We Need to Talk Candidly About the Severity of the Security Environment
Conversation with Hideaki Shinoda, Tokyo University of Foreign Studies Professor, and Masashi Murano, Hudson Institute Fellow.
Murano: Today’s security environment is intertwined with various elements, but there is one important axis. It is the perspective of whether a given country is a status quo state or a revisionist state in terms of the rules-based international order. In this regard, it is China that is ignoring existing rules such as international law and is trying to change the status quo gradually by force, and countries like the U.S. and Japan are status quo states, trying to protect the rules.
In this axis of confrontation, the U.S. is losing its predominance in conventional warfare, creating a situation in which it is easier to change the status quo. For about 30 years after the collapse of the cold war and the 9.11 terrorist attacks, the U.S. has waged wars in Iraq, Kosovo, Afghanistan and other countries. They were weaker enemies, with which the U.S. had no obvious economic ties. In other words, the U.S. military could establish maritime and air superiority at any time it chooses and attack these enemies unilaterally.
But China has a very strong economic interdependence with the U.S., and is catching up with the U.S. in conventional fighting capabilities. China has a powerful anti-access area denial (A2/AD) force, and it is no longer easy for the U.S. to hold air and maritime superiority. Also, for a long time, the U.S. military had based its posture on a premise that it could fight and win against medium-sized powers in two regions simultaneously. However, the Trump administration gave up on this in its national defense strategy.
With limited resources, it is not possible for the U.S. to simultaneously fight against two major powers—China and Russia. Moreover, in peacetime, in addition to China and Russia, it is necessary to deter multiple other enemies at once, such as North Korea, Iran, and extremist groups. In short, the enemies know the limits of America’s power projection capabilities, and that’s why they want to challenge the status quo.
Also, the area of conflict is expanding. For example, competition is intensifying during peacetime and in gray zones over ideologies related to economy, technology, information management, law enforcement, and democratic values. Furthermore, we are seeing the expansion of domains that goes beyond the ground, sea, and air, to also space, cyber, and electromagnetic fields. The problem here is that resources are limited as the challenges that must be addressed are growing. The U.S. budget deficit has ballooned, and the budget must also be spent on domestic policies, such as recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, which will inevitably result in trade-offs with the defense budget. There will always be a shortfall somewhere. Cooperation with allies is important to make up for these shortfalls. The new security framework “AUKUS” between the U.S., the United Kingdom, and Australia, and the Quad framework between Japan, the U.S., Australia, and India, are part of such efforts.
Shinoda: Behind the need for prioritization in the U.S. is the fact that the U.S. and its allies are on the back foot. Or you could say that China’s power is increasing.
After the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, President Biden said that since the situation is different in East Asia, the U.S. would not abandon Taiwan. China is saying the U.S. will abandon Taiwan when push comes to shove. It’s not about which side is right, but simply in the long run, in a protracted war, China will be overwhelmingly advantageous. The U.S. government has restrictions from democracy. In particular, in recent years, the U.S. is becoming more vulnerable to drastic policy changes when there is a change of government. No matter how much Biden insists that foreign policy will not change, it is institutionally determined that he cannot make any promises until after the next election. Therefore, it would be rational for China to choose a protracted war and plan the next move while observing the state of decline of the U.S. power and its move toward a change of government.
The U.S. said it won against the Taliban for a year or two on a single-year budget basis. But the Taliban assumed the U.S. would grow weary after 20 to 30 years. In fact, the war proceeded exactly as the Taliban planned and they were able to recapture Kabul. Since China is also aware of the strategy implemented by the Taliban, it would not be strange if China is thinking about Taiwan’s unification in the same span. To increase the effectiveness of deterrence, it is necessary for the status quo forces to demonstrate to the other side that they have the awareness and the framework to win protracted battles.
