Last January, Fumio Kishida made his first visit to Washington D.C. as Japan's Prime Minister, reaffirming the strength of the U.S.-Japan alliance. As the U.S.–China relationship continues to fracture, Japan has remained in close alignment with the United States, even signaling a paradigm shift in its recently revised National Security Strategy, naming China an “unprecedented strategic challenge,” and unveiling a record defense budget. “This is a revolutionary event in Japan's security policy," said Professor Ryosei Kokubun about Tokyo’s hike in military expenditure.
Kokubun, the Spring 2023 Payne Distinguished Fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies (FSI) and a visiting scholar at APARC, headlined this quarter’s Payne Lecture. Held on May 3, 2023, and co-hosted by APARC and FSI, the event focused on the U.S.-China rivalry and Japan’s position.
The Payne Lectureship at FSI, named for Frank E. Payne and Arthur W. Payne, aims to raise public understanding of the complex policy issues facing the global community and advance international cooperation. The lectureship brings to Stanford internationally esteemed leaders from academia and the policy world who combine visionary thinking and a broad, practical grasp of their fields with the capacity to provide insights into pressing challenges of global concern. Throughout the 2022-23 academic year, the Payne Lectureship hosts experts from Asia who examine crucial questions in U.S.-China relations.
As the president of Japan's National Defense Academy from 2012 to 2021 and a longtime faculty member at Keio University, Professor Kokubun is uniquely qualified to share insights into Japan's perspectives on the rising security fears in the Asia-Pacific region. Following Kokubun's address was a panel discussion with Shorenstein APARC Fellow Thomas Fingar, an expert on China and U.S. foreign policy, and FSI Center Fellow Oriana Skylar Mastro, an expert on Chinese military and Asia-Pacific security. Kiyoteru Tsutsui, director of the Japan Program at APARC and the Center’s deputy director, moderated the conversation.
The Legacy of "Strategic Engagement
Although recent years have seen an escalation in the tense relationship between China and the United States, Professor Kokubun began his lecture by emphasizing the relatively recent nature of these tensions. He reminded the audience that the years following the formal re-establishment of diplomatic ties between the United States and China in 1979 saw a broad expansion of the U.S.–China relationship on nearly every front, from student exchange to diplomatic cooperation. During that time, Deng Xiaoping led China through the era of “reform and opening up,” integrating China into the global economy. Kokubun emphasized that U.S. leaders had hoped this policy of “strategic engagement” would push China towards democratization and the end of repressive domestic policies, and that, through reform and marketization, China would become more like the United States.
Kokubun depicted the era between 1979 and 2010 as a period of cautious optimism not only between the United States and China but also between China and Japan. Xi Jinping's presidency, however, has seen a complete reversal of this attitude. China's relationships with both Japan and the United States have become strained, and channels for communication and cooperation have steadily diminished. Kokubun pointed out that this has led to a substantial drop in U.S. public opinion of China, asking the audience, “Why is the U.S. so China-hating?” He sees this trend as a function of the failed “strategic engagement” policy. When the policy of engagement did not lead to democratization in China, U.S. officials and citizens felt a sense of betrayal and mistrust. The engagement policy and the hopes that came with it ended under the Trump administration, and Professor Kokubun predicts that the present U.S. hardline stance on China is here to stay.
How Would Japan Respond to a Taiwan Contingency?
In Kokubun’s view, Japan’s main concern is whether or not a Taiwan contingency is a real risk. He noted that the future depends on the decisions of the Taiwanese and Chinese leadership. “Whether Taiwan will move toward independence or move closer to the mainland lies at the crossroads,” he said. He pointed out that Tsai Ing-wen, Taiwan’s president, has not made any hardline statements supporting independence.
