ArrowArtboardCreated with Sketch.Title ChevronTitle ChevronIcon FacebookIcon LinkedinIcon Mail ContactPath LayerIcon MailPositive ArrowIcon PrintIcon Twitter
Outnumbered by Chinese forces in the South China Sea, the U.S. is working on its game plan for a potential invasion of Taiwan by Beijing in the near future. It hopes to call on treaty allies Japan and Australia for support.   © Illustration by Daniel Garcia
The Big Story

All for one: U.S. enlists its Asian allies in defense of Taiwan

Washington fears a possible Chinese invasion by 2027. It will need all the help it can get

KEN MORIYASU, Nikkei Asia diplomatic correspondent | East Asia

TOKYO -- After the leaders of the Quad -- the U.S., Japan, Australia, and India -- met in Tokyo and distributed a joint statement on May 24, reporters quickly typed the terms "Russia" and "China" into the search function. Surely the Asia-Pacific region's four most prominent democracies would have something to say about their two biggest power rivals.

But the only hit was one "South China Sea," meaning U.S. President Joe Biden, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and new Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese had avoided any mention of their authoritarian counterparts.

"We discussed our respective responses to the conflict in Ukraine and the ongoing tragic humanitarian crisis, and assessed its implications for the Indo-Pacific," the statement says.

The statement pointed no fingers at Russia, did not condemn Moscow for the invasion, the shelling of hospitals or the deaths of innocent civilians.

The tepid language seemed to confirm the perception that the Quad is a lukewarm grouping unable to dig deep into crucial issues.

From left, Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, U.S. President Joe Biden, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Japan's Prime Minister Fumio Kishida arrive at the Quad leaders summit in Tokyo on May 24.  (Photo by Uichiro Kasai)

But the Japanese officials who had scrambled to prepare the joint statement were elated. "We got what we wanted from the Quad," one senior official said with conviction.

That gap -- between the uninspiring language of the joint statement and the sense of satisfaction beaming from the Japanese sherpas -- made clear the real intent of the talks: to appeal to potential allies and partners for another purpose altogether.

The U.S. is trying to build a reliable coalition that would face off against China if it attempted to take Taiwan by force. The time frame for such an invasion could be within five years, according to current and retired Pentagon officials. The avoidance of mentioning Russia makes it easier for India to stay at the table. The avoidance of China does the same for ASEAN nations.

The U.S. would prefer not to face China alone, due to Beijing's geographical advantages in the Taiwan Strait. But while the U.S. has five bilateral treaty allies and many partners in Asia, the idea of getting them to work united -- along the lines of NATO during the Ukraine war -- has so far proved elusive.

War games conducted by Washington think tanks show that a U.S. response to a Chinese invasion of Taiwan becomes stronger and stronger with more allies on board.

The relief on the faces of the Japanese officials hint that the U.S. is preparing for a possible Chinese invasion of Taiwan. Japan would be a crucial partner in any such operation. As the chair of this year's Quad summit, Japan was tasked with compiling a joint statement that keeps the heat on China, without naming it, and would be digestible for India and ASEAN. That mission was accomplished.

Second front

When historians look back at the Tokyo Quad summit of 2022, they might say it was the moment the U.S. and its allies enlisted India in the game plan against China.

Whether India joins in the international condemnation of Russia at this point is not a priority for the White House. What is more important is that India is committed to the Quad and that, when push comes to shove, India is able to contribute in its own way.

Albanese, Biden, Kishida and Modi announce the new Quad Fellowship after meeting at the prime minister's office in Tokyo on May 24. (Photo by Suzu Takahashi)

"I wouldn't expect India to contribute in the local battle over Taiwan," former Pentagon official Elbridge Colby told Nikkei Asia. "They don't have the capability."

What India could do, however, is draw China's attention to the Himalayan border.

"What the United States and Japan need India to do is to be as strong as possible in South Asia and effectively draw Chinese attention so that they have a major second-front problem," said Colby, the principal author of the 2018 National Defense Strategy under former President Donald Trump. India, in the meantime, draws the same benefit from China's difficulties in facing a strong U.S.-Japan alliance.