In terms of a rules-based international order, the basic picture is that China is demanding change in the current rules set by the U.S. Therefore, the U.S. needs to make efforts to demonstrate the superiority of its rules. However, I think that the U.S. has largely neglected this point when it comes to its stand-off with China over Taiwan. Traditionally, the U.S. has adopted a policy of “strategic ambiguity” in its Taiwan policy, but if it tries to incorporate ambiguity into the U.S. rules, it will lose persuasiveness. If the U.S. wants to achieve a certain degree of superiority in ideological warfare, politicians need to make greater efforts than those made during the cold war. For example, if we enter a protracted battle, it will be necessary to communicate a little more clearly about issues such as the value of democracy and recognizing an executive government under international law.
U.S. Withdrawal from Afghanistan Created a Structural Problem
Murano: In withdrawing from Afghanistan, President Biden said, “We will not conduct a hasty rush to the exit… we will do it in full coordination with our allies and partners.” However, the U.S. had long lacked sufficient coordination with countries that have been involved in the security maintenance and rebuilding of Afghanistan. This is a slightly different issue from its relationship with treaty allies such as Japan and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) or the U.S.’s credibility of defense commitments to Taiwan. However, among Southeast Asian and Middle Eastern countries that are wavering between the U.S. and China, the move has strengthened the negative impression that the U.S. cannot be trusted in times of need. This problem may linger when the U.S. needs to involve these countries in long-term strategic competition.
On the military front, the U.S. has not transferred its forces from Afghanistan to Asia. To begin with, the number of ground troops stationed in Afghanistan was only around 2,500. The Indo-Pacific region is dominated by naval and air forces and does not require that many infantries. It would have been a heavier burden if the U.S. had left the military on the scale of 2002-2014 when the Iraq-Afghan war was in full swing, but from the latter half of the Obama administration to the Trump and Biden administrations, the number of U.S. military forces in the Middle East had significantly decreased and was already at the minimum required size. If anything, I think what [Biden] meant was that the U.S. was transferring the amount of political and diplomatic attention to Asia from the Middle East, rather than actual military power.
Shinoda: The U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan points to a major structural problem. To put it shortly, America’s power is declining. If they had the strength to spare, they should have won in Afghanistan or continued to stay in Afghanistan, even if the military cost was a little high. They talk about transformation and rebalancing, but as Mr. Murano said, it was not a circumstance in which one unit had to be reassigned to a different mission. The U.S. simply withdrew because it could no longer bear the financial, human, and political costs.
From the perspective of diplomacy, the losses are greater than the gains. The U.S. lost an entire pro-U.S. nation of nearly 40 million people in the middle of the Eurasian Continent. The Afghanistan government collapsed in a way that favored countries with poor relations with the U.S., such as China and Pakistan. No matter how you look at it, by losing one country and allowing China’s influence to permeate and the Belt and Road Initiative to expand, the U.S. showed weakness in its conflict with China. President Biden, who had an online democracy summit in December to bring together a glorious network of democracies and allies against tyranny, had made a major misjudgment in the battle of ideology and values.
Whatever the excuse was, the fact is that the U.S. has abandoned a democratic country, because the U.S. lacked resources. When the U.S. tries to look away from this fact and calls on democracies to come together, the allies will only react coldly. Unless we accept reality and seriously develop a framework to fight the battle of democracy against despotism, we will continue to lose. In the process of rebuilding efforts, Japan must also contribute. This is the worldview we needed to have right now.
The Delicate Relationship Between Quad and AUKUS
Shinoda: The positioning of India will be important for the Quad framework. Without India, it’s just allies from the Cold War era so it wouldn’t be anything new. While the inclusion of India is interesting, India is also wary of the Quad becoming a military alliance. It wouldn’t want to agree to something like linking AUKUS with the Quad.
As part of its geopolitical diplomatic tactic in Eurasia, India is a member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, which is led by Russia and China. As it is also a member of the Quad, there is a big possibility that India will become a key player by keeping an eye on both sides. There is no way India would get out of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation and only work in Quad. We shouldn’t even ask. Rather, we should nurture the areas in which India is interested. We should enhance the added value of Quad by putting importance on the interests that come with having India as its member. I think we can see some of this taking shape.