However, even if Taiwan’s government were to shift closer to the mainland, a continuation of the status quo is not guaranteed. Kokubun emphasized the uncertainty of the situation and said that, regardless of how Taiwan’s government acts, China’s actions depend on how Xi sees his opponents’ actions. “The final decision will depend on how Xi Jinping views the future policies of Taiwan and the United States, and whether he sees them as having crossed a line,” said Kokubun. “However, the criteria for that line are also arbitrary and entirely up to Xi Jinping’s judgment.” Ultimately, Kokubun returned to the intractability of the mounting conflict. “The key to the Taiwan issue is one thing: Xi’s resolve. China will never abandon the possibility of an armed invasion of Taiwan.”
Concerns about rising threats from China and North Korea and the alarm raised by the war in Ukraine have put security at the forefront of national consciousness in Japan. In December 2022, Japan’s government announced an enormous increase in national defense spending to 2% of national GDP over a five-year period, which will give the country the third-largest defense budget in the world. “This is a revolutionary event in Japan's security policy," stated Kokubun." Japan has traditionally discussed the threat of North Korea and China, of course, but this has not led to a significant increase in real defense spending or a strengthening of defense capabilities. However, after Russia's invasion of Ukraine...serious discussions about the possibility of a Taiwan contingency began.”
Many experts have speculated as to Japan’s role in a potential Taiwan contingency. Despite Japan’s close ties with Taiwan and longstanding alliance with the United States, Japan’s ability to respond to a Taiwan contingency is severely restricted by the Peace Constitution, which forbids Japan from maintaining offensive capabilities and prohibits offensive actions by the Japanese Self-Defense Forces (JSDF). Though some U.S. officials hope that Japan might defend Taiwan until U.S. forces arrive in the case of a Taiwan contingency, Kokubun noted that “this is completely impossible under the current Japanese legal system, and there is no way to move in that direction under the current circumstances.”
However, were an armed conflict to truly erupt in the Pacific, Japan might have no choice but to get involved. Kokubun said, “For Japan, the question is how to rescue the Japanese in Taiwan,” and if Taiwan were to attack the mainland in retaliation, “how to rescue the five times as many Japanese in China. They are hostages.” President Tsai’s position on retaliation against an invasion of Taiwan has complicated the situation for Japanese leadership. In addition, Chinese leadership has long contended that several Japanese possessions in the Pacific should be returned to Chinese sovereignty, including the Senkaku islands and Okinawa. To emphasize this point, Professor Kokubun cited a conversation he’d had with a high-level official in Taiwan’s Democratic Progressive Party: “If the U.S. and China really go to war, the battlefield would not be Taiwan, but Okinawa.”
East Asia’s Security Situation
Despite the complications of a Taiwan contingency, Kokubun noted that “if Okinawa or Senkaku islands were attacked, Japan would naturally fight back in close cooperation with the U.S. military. This makes a U.S.-China war very likely.” In Kokubun’s view, due to the absence of communication channels with North Korea and the continuing loss of communication channels with China, “the security environment in East Asia is approaching the worst situation since the end of World War II.”
“What Japan should do is, on the one hand, strengthen its security deterrence while at the same time strengthening its alliance with the United States, of course, and on the other hand, strengthen its ties with Australia, India, and South Korea, which share the same values,” said Kokubun. “On the basis of this partnership, Japan has no choice but to continue dialogue with China at all levels, along with the rest of the world.”
Finally, Kokubun addressed the logistics of a Chinese occupation of Taiwan, emphasizing that there are already “dissatisfied elements” in mainland China, not only in Tibet but also in low- and middle-class communities, who no longer enjoy the benefits of economic growth. “How much power will it really take to govern a Taiwan filled with people who hate the mainland?” asked Kokubun. He suggested that the Chinese government benefits from maintaining the annexation of Taiwan as a political objective without acting on it. Once the island has been seized, China will no longer be able to rally its population around this national goal. “I think that once the ultimate goal is accomplished, the objective is lost,” said Kokubun. “Taiwan unification seems to me to be the most stable goal as it is.”