On the night of the Quad summit, after Biden had left Japan, Kishida invited Modi but not Albanese, the other Quad leader who was still in town, for dinner at the Akasaka Palace State Guesthouse.

The courting of India is not limited to a Taiwan contingency; it is also meant to sway the Indo-Pacific's future balance of power.

Modi and Kishida feed koi carp before their dinner at the Akasaka Palace State Guesthouse in Tokyo on May 24. (Pool photo)

India has long been seen as the key swing state in the Asia-Pacific region and as the heaviest counterweight to China.

Japanese officials have quietly been discussing this since the mid-2000s. Back then, diplomats from the Japanese Embassy in Washington frequently visited the third floor of the Pentagon. Their destination was a room facing the central courtyard of the Department of Defense, Room 3A932, or the Office of Net Assessment, which since 1973 has provided highly classified assessments of other countries for the U.S. secretaries of defense.

The office head was the legendary strategist Andrew Marshall, who served eight presidents, from Richard Nixon to Barack Obama. The Japanese Embassy asked Marshall and his team to assess the future rise of China and how Japan should respond.

"He told us to look at India," recalled Masafumi Ishii, who served as the embassy's head of political affairs and the government's liaison with Marshall.

"Marshall was always looking 20 years ahead," Ishii said. "So we started to prepare for a G-3 world -- not a G-2 between the U.S. and China, but a world in which the U.S., China and India would be the three major powers."

The discussions at the Tokyo Quad meeting were in line with what Marshall had advised Ishii and his colleagues nearly two decades earlier.

Mixed signals

Regarding Taiwan, Biden's every comment is watched around the world. Even his body language is subjected to intense scrutiny.

At a news conference with Kishida on May 23, Biden was asked if he was willing to get involved militarily to defend Taiwan.

"Yes," Biden replied. "That's the commitment we made," he repeated twice.

Biden speaks at a news conference held at the Akasaka Palace State Guesthouse in Tokyo on May 23.   © Reuters

Technically, the U.S. has no treaty obligation to defend Taiwan militarily. The only commitment is the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979, which stipulates that the U.S. provide Taiwan with arms of a defensive character to allow Taiwan to maintain its self-defense capabilities.

Biden's unequivocal "yes" signaled a departure from the long-held "strategic ambiguity" policy, under which Taiwan could not be sure whether the U.S. would come to its defense in a Chinese invasion -- but the Chinese could not be sure that America would not either.

Koichi Isobe, a retired lieutenant general in the Japan Ground Self-Defense Force, noted that the president dropped his eyes on a briefing book as he made the comments on Taiwan, suggesting that a statement was prepared on the subject.

Just before the question was asked, Biden had closed his briefing book, ready to step down from the podium. But when this additional question was posed, he reopened the book and seemed to read from it. "The idea that [Taiwan] can be taken by force is just not appropriate. It will dislocate the entire region and be another action similar to what happened in Ukraine," he said.

On May 26, former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe welcomed Biden's comments on Taiwan and said he believed they were intentional.

"They must have discussed the topic and agreed beforehand how to answer such a question," Abe told fellow lawmakers at a gathering of his Liberal Democratic Party faction. "In some sense, he was adjusting the policy of strategic ambiguity, expressing his intent and checking China."

Abe himself recently penned an op-ed for Project Syndicate calling for the U.S. to switch from strategic ambiguity to strategic clarity, making clear that it would rush to the defense of Taiwan.

Fellow LDP heavyweight Taro Aso told his faction the same day that "a clear message has been sent." The former longtime finance minister noted that Biden answered the Taiwan question without hesitation. "When he was vice president, Mr. Biden had the nickname, 'Slow Joe.' Suddenly he has switched to 'Speedy Joe,'" Aso quipped.

In the crossfire

An accurate assessment of the American president's intentions is critical for countries in the region, especially Japan, because it will directly impact how they respond to a Taiwan contingency.