In other words, Quad members should discuss security-related policy areas in a broader sense, such as cyber and artificial intelligence (AI) issues and economic security. By obtaining India’s consent they are making a pitch to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. In that way, we can reach a consensus through India. The appeal of the Quad is that it is suitable for expanding channels for the framework for democracy vs. autocracy and the U.S.-China conflict as part of a diplomatic negotiating tactic while allowing Japan to incorporate as many agendas as possible that are favorable to Japan.
The AUKUS formed from a completely different direction, with a clear military rationale. Behind France’s protest against the abandonment of the joint development plan for submarines, France might have been casting a question of whether it should be acceptable to operate on military rationale alone. In terms of the relationship between the Quad and AUKUS, India would not be involved in the operation of nuclear submarines, so, France, as part of the network of allies, was raising the delicate issue in regard to the link between Quad and AUKUS. I believe beyond the relationship between AUKUS and the Quad, is a huge question looming; how to position NATO to expand a network of democracies to counter China.
Murano: I have also attended public-private sector joint conferences on Quad several times, and I felt it has a limitation as a military security framework. As Professor Shinoda said, India’s position is somewhat special. From the context of military security, the Quad is more like a triangle among Japan, the U.S., and Australia, and then there is India, rather than a quadrilateral framework of four countries. The U.S. and its allies Japan and Australia generally share a common view of the security order, but India needs to be concerned about not just China but also Pakistan, Afghanistan, and the Middle East. So, there is a slight gap in their interests.
Currently, Japan, the U.S., Australia, and India are conducting joint naval exercises. However, I don’t think it can be done on the premise that India will play any role if the U.S. or Japan were to have a military conflict with China. In other words, it is not yet conceivable that the Quad will become a collective security mechanism like NATO. In that sense, it was rather natural for the Quad summit meeting in late September to have focused on expansion in the economic areas and areas outside of a purely military issue. I think that was a good thing.
AUKUS, on the other hand, is a framework with a strong military flavor that originated from a review of Australia’s submarine procurement plan. It is true that AUKUS lacked consideration for creating a diplomatic relationship with France, but it was good in terms of creating a reason to attract Australia and Great Britain to the Pacific region. Australia will not be able to operate new submarines until at the earliest the late 2030s, and although there are several issues in terms of implementation, I think it is a good framework. For better or worse, it is easier for alliances of Anglo-Saxon countries, like the Five Eyes framework for sharing classified information created by the five English-speaking countries of the U.S., Great Britain, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, to step forward when they have ideas, compared to the Japan-U.S. alliance. I can feel that from the outside.
The Disappointing Winning Formula
Murano: When considering the military balance between the U.S. and China in the Indo-Pacific region, it is extremely important to have striking capabilities to fight while staying within China’s A2/AD zone. Currently, the Ohio-class cruise missile submarine, which can carry nearly 150 Tomahawks on a single ship, is making this possible. However, these will begin to retire in the latter half of the 2020s, so if China launches military action against Taiwan during this period, the U.S. striking capabilities to deter it will drop significantly. To make up for this shortfall, there is now a common understanding in the U.S. security community that, in addition to the existing sea- and air-launched missiles, it is necessary to deploy ground-launched missiles along the First Island Chain.
In general, when we think of striking capabilities, we tend to think of so-called “deterrence by punishment,” but what we should focus on now is “deterrence by denial.” This means that when the enemy tries to take military action, we have the capabilities to physically refuse that action, making it impossible for the enemy to achieve the objective. If we continue to pursue deterrence by denial to build our defense capabilities, naturally this will be based on the premise that there will be a war. However, this is by no means having the capabilities to wage a war. As I mentioned at the beginning, Japan is a status quo state, and actions to change the status quo always start with the other side. In short, it is important that we are prepared to win when the enemy wages war.
To that end, it is essential to establish the “theory of victory,” which is to figure out based on a specific threat scenario, what, where, when and how we can best deter the enemy from trying to change the status quo. Once we know the theory of victory, we will know the order of priority of which weaknesses of the Self-Defense Force (SDF) need to be addressed. Conversely, we will never be able to build credible deterrence based on an abstract theory such as to say it is enough to have some kind of striking power.
