The danger of military conflict across the Taiwan Strait

Mike Mochizuki

When Japan’s Prime Minister Fumio Kishida meets with President Biden in Washington this week, he will no doubt emphasize his efforts to bolster Japanese defense capabilities and tighten the U.S.-Japan alliance.
Kishida, who will be meeting with Biden on Friday after a whirlwind trip through Europe and Canada, will report on how he expects Japan to improve the mobility and resilience of its defense forces, and how its military will acquire counterstrike capabilities to complement U.S. military power.
In addition, the prime minister will confirm his decision to increase spending to about 43 trillion yen (about $326 billion) under the new defense build-up program during fiscal years 2023-2027 —which is more than a 56 percent jump over the previous five-year period for 2019-2023.
President Biden will of course welcome these transformative changes in Japan’s defense policy.
But Kishida should also use the upcoming bilateral summit to hold a frank and substantive discussion about the role of diplomacy in dealing with critical security issues in the Asia-Pacific region. Although Japan’s National Security Strategy released in December mentions China as “the greatest strategic challenge in ensuring the peace and security of Japan and the peace and stability of the international community,” what is missing in this document is a concrete diplomatic strategy to address one of the greatest security challenges in the region: the danger of military conflict across the Taiwan Strait.
Japan’s new National Security Strategy only vaguely states that “Japan will continue to make various efforts based on its position that cross-strait issues are expected to be resolved peacefully.”
Given the geographic proximity of Japan to Taiwan, Japan’s acquisition of new stand-off counter-strike missile capabilities, as well as the enhanced mobility and resilience of its defense forces, will complicate Chinese military planning and encourage Beijing to be more hesitant about using military force to reunify Taiwan with China.
Although military deterrence is essential, it is by no means sufficient to reduce the risk of war over Taiwan. Unless accompanied by an effective diplomatic strategy, the enhancement of military deterrence could exacerbate cross-strait tensions by provoking further threatening responses from China and convincing the Chinese leadership that the only way to resolve the Taiwan issue is through military force.
In order to prevent a war over Taiwan, therefore, one must distinguish between Chinese motives and intentions.
China’s motives in preventing the permanent separation of Taiwan from China and reunifying Taiwan with China are immutable. They are the core interests of both China’s leadership and people. But there is room for flexibility regarding China’s intentions when it comes to the timing of Taiwan’s reunification with China and the use of military force.
The goal of U.S. and Japanese policy should be to encourage China’s patience regarding Taiwan and its pursuit of peaceful means for resolving the Taiwan issue. To do so, Kishida should ask Biden to work together on the following three points. First, Tokyo and Washington should give Beijing credible reassurances about their Taiwan policies as well as buttressing their deterrence capabilities. The U.S. National Security Strategy released in October began to move in this direction when it stated that the United States does not support Taiwan independence. But Japan’s National Security Strategy was much less explicit by only noting that “Japan’s basic position regarding Taiwan remains unchanged.”
To reassure Beijing that Tokyo and Washington remain committed to their One China policies, Kishida and Biden should issue a joint statement that neither Japan nor the United States supports Taiwan’s independence in addition to reasserting that they welcome a peaceful resolution to cross-strait differences and oppose unilateral changes to the status quo by either side of the Taiwan Strait. And Japanese and American leaders should remind their counterparts in Taiwan that the best way for Taipei to protect its diplomatic space and expand its participation in international bodies is to mitigate tensions between itself and China.
Second, both Japan and the United States should devote more energy to stabilizing and improving their respective bilateral relationships with China. Both countries should seize opportunities for cooperation with China to deal with the critical global challenges of climate change and public health, as well as to address North Korea’s alarming missile tests and nuclear programs. Kishida should also express to Biden his reservations about simplistically dividing the world into two opposing camps of democracies versus autocracies.
In the long run, such a Manichean approach to foreign policy will undermine the international expansion of universal values of freedom, democracy, and fundamental human rights.
Third, while continuing to promote a free and open Indo-Pacific maritime region, Japan and the United States should revive their vision of an open and inclusive Asia-Pacific region. Kishida should emphasize to Biden that the countries of Asia want to avoid having to choose between the United States and China and that they prefer a more moderate U.S.-China strategic competition.
In the spirit of open and prosperous regionalism, Kishida should convey his hope that China as well as Taiwan will meet the high standards of accession to the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership. By building on the legacy of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum whereby Beijing accepted Taiwan’s membership in APEC as an economic region under the name China-Taipei, such a development would contribute to improving cross-strait relations.
Given Tokyo’s habit of deferring to Washington on important security issues because of Japan’s dependence on the U.S. defense commitment, Kishida might feel uncomfortable about raising the above points with Biden — especially in light of the strong anti-China sentiment now prevalent in Washington. But he must muster the courage to engage in such straight talk with Biden because the stakes are so especially high for Japan.
A war over Taiwan would engulf Japan with devastating consequences. Moreover, Kishida has earned the right to voice his concerns about U.S. policy toward China because of the tough decisions he has made to strengthen Japan’s defense capabilities and U.S.-Japan alliance coordination.
President Biden might even welcome this candid advice from a trusted and indispensable ally because it could increase his leverage to resist those in the United States pushing for even more hostile and indeed more reckless policies toward China.