"The Chinese will try to move fast and they will try to blind and degrade and disable U.S. and allied forces early in the conflict," Colby, the former Pentagon official, said.

People's Liberation Army soldiers in Nanjing, China, in 2014. PLA forces stationed in China's Eastern Theater Command are expected to lead in the event of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan.

The Eastern Theater Command of the People's Liberation Army, headquartered in Nanjing, will be the main component of the Taiwan operation. The command's naval arm has 18 diesel-powered attack submarines, 13 destroyers, 23 frigates and multiple amphibious landing ships, all for a Taiwan operation.

"Japan is critical" for any U.S. operation in the Taiwan Strait, Colby said. The U.S. military has over 56,000 active-duty personnel based in Japan, the largest overseas contingent in the world. On top of those service members heading to do battle with their Chinese counterparts, over time, there is more chance that Japan will directly contribute to a battle over the Taiwan Strait, Colby said. Those contributions could include base defense, anti-submarine warfare, anti-air capabilities and combat air patrols, he explained.

Colby thinks that, regardless of whether Biden's Taiwan comments were scripted, China likely assumes that the U.S. and Japan will be involved militarily.

The question will be whether Beijing opts for a quick, lightning invasion of Taiwan only, or conducts a simultaneous attack on U.S. assets in the region. Or is even more aggressive.

"The big choice for China will be how big to make its initial attack," Colby said. "With where things are heading now, China will probably be more inclined to have a large-scale initial attack -- not only U.S. bases in Japan but possibly Japanese bases in Japan to negate the defense," he said, predicting possible attacks on Self-Defense Forces facilities across Japan.

The center object in this satellite photo is believed to be a model of an advanced-radar-equipped plane owned by Japan's Self-Defense Forces.   © 2022 Planet Labs PBC

Nikkei recently reported that China has set up a dummy target in the Xinjiang desert modeled on an airborne warning and control system (AWACS) plane used by the Japan Air Self-Defense Force.

Other allies and partners, too, will be expected to play their respective roles. "Australia will make an important contribution in relatively focused ways, including as a more secure basing area, because it is within the range of some Chinese systems but relatively few," Colby said.

"South Korea needs to take responsibility for the conventional threat from North Korea essentially on its own," Colby said.

Avoiding ideology

For countries like the Philippines, a Taiwan contingency would have direct consequences. Chester Cabalza, president and founder of Manila-based think tank International Development and Security Cooperation, said the new administration of Ferdinand Marcos Jr. has to seriously consider the Taiwan issue as an impediment to the country's national security given its strategic importance.

Ferdinand "Bongbong" Marcos Jr.  was elected president of the Philippines in early May. (Photo by Ken Kobayashi)

"Taiwan and the Philippines are situated in the first island chain," Cabalza said, pointing to the group of islands that stretches from mainland Japan to Okinawa and Taiwan and on to the Philippines, which China considers a potential barrier in preventing other navies from approaching their home waters.

"If Beijing reclaims Taiwan by force and Taiwan becomes part of mainland China, Manila automatically becomes a buffer zone for China," he said. If Chinese President Xi Jinping has ambitions like Russian President Vladimir Putin, the Philippines "will turn out as the next Ukraine."

China has already invested extensively in the Philippines and is widely expected to support the newly elected Marcos administration in infrastructure as part of a post-pandemic economic recovery. It is also likely that China will suggest that the Philippines stand for a less U.S.-reliant foreign policy.

This is ringing alarm bells in Washington. Yet, like many American administrations before it, the Biden White House might be in for an uphill climb if it tries to sell a good-guys-versus-the-bad narrative to allies like the Philippines.

The late political scientist Samuel Huntington used many pages in his 1996 book "The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order" to warn the West about the illusion of there being a "universal civilization."

"The West won the world not by the superiority of its ideas or values or religion ... but rather by its superiority in applying organized violence. Westerners often forget this fact; non-Westerners never do," he wrote.

What the West sees as "universal," the non-West sees as "Western," Huntington said.

