Japan should strengthen concerted efforts with other countries to deal with China

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe during a recent interview with The Yomiuri Shimbun. First elected to the House of Representatives in 1993, Abe served as secretary general of the Liberal Democratic Party and also as chief Cabinet secretary before taking office as prime minister in 2006. Although he stepped down for medical reasons, he returned as prime minister in 2012 and held office until September 2020. In total, he spent a record-long 3,188 days as the head of Japan’s government.

The year 2022 will be one that tests the mettle of Prime Minister Fumio Kishida. How should he deal with the pandemic, foreign affairs, the economy and other issues? In a series of interviews with authoritative figures from various fields, we have collected a range of views on the challenges facing him. Our first interviewee was former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, 67. The following text is excerpted from Abe’s remarks. More of what he had to say will appear in the next installment of this series.

Taiwan a focal point

Again this year, there will be no change in the basic structure of China, a country rising economically and militarily, challenging the West, with the United States at its center.

Since it joined the World Trade Organization in 2001, China, with its cheap labor, became the world’s factory, and grew rapidly. After the “Lehman shock” in 2008, the country made a massive amount of investments in Southeast Asia, Africa and even Europe, taking advantage of the stagnant global economy and thus coming to wield its clout.

With such successful experiences, China has confidence that its system of state capitalism is superior to liberalism and the market economy of the West. It is difficult to have people in China amend their way of thinking. It is necessary to contemplate how Japan should face China realistically, taking such circumstances into account.

The biggest point at issue this year is the situation surrounding Taiwan. It is vital to make efforts to have China stop its attempts at changing the status quo. We cannot let our guard down on intelligence warfare that would throw Taiwan into confusion. It is extremely important for the international community to unite and continue sending our support to Taiwan.

Conflicts and clashes occur when the power of countries in rivalry is thrown off balance, lowering the barriers to the use of armed force. One side can miscalculate the other’s intentions and resort to force. To avoid that, it is important to maintain a stable military balance of power.

Should any contingency concerning Taiwan occur, Okinawa Prefecture, including the Senkaku Islands, would also be exposed to a crisis. Japan must not only reinforce the Japan-U.S. alliance but also enhance its own defense capability.

China has increased its defense spending 42-fold over the past 30 years. Whatever their performance, China possesses naval vessels in far greater numbers than the Maritime Self-Defense Force does, making it impossible for Japan and the United States, even when they join hands, to deal with China on their own. Japan needs to push ahead with multilateral security cooperation, increasing the number of countries committed to the defense of this region.

I want Prime Minister Kishida to keep in mind that it is Japan that stands on the front line in dealing with China and needs to exercise its leadership in binding these countries together.

During the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, the countries that stood on the front line were in Europe, particularly East and West Germany. West Germany quickly amended its basic law and rebuilt its defense forces. On top of that, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) shored up West Germany.

The front line has shifted today to the Indo-Pacific region. Now, it is Japan that is exposed to the danger of having its territory taken away.

When I was prime minister, I explained to the leaders of many other nations the concerns over such matters as China’s human rights issues, its aggressive maritime advance and information theft.

Although it took quite a while, these countries have at last come to think seriously about the challenges posed by China. The dispatches of naval vessels by such countries as the United Kingdom, France and Germany may be proof of that.

A trilateral security partnership called AUKUS, comprising Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States, was created last year. AUKUS is chiefly aimed at cooperating with Australia in developing nuclear-powered submarines for its navy, but there should be room for Japan to get involved in the joint development of defense equipment. Such a viewpoint is also needed for Japan’s diplomacy today.

If Japan, which has advocated the vision of a “free and open Indo-Pacific,” and which has long sounded alarm bells over China’s behavior, were to back off at the critical moment, cooperating countries would say: “What happened to Japan? It paid only lip service to that vision, didn’t it?” I would like the Kishida administration to deepen concerted efforts with other countries, such as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue [QUAD], a strategic forum of four democratic nations — the United States, India, Australia and Japan. [The QUAD, initiated by Abe and led by Japan and the United States, aims to promote the building of a rules-based international order, including the rule of law and freedom of navigation, in the Indo-Pacific region.]

Defense policy at turning point

The nation’s defense policy has entered a phase in which it is necessary to strive for a major shift. The present missile defense system cannot compete with North Korea’s ballistic missiles, which fly on irregular trajectories, nor with the hypersonic glide vehicles of China and Russia. By the time Japan obtains a shield to defend against these new swords, yet another new sword will have appeared. It is more rational to possess striking power than to inject more resources into the missile defense system.

The missile defense system, in the first place, is just like stopping a sword stroke between one’s bare hands. No matter how much one brags about “being capable of catching enemy missiles,” it is weak as deterrence. The important thing is to make an opponent believe, “If we make the first attack, we, too, may suffer a fairly heavy blow.” Japan’s defense budget should emphasize bolstering its striking power, such as by deploying long-range cruise missiles.

If Japan were to come under attack and suffer damage, we would fall back on the U.S. forces to respond. But even if the U.S. forces said to the Self-Defense Forces, “Let’s fight together,” the SDF would end up having to refuse to do so, on the grounds that “Japan does not possess any enemy base strike capability as a policy decision, so we cannot fight together with you.” As such, the alliance would not function. Possessing enemy base-striking capability is essential.

Many threats and concerns

We cannot overlook the military tensions surrounding Ukraine, either. The situation surrounding Ukraine is linked to the one in Taiwan.

Ukraine was formerly part of the Soviet Union, with many ethnic Russians living in the country. Taiwan was once under the jurisdiction of China, too. If the West does not block Russia from invading Ukraine, how might Chinese President Xi Jinping, witnessing such a development in the West, move against Taiwan?

Speaking about the movement of Russian armed forces last year, U.S. President Joe Biden said, “The idea the United States is going to unilaterally use force to confront Russia invading Ukraine is not in the cards right now.” But this was probably a mistake in terms of diplomatic strategy. The stability of the world community is maintained with the overwhelming military power of the United States, as well as the sense of danger that there is no telling what sort of retaliation one would invite by doing something bad. The United States must never quickly make clear that “we won’t do anything.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin, just like a warlord during the Warring States period in Japan, tries to gauge what moves his opponent would make. Now, he is testing the West as if to say, “Are you willing to stake your life to defend Ukraine?” I have a feeling that the negotiations between the United States and NATO on one hand and Russia on the other will advance with Russia taking the initiative.

The peace treaty talks between Japan and Russia, including those over the northern territories issue, need to be moved ahead strategically, with the overall security environment of Japan taken into consideration.

The Air Self-Defense Force is ready to scramble immediately against military aircraft likely to enter Japan’s territorial airspace, in response to such moves by both China and Russia.

Last October, 10 Chinese and Russian naval vessels engaged in the unusual activity of sailing around Japan. We should also be on alert against North Korea’s missiles. Japan, a country that has many threats and causes for concern on its plate, can never be assumed to be safe.

I think Japan should use diplomacy to sever the concerted efforts between China and Russia, and move ahead with improving its ties with Russia. When I was prime minister, I took part in talks with Russia on the issue of the northern territories with such belief. It is a matter of regret that the negotiations did not bear fruit, but I hope that the Kishida administration will also negotiate with Russia proactively.