Longtime Japan observer Dr Kenneth R Weinstein recently sat down for an interview with The Sankei Shimbun and JAPAN Forward. He is the Japan Chair at the Hudson Institute, a US think tank, and an expert in international relations.
Dr Weinstein analyzes Japan's global leadership role in the context of the current challenges. The world is in a state of unprecedented simultaneous crises, he explains. It is not only China and Russia that are disruptive forces. Countries such as Iran and North Korea are also collaborating to undermine the global order.
Excerpts of Dr Weinstein's comments follow.
Addressing Multiple International Global Crises:
We are at a very perilous moment in international affairs. We've seen China, once pluralist, now become a brutal communist dictatorship again. [And] we've seen freedom crushed in Hong Kong. We see the pressing threat to Taiwan.
We've seen Russia's invasion of Ukraine. And now Hamas's bloody incursion into Israel. Hamas is aligned with Iran, which is aligned with North Korea. Iran cooperated with North Korea on nuclear programs, missile technology, and the like. Hamas uses North Korean weaponry, tunnels built with North Korean assistance and technology, and missiles built with North Korean help.
Sending the Wrong Signals
This is an unprecedented moment with so many simultaneous crises of major proportions facing a United States president.
I fear that the Joe Biden administration has undervalued the benefits of deterrence. First by taking the sanctions off Nord Stream 2 that the [Donald] Trump administration imposed. Second, through its disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan. [These] sent a signal of weakness to rogue countries, to non-democratic nations, all of whom are seeking to disrupt the global order.
Biden's [October 19] speech was the strongest of his presidency. He declared, "We're facing an inflection point in history. One of those moments where the decisions we make today are going to determine the future for decades to come."
Until then, however, he had failed to use the potential of his bully pulpit for critical issues such as rallying support for Ukraine.
[In his speech] the President made a compelling case for the military assistance package he seeks to aid Israel and Ukraine. He recognized that "Hamas and [Vladimir] Putin represent different threats, but they both share this in common. They both want to annihilate a neighboring democracy."
The President was right to note we cannot walk away from our global responsibilities. [But] it was under his watch that the American deterrent, critical to global order, was weakened.
Enabling Iran as a Profiteer
In its attempt to square the circle while negotiating a Saudi-Israeli peace agreement, the Biden team loosened the enforcement of sanctions on Iranian oil sales. [This has led] Iran to have as much as $80 billion USD in oil revenues since Biden took office. It far outweighs the $6 billion in funds that will not be released.
The funds were undoubtedly used for Hamas, Hezbollah [a Shi'a militia group in Lebanon,] and other armed proxy groups that Iran funds.
The Need for United Deterrence
Look, I think we need strong US leadership, one that understands the value of deterrence. And we need leadership in Washington that can really restore a focus on the American deterrent.
We need to stand together as one, period. It's essential that restore our deterrent, because, as Japan knows all too well, both Xi Jinping and Kim Jong Un, partners in crime with both Russia and Iran, are watching.
However, this is a very challenging moment because the democracies, particularly the Western democracies, more than Japan, have been deeply divided. Already, we've had rallies around the world, in capitals around the world, condemning Israel and celebrating Hamas' vicious attacks.
Just imagine if China were to go into Taiwan or were to blockade Taiwan, how it would take advantage of public opinion? How it would try to take advantage of its economic power, and its media power, especially through TikTok which, tragically, has become a primary news source for younger Americans, to distort things?
Having a divide over Israel's response to Hamas tells the Chinese that there are fissures within the West ー and I include Japan within the West ー that they can take advantage of if they decide to either blockade Taiwan or try to capture the Senkakus. And [the Taiwan situation] is absolutely more dangerous today. I think it was less dangerous before October 7, when the Chinese saw the resolve of the West in facing down Russia and Ukraine.
Japan Must Defend Taiwan
Japan does need to be prepared to defend Taiwan. It's important for Japan to get itself in a position so that China understands that it will come to Taiwan's defense. Not because we necessarily want Japan to be fighting a war to defend Taiwan. But we want to deter China from taking action so no war has to be fought whatsoever.
That's why deterrence is so critical. Because it is far cheaper to prepare for war and not have to fight it than it is to under-prepare for war and have to fight it.
We also need to figure out how Japan, without diplomatic ties to Taiwan, can communicate with Taiwan in the event of a contingency.
Hope in the Japan-US-South Korea Trilateral
Increasingly, we will hopefully be able to draw on South Korea's incredible defense capabilities, if relations with South Korea and Japan continue to improve. However, given the threat the PRC poses to Taiwan, and Taiwan’s proximity to Japan, the US-Japan-Taiwan trilateral relationship is more important than the US-Japan-ROK trilateral relationship for the security of Japan. But we are far off from having an effective US-Japan-Taiwan trilateral relationship at the intelligence level. Let alone at the security level.
Japan is our most important ally, but Japan has to become our closest ally. That's going to take time.
We have massive political divides in [the US] and it leads us, at times, not to be focused on what is truly important. The Prime Minister should always be a confidant of the President of the United States. He should be someone who can pick up the phone whenever he wants, and tell the President, "This really matters to us in Japan."
Here, I think the relationship between the Prime Minister with the President is critical.
Worthy of Being Called 'Global Japan'
One of the things [Prime Minister Kishida] has achieved is a transformation of the strategic understanding of the Japanese people built on Prime Minister Abe's strong platform of defense transformation and diplomatic transformation.
Japan's role as a global leader is also especially important. Japan has an important diplomatic voice of its own. It's what I personally have termed "Global Japan."
This is Japanese global leadership. We saw it in extraordinary ways during Japan’s G7 presidency, especially with regard to Ukraine. [However,] Japan should have spoken out with greater moral clarity after Hamas' brutal attack.
Prime Minister Abe deeply strengthened Japanese relations with Israel. And under Prime Minister Kishida, Japan and Israel are increasingly important technology partners, including in defense.
What has happened now in Ukraine and Israel can also happen in Asia. Japan will also need to rethink its relations with Iran, which is an enabler of North Korea, Russia, and China.
On the Challenge of Kishida's Relatively Low Approval Ratings
Prime Minister Kishida is a transformational leader. He has been an extraordinary global leader for Japan and understands the challenges of international affairs. Arguably, he is the top leader in the G7, in terms of his ability to project on the international stage and articulate a case for his policies.
Transformational leaders are not often appreciated at home. President Ronald Reagan in the United States, who led the Cold War to an end, is far more appreciated now than he was during his own presidency. And Prime Minister Winston Churchill, a leader of historic greatness, was voted out of office in Great Britain towards the end of World War II
Japan has to come to understand that it brings so much to the world through its leadership.
About Dr Weinstein
Dr Kenneth R Weinstein is a scholar of international politics. He served as president and chief executive officer of the Hudson Institute, Inc, from 2011 to 2020. In July 2023 he assumed the post of its Japan Chair. Dr Weinstein was nominated as the next US ambassador to Japan in March 2020, receiving unanimous support from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. However, before his nomination could be approved, it lapsed with the end of the 116th Congress in January 2021. Dr Weinstein also developed a close personal relationship with former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. A photo of him with Mr Abe is still on display in his office.
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(Read the report on the interview in Japanese.)
Interview by: Hiroo Watanabe