Yet, the basis of Biden's foreign policy is structured on "upholding our universal values" and "working in common cause with our closest allies and partners," as he noted in paragraph two of the Interim National Security Strategic Guidance, issued in March 2021.

Speaking at Nikkei's Future of Asia conference on May 27, Bilahari Kausikan, former permanent secretary of Singapore's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, echoed Huntington's ideas, saying the West would "not be well-served" to define the geopolitical shifts happening in the region in an overly ideological way.

"In Asia, there is a certain ambivalence," Bilahari said. "Not every country in this region finds every aspect of Western democracy universally attractive, nor does it find every aspect of Chinese authoritarianism universally abhorrent."

The West will find support from Asian countries to be "shaky and shallow," if it insists on using such simplistic categorization, he said.

"The world is a much more complex place," Bilahari said. "It is better to focus on the interests involved. That's easier to understand for everybody and easier to sustain over the long run."

History lessons

At last week's Quad meeting, President Biden was still using language that might make Huntington cringe. The American leader looked toward his Indian counterpart and said: "Prime Minister Modi ... I thank you for your continuing commitment to making sure democracies deliver, because that's what this is about: democracies versus autocracies."

But two days later, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken took a more nuanced approach in a speech outlining the administration's China policy. "We cannot rely on Beijing to change its trajectory," he said. "So we will shape the strategic environment around Beijing to advance our vision for an open, inclusive international system."

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken attends the Japan-U.S. Foreign Ministers meeting at Happo-en in Tokyo on May 23.   © Reuters

By bringing in allies and partners and "drawing on our reinforcing strengths in economics, in technology, and in diplomacy," the administration will seek to preserve peace through integrated deterrence, Blinken said.

Drawing one another's strengths, as opposed to dividing the world into two camps, represents a new tactic in Asian diplomacy from the U.S. It has not yet managed to unite Asia under one umbrella.

In 1954, in an attempt to create an international organization for collective defense in Southeast Asia, the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO) was founded. Similar to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, it was part of the U.S.'s Truman Doctrine.

But within Southeast Asia, only Thailand and the Philippines actually joined. Most of SEATO's other members were located outside the region: Australia, France, New Zealand, Pakistan, the U.K. and the U.S.

Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam had observer status in the early years.

SEATO's principal purpose was countering the perceived communist threat from the People's Republic of China, but the alliance was short-lived. Quoted in the book "Cold War Southeast Asia," edited by Malcolm H. Murfett, U.S. military historian Brian McAllister Linn summarized one line of analysis: "In short, SEATO was a paper tiger: [Its] ability to protect its members relied solely on the threat of United States atomic retaliation."

Long moribund, SEATO was finally dissolved in 1977, two years after the end of the Vietnam War and the fall of Indochina to communism. Thailand formally established relations with China on July 1, 1975, two months after the fall of Saigon.

Complicated friendships

Perhaps the most crucial question for the U.S. strategy in countering China is whether Japan is on board. Tokyo is increasingly seen in Washington as the most reliable ally in the Indo-Pacific. In a Nikkei poll conducted during May 27- 29, 91% of respondents in Japan said the nation needs to be prepared for a Taiwan crisis, including 41% saying they would accept legislative revisions to make this so.

But are American and Japanese interests fully aligned? Four decades ago, a senior Japanese lawmaker cautioned against such misconceptions. Motoo Shiina, a respected LDP lawmaker, stressed that it is wrong to assume that alliances share a "common destiny."

Alliances are but tools to maximize the national interests of their members, Shiina told a midcareer diplomat named Ryozo Kato.

Kato, who later went on to become the longest-serving Japanese ambassador to the U.S. in the post-World War II era, would frequently visit Shiina's office near the Japanese parliament building.

"Shiina was equivalent to Japan's Andy Marshall," Kato said in a recent interview with Nikkei. "He told me in our regular meetings that the notion that the U.S.-Japan alliance or the NATO alliance is perpetual is an illusion. It only looks that way because the Cold War lasted 40 years," Kato said. To maintain an alliance, both sides need tangible substance that makes clear that it is better for national interests to stick together, Shiina taught his disciple.

