Asian Perspectives on the Chinese Challenge

Asian Perspectives on the Chinese Challenge
(Col. (ret.) Grant Newsham, September 25, 2021)

Transcript available below

About the speaker

Grant Newsham is a Senior Fellow with the Center for Security Policy. He is also a Research Fellow at the Japan Forum for Strategic Studies, focusing on Asia/Pacific defense, political, and economic matters. He is a retired U.S. Marine Colonel and was the first U.S. Marine Liaison Officer to the Japan Ground Self-Defense Force. He also served as reserve head of intelligence for Marine Forces Pacific and was the U.S. Marine attaché, US Embassy Tokyo on two occasions. Grant Newsham has more than 20 years of experience in Japan and elsewhere in Asia.


Robert R. Reilly:

Hello and welcome to the Westminster Institute. I am Robert Reilly, its director. Grant Newsham is a Senior Fellow with the Center for Security Policy. He is also a Research Fellow at the Japan Forum for Strategic Studies, focusing on Asia/Pacific defense, political, and economic matters. He is a retired U.S. Marine Colonel and was the first U.S. Marine Liaison Officer to the Japan Ground Self-Defense Force. He also served as reserve head of intelligence for Marine Forces Pacific and was the U.S. Marine attaché, US Embassy Tokyo on two occasions. Grant Newsham has more than 20 years of experience in Japan and elsewhere in Asia so he is well able to offer the Asian perspective on the strategic challenges China presents to Japan and Taiwan, and how the two of them may face that threat. Grant, welcome to the program.

Grant Newsham:

Well, thanks very much, Bob. I appreciate the opportunity to weigh in.

Robert R. Reilly:

Please tell us how you think Japan and Taiwan are regarding the strategic challenge or threat from China as it stands now.

Grant Newsham:

Sure. I will start with the Japanese, and they are scared to death. Being Japanese they do not exactly display that terror, but they are really worried and part of the reason is that they know that Taiwan’s defense is Japan’s defense. In fact, that is an expression that you used to hear. I have heard it over the last 15 years from what I would call Japanese military officers who think about these things, and it is almost a cliché, and there is a reason for that. You look at the map and that will explain everything, and you see Taiwan that sits down sort of below the Japan southern islands, and it is effectively serves a blocking function.

And if Taiwan becomes under Chinese control, at that point if you look at it from Japan’s perspective, they have got a real problem because the Chinese People’s Liberation Army will be in a position where it can easily move into the Pacific. There is nothing blocking it anymore, it has effectively breached that so-called first island chain, which is a chain of islands that stretches from Japan down to Taiwan, to the Philippines, and then down to Indonesia, and even over to the Straits of Malacca, depending on how you calculate it, and that effectively hems in the Chinese military, but take Taiwan and the walls have been breached.

Once you have the Chinese military, the navy, the air force operating with great freedom to the east, they will be operating up to the east of Japan and at that point they have outflanked Japan’s southern defenses. Japan is sort of fortifying its southern islands right now so if it is facing off to the west, but if Taiwan goes, the Chinese are going to round those defensives, they have outflanked them. Additionally, you will see the Chinese navy and air force operating up east of Japan regularly and in effect surrounding Japan, and that has not happened since 1945 so that is a real problem for the Japanese.

And then there is another basic problem that they face and that is with Taiwan under Chinese control, China is then able to cut the sea lanes through the South China Sea and also through the East China Sea, and that is where most of Japan’s oil shipments come from. A huge proportion of its trade runs through the South China Sea so Japan looks at it and they say they see Taiwan as incredibly important from their own national defense perspective, from a geographic perspective. And they are afraid of having their sea lanes cut off, afraid of being surrounded by a more aggressive, more present Chinese military, so that is plenty of reason for the Japanese to be frightened.

