On January 13, 2024, Taiwan elected Lai Ching-te of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) as its next president. Mr. Lai received 40.05% of the vote, the lowest winning percentage since 2000. In addition to the DPP’s losing control of parliament, President-elect Lai will face a litany of practical and existential challenges during his presidency, chief among them the looming threat of Chinese military and economic coercion. As Taiwan looks to the United States for support in deterring China, the United States, in turn, must continue to shore up its alliance network in East Asia, particularly with Japan, the most consequential partner in the region.
How should we assess efforts to adapt the U.S.-Japan security and technology alliance to meet these challenges? What should we look for in 2024 given Taiwan’s election results and the political uncertainty in the United States and Japan? The Japan Program at Shorenstein APARC and the Sasakawa Peace Foundation USA convened a panel discussion, titled “U.S.-Japan Alliance Adaptation to Intensifying Strategic Competition with China,” to weigh in on these questions.
The speakers included Larry Diamond, the Mosbacher Senior Fellow in Global Democracy at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies and the William L. Clayton Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution; Matake Kamiya, professor of international relations at the National Defense Academy of Japan; Oriana Skylar Mastro, Center Fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies; and Jim Schoff, senior director of the US-Japan NEXT Alliance Initiative at Sasakawa Peace Foundation USA. APARC Deputy Director and Japan Program Director Kiyoteru Tsutsui moderated the discussion.
The panelists assessed the state of the U.S.-Japan security and technology alliance, examined current initiatives aimed at bolstering military cooperation, proposed additional measures to be taken, and considered various economic security policies related to supply chains, export controls, and high-tech industries. The speakers all acknowledged that Japan is the critical swing player in the gathering geopolitical storm in the Taiwan Strait and agreed that Japan's choices in responding to the increasing security challenge will be consequential, if not decisive. While each panelist suggested some form of strategic promotion and coordination of policies to address rising threats to the economic and national security of the United States and Japan, they asserted that enhanced communication with other like-minded partners is needed to achieve this objective.
A Consequential Election
Diamond noted that domestic issues were at the forefront of Taiwan’s elections. While the island's semiconductor industry is booming, other sectors struggle to keep pace, and citizens cite rising inequality, elder care, and energy policy as major domestic policy issues.
However, for Diamond, Taiwan’s active security challenge supersedes these domestic concerns, and Taiwan faces a grim reality. The U.S., Japan, and Taiwan are not prepared militarily, economically, or psychologically for a potential blockade or military confrontation with China, he said. Diamond argued that Taiwan must have more robust defenses to withstand pressure from Beijing.
Diamond invoked 20th-century history, issuing a warning: “I cannot underscore enough that this is a dangerous situation. We need to learn from the experience of the 1930s. Russia is trying to swallow Ukraine, a country with sovereignty. China, Russia, and Iran are cooperating. North Korea is sending supplies to Russia. We need to learn from history and take threats seriously in terms of rhetoric, action, and ideology. China is preparing for war against Taiwan; it is preparing to push the U.S. out of Asia, and it will likely happen in this decade.”
Diamond argued that Chinese intervention in Taiwan would not be the terminus of their expansion and suggested that “if you want to deter war, you better prepare for it. Anyone who believes that China would stop with Taiwan is breathtakingly naïve. We are running out of time. Urgent appeals are needed to get the U.S., Japan, Taiwan, and the European public to exit from their wishful thinking and slow pace of preparation.”
Japan’s Role and Relevance
Kamiya remarked upon recent changes in Japan’s military stance, citing the residual influence of Japan's postwar pacifism. According to Kamiya, the Japanese public has gradually accepted the reactivation of its self-defense forces and a dramatic increase in defense spending over the coming years.
For Kamiya, increased military spending is ushering in new levels of strategic alignment and unlocking new opportunities for the U.S.-Japan collaboration. He asserted that the future success of the U.S.-Japan alliance in countering China depends on whether Japan can maintain its current changes to its defense policy and whether both nations can ensure the preservation of rules-based international order. The military has a role of deterrence in establishing peace, he said.
Ensuring a Collaborative Approach
Schoff agreed that increased interdependence is necessary in an era of strategic competition but asked, “How can we compete effectively without undermining other partners? There is a consensus that national security consists of territorial and economic aspects, so maintaining an advantage means maintaining and advancing technological development and economic security.”
Schoff argued that U.S.-Japan leaders' summits would help achieve such collaboration, citing “two plus two” meetings of the Japan-U.S. Economic Policy Consultative Committee (EPCC) as particularly relevant. He highlighted semiconductor collaboration, government agency cooperation, and information sharing as some of the most helpful tools to confront this challenge.
Schoff also discussed U.S.-Japan joint security initiatives and some of the challenges to the U.S. presence in the Indo-Pacific, including malware targeting critical infrastructure organizations in Guam and elsewhere carried out by Volt Typhoon, a state-sponsored actor based in China that typically focuses on espionage and information gathering. He argued that the United States and Japan must collaborate on information sharing to address this and other cyberthreats.
Schoff also commented on Japan’s development of a new joint force command, the nation’s first. “As Japan builds this capability, we can more effectively leverage U.S. forces in Japan with an operational command in Japan. We can plan together, train together, and exercise together, but it depends on how much INDOPACOM wants to participate,” he said.
Deterrence and Force
Mastro, like Diamond, painted a solemn portrait of the escalating tensions in the region. She indicated that over the past 25 years, the Chinese military has rapidly modernized, stating that “this isn't the 1990s; the military balance of power used to be in Taiwan's favor.”
Mastro also ruled out any sort of diplomatic resolution to the situation, arguing that there is nothing Taiwan or the DPP can do to placate Beijing. “It looks like a very real possibility of war over the Taiwan Strait. The conditions for peace and reunification have already failed.”
Citing U.S. deterrence as the most important action to defend Taiwan, Mastro asserted that “there is nothing more important than Japan for U.S. deterrence. The southern islands of Japan are the only options close to the conflict zone, as Australia and South Korea are too far away.” Being the only country with a geographic location and potential for aggregate military, naval, and air power, Japan is the critical nation in the equation.
“If Japan and the U.S. were to join the fight, China would never attack Taiwan, but if China does not attack Japan, Japan will not join,” Mastro said. “If the Chinese attack Taiwan, they will likely tell Japan not to worry and that the Senkaku islands are safe.” She added that any guarantees of non-aggression from China are not necessarily trustworthy.
When considering "how bad it would be for Japan and the international system if we lost Taiwan,” Mastro replied that “Dealing with a forceful China that has come to accept that aggression is a good way of doing business is bad in the long term.” She argued that a Taiwan contingency would directly affect Japan and that China and Russia are building a relationship to counter the U.S.-Japan security partnership.
As for the practical details of the U.S.-Japan security partnership, Mastro suggested that the United States would not make Japan a joint command unless the nation was “all in.” Mastro also provided a timeline for preparations, stating that, “we have to be ready by 2027 if we want this war to be prevented.”