Likewise, the U.S. strategy that Colby envisions may not be embraced by Seoul. To expect South Korea to fend off North Korea, while U.S. forces based in South Korea move over to Taiwan, for instance, may be a hard pill for Seoul to swallow.

Cha Du-hyeogn, principal fellow at the Seoul-based think tank Asan Institute for Policy Studies, said the U.S. military's priority should be its treaty ally South Korea, not Taiwan.

"We are not like Ukraine," he said when asked about Colby's suggestion that Seoul will be expected to defend against North Korea on its own during a Taiwan contingency.

"Of course, the alliance has a priority," Cha said. "South Korea and the U.S. are allies, but Taiwan is not. The U.S. does not conduct joint military drills with Taiwan. There are no military bases" in Taiwan.

Convincing India to play a role in a Taiwan contingency might be even harder.

Srikanth Kondapalli, a professor of Chinese studies at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, said that unlike Japan, which has a security treaty with the U.S., India is alone when it comes to defending itself.

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing, China, on February 4.   © Reuters

"The cost is going to be high if you say that China is your enemy or Russia is your enemy. That is a reason why India is not labeling anybody as a bad guy or a good guy," Kondapalli said.

India's focus is on its own national interest. "India needs the Russian arms to counter the Chinese," he added, referring to the clashes with China in the disputed Himalayan border area that killed 20 Indian soldiers in June 2020.

"The Americans are not able to supply what we want and sometimes they don't have what we require," Kondapalli said. "For example, the S-400 [Russian-supplied surface-to-air missile defense system] is not manufactured by the U.S. but we need it to counter Pakistan and China. So, there is no way we can ignore Russia."

Crunchtime

Jeffrey Hornung, a senior political scientist at Rand Corp., told Nikkei that while more and more countries are signing up to the concept of a Free and Open Indo-Pacific -- governed by the rule of law, democratic values, respect for one another's sovereignty and a commitment to a peaceful settlement of disputes -- what countries are prepared to do to defend it has not been spelled out.

"The U.S. and Japan say it's unacceptable to change the status quo by coercion," Hornung said. "But it has never been clarified what Japan will actually do about it," if, for instance, China attempted to change the status quo.

"If the Indo-Pacific turned into a wartime situation, and if your country was not involved, what are you willing to do about it?" he asked.

Hornung pointed to the Himalayan border clash as an example. "I don't recall any other country trying to help India. But that was clearly China trying to push its claims, using force to try to change the status quo."

Isobe, the former SDF lieutenant general, said Russia's invasion of Ukraine has created a major headache for Japan's national security.

"Ever since the Meiji era [1868-1912], Japan's strategy was to avoid a three-front crisis: Russia in the north, the Korean Peninsula in the east and China in the southwest," Isobe said. "Former Prime Minister Abe attempted diplomacy with Russia to ease the northern threat.

"But now Japan has to face all three threats. This is unprecedented, and Japan may have to triple its defense budget, let alone double it."

Sitting in his office in Tokyo's Akasaka district, former Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda let out a similar sigh.

"If you look at Japan's geopolitics," he said, "our relations with China are bad, relations with Russia are bad, relations with North Korea are bad and relations with South Korea are bad. If we continue down this path, it will wear out our nerves and we will constantly have to increase our defense budget. Japan needs to think in a longer time frame.

"There are people who like to talk about China's coming demise, but Japan is going to decline even faster. Strategy cannot be based on the hope of somebody else's demise."

Additional reporting by Kiran Sharma in New Delhi, Dominic Faulder in Bangkok, Kim Jaewon in Seoul and Cliff Venzon in Manila.

Sponsored Content

About Sponsored Content This content was commissioned by Nikkei's Global Business Bureau.

Nikkei Asian Review, now known as Nikkei Asia, will be the voice of the Asian Century.

Celebrate our next chapter
Free access for everyone - Sep. 30

Find out more