japan and the U.S. Those efforts should start with Europe, which has shared values and wields significant military and economic power. The new trilateral security pact among Australia, the United Kingdom and the U.S., known as AUKUS, will be a precious contribution to regional defense.

The 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) represents a sizable  and emerging regional force that should get more attention from the West. With a population about half that of China, ASEAN member states seek free trade partnerships, although their strategic interests vary, as do their threat perceptions. They do not want to be pulled into conflicts involving greater powers. At the same time, they are becoming wary of China’s ambition to make them tributary states. Like Japan, Indonesia and the Philippines have never been tributary states of China. Vietnam, which threw off Chinese control in the 10th century, has a strong wariness of its big neighbor. Singapore and Thailand have a historical affinity with China, but they are allies or partners of the West. ASEAN has developed a splendid multilateral diplomacy with Western nations over the years, and many of its members are now proud democracies. For these reasons, the West must engage with ASEAN nations.

Preventing a Taiwan Contingency

The Indo-Pacific’s biggest challenge in the 21st century is a potential Chinese invasion of Taiwan. Xi could seek to surpass Mao’s legacy by realizing Mao’s unattained dream of annexing Taiwan. The self-governed island of 23 million people is proud of its economic achievements and democracy. Its semiconductor industry, for example, is an indispensable part of the global supply chain. Taiwan is too valuable to lose to communist dictators who don’t care about the freedom of Taiwan’s people or the island’s distinctive identity.

The West’s status as a global leader is at stake: If Taiwan is lost, the world may view the West as having surrendered the entire Indo-Pacific to the Chinese dictatorship.

Taiwan is not an easy island to invade. It is the continuation of the Japanese volcanic archipelago next to Okinawa Islands. Mountains as high as 4,000 meters rise on the east side of Taiwan. It is a rocky island with limited places for amphibious attack. The CCP would not launch a full-scale military attack immediately. First, it would engage in gray zone activities. Beijing would also declare that any foreign intervention would violate the CCP’s core interests and interfere in the domestic affairs of the PRC. The CCP would also denounce the use of force against it and declare that the safety of nationals of enemy states in China could not be guaranteed because of the rage of Chinese people.

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, left, and U.S. President Joe Biden greet with a fist bump at the NATO headquarters in Belgium in March 2022.

An invasion of Taiwan is not likely in the next few years. But by 2027, when Xi’s third term expires, Chinese military capability is projected to be such that the CCP could more successfully deter intervention by U.S. or other forces coming to the island’s aid. At that time, an invasion will be a matter of when, not if, many experts agree.

Japan would be involved in such a crisis immediately for several reasons. First, China claims the Senkaku Islands as part of Taiwan. Second, Japan’s Yonaguni Island and parts of its Sakishima Islands chain is 110 kilometers from Taiwan and would likely be within the war zone. Additionally, the CCP could seek to neutralize Japan Self-Defense Forces bases in the area. Third, the CCP may also seek to neutralize U.S. bases in Japan that would be used for operations to help Taiwan.

Japan’s leadership has repeatedly said that peace and stability are essential to Japan’s security. In the 2021 joint declaration between then-Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and U.S. President Joe Biden, the same passage appeared. This is exactly what Japan had been saying with the U.S. before the Japanese-China and U.S.-China normalization. The U.S.-Japan Alliance treaty contains not only Article 5 that stipulates the obligation of the common defense of Japan but also Article 6 that stipulates that U.S. forces can use bases in Japan for the peace and stability of the so-called Far East.

The Far East in this context means the Korean Peninsula, the Philippines and Taiwan, which were left in a power vacuum when Japan was defeated in the Pacific War. The U.S. wanted to protect them using bases in Japan, and Japan thought the surrounding area of Japan should not be left unprotected in the face of massive red forces of China, North Korea and Russia. This is the regional security arrangement that was incorporated in the Japan-U.S. security arrangement from the beginning.

Soon after Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida took office in early October 2021 after Suga stepped down September 3, he also met with President Biden to confirm Japan’s commitment to strengthen the
two nations’ security alliance and cooperate on regional security.

Future Courses of Action

Much studying and heavy lifting remain to effectively deter China from invading Taiwan. There are many concerns to address. The following are the most fundamental ones.

First, the U.S.-Japan Alliance for the first time faces a substantial Chinese threat over Taiwan. China is far stronger than before, reaching U.S. economic size and building massive military forces. Japan’s defense budget should be expanded drastically over 2% of GDP.

Second, the command line of the U.S.-Japan Alliance is not unified, as it is in South Korea or NATO. A scenario-based operational plan on a Taiwan contingency is required, and new roles and missions of both forces should be defined. 

Third, strategic dialogue is necessary among Australia, Japan, Taiwan and the U.S. The U.K., as a member of AUKUS, would be a good partner. France would also be a good partner, given France is a Pacific nation. South Korea should be involved if the political will can be mustered. 

Fourth, Japan’s integrated operation capabilities should be strengthened. The integrated command of the Self-Defense Forces was established only in 2006, and the post of chief of staff of the Ground Self-Defense Force was created as recently as 2018. They should be made more robust as institutions.

Fifth, Japan has recently created a Marine Corps-like brigade within the Ground Self-Defense Force. It should be soon included in the integrated plan.  

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