Shinoda: There is no doubt that Japan needs to develop its defense capabilities. The problem is legislation. If the Diet must deliberate on every issue, this is too rigid. It may also be a factor that discourages on-site personnel. If they need to ask, “could we do this, will this be legally feasible?” they might just give up, thinking they don’t want to make it an issue in the Diet. It’s a bad culture in this country. It is of immeasurable importance to improve legislation and clarify one by one from the top what is now possible. Of course, constitutional issues are at the top of this, and we need to develop other legal systems as well.
Even superpowers like the U.S. are beginning to want to cut down their efforts in order to deal with China, as they did with Afghanistan. Since the end of the Cold War, the word “restructuring” has been used many times. The U.S. had to take on new challenges despite a lack of resources, so it faced a compelling situation in which it could not respond to them without restructuring. When I turn around and look at Japan, the debate is all about its lack of defense efforts. Of course, more efforts are needed to increase deterrence, but it is not just a question of whether to increase the budget. The restructuring of the SDF and the enhancement of equipment will be necessary, as is the establishment of policy theory.
Under such circumstances, value-oriented diplomacy will become important. This is a matter of security, a matter of where to draw the line of defense. What do we defend and what do we not? How should we prioritize what we are defending when allocating resources? We keep these things ambiguous and ask our forces to just do a good job, but how could they? If we don’t make our forces and citizens aware daily of the values of what we should defend, it will inevitably cause confusion. We must make it clear what core values we need to defend, and this is where we are incompatible with China. Why are we committed to Taiwan? Of course, there are geopolitical reasons, but if we don’t raise awareness that it’s also because Taiwan shares our values, we won’t be able to figure out how to establish a line of defense or how to allocate resources. Even if we say broadly that human rights are important, there are many different concepts of human rights in Asia, so the operation doesn’t work. From the perspective of the necessity of security policy, it is essential to firmly position value-oriented diplomacy.
Murano: In terms of security policy, I believe that what is necessary when politicians have to make difficult decisions is a consensus on “what are the national interests that Japan should protect using the SDF?” To build this consensus, politicians first and foremost need to talk candidly to the public about the severity of the security environment we are facing. However, I believe that the role of creating the foundations that make it easier for people to have that conversation lies with those in the private sector, such as academics and think tanks.
For example, what are the risks that Japan faces in defending Taiwan? Conversely, what kind of risks will arise if Taiwan is not protected? If Japan does not support the U.S. when Taiwan faces an emergency and abandons Taiwan, it may be able to avoid being attacked by China. However, Japan’s security environment will be much more severe after that. Under these circumstances, many people need to understand that Japan itself must make tough decisions. At the same time, it is also necessary to make people in Taiwan and America understand the magnitude of the risks that Japan bears.
If each party does not know in advance that the other party is taking as many risks and making as many efforts as possible, we won’t be able to build a relationship of trust when the time comes. It is extremely important to openly discuss these points regularly. Think tanks and the media should play a very important role in this regard.
This article is a translation of the Japanese original published in the December 2021 issue of Seiron magazine.
Masashi Murano is a researcher at the Hudson Institute. He completed the first term of a doctoral course at Takushoku University. He worked as a researcher at the Okazaki Institute. Murano’s expertise includes Japan-U.S. security and defense policy. He is the co-author of Arata na misairu gunkaku kyoso to nippon no boei (New Missile Arms Race and Japan’s Defense) published by Namiki Shobo.
Hideaki Shinoda is a professor at the Tokyo University of Foreign Studies. He graduated from the School of Political Science and Economics at Waseda University and received a Ph.D. in international relations from the London School of Economics and Political Science. He served as an associate professor at the Center for Peace, Hiroshima University. Shinoda is an expert in international politics and relations. He is the author of many books, including Patonashippu kokusai heiwa katudou (Partnership International Peace Activities), published by Keiso Shobo.