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Politics & Security

Japan and United States: Finding the Willpower to Do Far More to Stand Up to China

Whatever comes up next, with the PRC it won’t stop at Taiwan. Will Japan and the United States show their resolve by standing up to China?

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Chess pieces are seen in front of displayed China and Taiwan's flags in this illustration taken January 25, 2022. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/Illustration

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I am regularly asked about the ability of the Fumio Kishida Administration and that of Joe Biden to deal with China. I usually answer that I am not impressed and am frankly worried.

Recent trends underscore this concern, especially regular and increasingly large-scale incursions into Taiwan’s Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ). In short, neither Japan nor the United States is doing enough to challenge China and protect Taiwan. 

The People’s Republic of China had been increasing its military air incursions into Taiwan’s ADIZ. For example, in 2020 it did so 380 times, but it dramatically upped the ante on October 4, 2021, when it sent 56 warplanes near Taiwan. The aircraft involved reportedly included 38 J-16 fighter jets, 12 H-6k bombers, 2 Y-8 anti-submarine aircraft, and 2 KJ-500 warning and control aircraft among others.

A Chinese military's J-10C airplane during the 13th Airshow China 2021, on Tuesday, Sept. 28, 2021, a week after China flew 39 warplanes including J-10 fighter jets toward Taiwan in its largest such sortie of the year. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan)

A few months later, on January 23, 2022, China sent 39 military aircraft into Taiwan’s ADIZ, the largest incursion since October. Among the aircraft were 24 J-16s and 10 J-10 multirole fighter aircraft. 

When explaining to Japanese audiences, this is in line with what I call China’s 3-K policy, kazu (number), kibo (size), and kaisu (frequency). The People’s Republic of China constantly increases the number of the aircraft (or ships), the size of the aircraft (or ship), and the frequency with which they commit blatantly illegal incursions that undermine the peace and stability of the region. 

This is true not only in the context of Taiwan. It can also be observed in the areas surrounding Japan’s Senkaku Islands, for example.

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Japan patrolling near the Senkaku Islands, Ishigaki City, Okinawa Japan

Some apologists will say that incursions were probably accidental, that it was a one-off, or that it was in response to a provocation. But in the case of Taiwan, clearly this is not true. Over the course of four days beginning on October 1— the PRC’s National Day—China launched 148 warplanes, forcing Taiwan to constantly scramble.

Non-responsive Responses

I was frankly stunned and deeply disappointed with the responses of the Japanese and United States governments at that time to the PRC’s repeated and calculated incursions.

The Kishida Administration was born on October 4. The next day, Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno announced that the Japanese government called on the two concerned parties to work things out peacefully (tōjisha no aida de heiwatekini kaiketsu shite hoshii). He also said that the Japanese government would continue to watch the situation carefully. He added that this was the long-standing policy of the Japanese government, hinting that it was not controversial. 

However, there are in fact many things wrong with the above statement, not the least of which is that it was the PRC that was acting aggressively. Taiwan was only defending its territory and airspace, as any free nation has the right to do. 

A Chinese military H-6K bomber is seen conducting training exercises around Taiwan and the South China Sea. (Wang Guosong/Xinhua via AP)

The statement was also problematic in that Japan was using old policy for a new situation. China’s air incursion was unprecedented, but Japan was responding based on precedent.

Japan’s near non-response was a huge strategic blunder. One needs to stand up to a bully immediately and with reciprocal strength and will. 

In this case, at a minimum, the Kishida administration should have called China out by name and criticized it, and not tempered its response. Why? Because as senior Japanese government officials have publicly stated in the past, a Taiwan contingency directly affects Japan’s security.

RELATED:Suga Administration’s Message: To Protect Taiwan is to Protect Japan, In Our Region: A Taiwan Contingency is a Japan Contingency

Second, not only Japan, but the United States government should have taken immediate action in response to the Chinese incursions, deploying US fighters, refuelers, and reconnaissance aircraft from its bases in Okinawa and mainland Japan to Taiwan, assuming Taiwan desired it and not forgetting to consult with Japan. 

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U.S. President Joe Biden. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque/File Photo
Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida

The third countermeasure the two countries should have taken together was inviting the Taiwanese military to participate in the multilateral drills that were being conducted at that time in the South China Sea. 

RELATED: Shinzo Abe Goes Hardline on Taiwan Support and Japan Should Pay Attention

Of course, the People’s Republic of China would have been outraged and criticized these various countermeasures, but China criticizes everything except its own actions. In response, the United States government could have told Beijing that if it doesn’t want countermeasures like these, it should refrain immediately from bullying Taiwan. And if it doesn’t, for each and every action, the United States, Japan, and others would take far greater responses.

Soldiers of People's Liberation Army (PLA) are seen before a giant screen as Chinese President Xi Jinping speaks. REUTERS/Jason Lee/File Photo

Underestimating China

China cannot win if the region and world unite to stand up to its bullying of a smaller and weaker country. Unfortunately, however, appeasement seems to be the preferred course.

While there was no doubt many calculations, concerns, and considerations behind the decision to do nothing, there is a long tradition in both Japan and the United States of misreading China. 

This misreading falls into two categories: its will and capability. 

On the one hand, China is viewed as not having any hostile intentions, especially by the Left. The image it has created is one of only seeking peace and growth, according to this narrative, which has tricked many people (this writer included) over the years. The misperception continues with the thinking that Beijing has no plans whatsoever to invade Taiwan. Rather, the ones who desire war are the separatists in Taiwan and those in the West seeking war with China.

This is obviously a dangerous, inaccurate view about China’s will and true intentions.

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On the other hand, there are others, usually on the Right, who downplay China’s capabilities to launch an attack. China is years behind the United States militarily, they say, and its political, economic, and social structures are fractured and fragile. It is teetering on the brink of collapse. Any day now. Forty years ago, the Vietnamese gave China a bloody nose, didn’t they? There is nothing to worry about.

To me, this is another dangerous, inaccurate view of China, particularly underestimating its capabilities and military power.

The real question should be: do Japan and the United States have the capability and the will to stand up to China over Taiwan (and whatever comes up next, as it won’t stop there)? Looking at the Biden and Kishida administrations responses to date, I am not so sure. 

Both administrations have too many officials who are compromised. A housecleaning and reassessment are in order. Now, before it is too late.

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Author: Dr. Robert D. Eldridge

Dr. Eldridge is the former political advisor to the Marine Corps in Japan and the author of numerous works about bilateral relations including The Origins of US Policy in the East China Sea Islands Dispute (Routledge, 2014) and Okinawa’s Media and the Media’s Okinawa (Reed, 2019).

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