And the Japanese of course have 2,000 years of experience with the Chinese, and a lot of it has not been particularly pleasant. Some of it has but not not in recent times, and even much of the older times was not [pleasant] either so there is a sort of a visceral fear of China within the Japanese public. Now, what you have seen however in very recent times, you are now seeing Japanese officials say more openly that Taiwan matters, Taiwan is important to Japan, and they imply that Japan will get involved in defending Taiwan or helping the Americans in the event the Americans help Taiwan, etc., and this is something you would not have heard just three, five years ago, but now it is being said publicly by more Japanese officials than ever.

Robert R. Reilly:

Has this translated into Japan taking the concrete steps that it needs to do to be able to help Taiwan or respond to a scenario involving Taiwan?

Grant Newsham:

I have not seen that yet. So far it is a lot of talk it is good talk but the actual concrete manifestations of improved Japanese capability or activities that would allow them to provide some support for Taiwan. I have not seen that happening yet. It does need to happen so that is just the Japanese perspective so there.

Robert R. Reilly:

Could you address for a moment exactly what are the Japanese capabilities? I mean you must know the Japan Self-Defense Force rather well, so what are they capable of today, and perhaps you could also comment on what their naval capabilities are because they are facing not only that the tremendous threat should China take over Taiwan, but China is threatening the Senkaku Islands, which they also claim is their sovereign territory and which has been Japanese since the late 19th century.

Well, that is right. What the Japanese are capable of is a lot more than they currently are doing. The Japanese Navy is the exception, and they have a very good niche capability both for surface warfare but particularly underwater warfare, submarines, anti-submarine warfare, but they currently serve as more as an augmenting force to help the Americans. And the Americans do not have enough resources in Asia.

The Chinese buildup has taken place really with too many people averting their eyes and not wanting to see it to the point where China is a considerable threat even to the U.S. forces. The Americans need help. The Japanese can provide some of this, particularly with their naval capabilities.

The rest of the Japanese military has got some work to do. The personnel are highly capable or they are very professional, but it is a military which has never developed the way it should. It has been underfunded for decades. It probably needs to double its defense budget tomorrow if it could be done. So it is never paid enough money for defense, no matter what they say, but also it cannot do some basic things that the military needs to do, and I would cite joint operations, which is where you combine air, sea, and ground capabilities, that you know we take as a given for a modern military to be able to do.

Unfortunately, the Japanese Self-Defense Forces do not really have much capability in that regard, so while Japan does have on paper a formidable force, in actual practice it needs to improve itself quickly. And it is not really their fault, the military’s fault, rather it is the political class, the Japan’s elite classes, academia, the media, the politicians, even officialdom have always belittled the military. They have downplayed it. They have done their best to humiliate it, in fact, and so it has developed in a way that has stunted and not really coordinated or combined the way it needs to be.

One figure I would cite is that the Japanese military misses recruitment targets by about 20 percent every year, and that tells you something, that it is not getting the attention and the respect it deserves. And if you go back to us the U.S. situation, I would say this would have been about the 1970s before Ronald Reagan took over, if you remember how the U.S. military was back then, you know, you joined the military, it was considered [that] it would be a life of poverty or deprivation. And it really was not anything that a lot of people wanted to join. And it took Mr. Reagan to sort of pay for it all, but he also talked it up.

In Japan you have not had either of those take place yet, and that needs to be done. It also needs to be given marching orders to get ready to fight a war, and not to sort of prepare for the Snow Festival up in Hokkaido, and that is a very different thing than what it is used to. So there is a lot to be done, but if, say, with some effort, some focused effort with the Americans helping and the Japanese doing what they need to do, the JSDF, the Japan Self-Defense Force, could be a very useful adjunct to the U.S. forces, say, particularly from the naval end, but also their air capabilities are pretty good if they could learn how to use them. And also the Japan Ground Self-Defense Force can play a very useful role in operating anti-ship missiles, for example, anti-aircraft and even anti-submarine weapons from this island chain from Japanese territory. And that would make for a very long afternoon for Chinese forces trying to get through the Japanese-held islands or even to operate off of Taiwan.

So the Japanese have a big contribution to make, but unfortunately they have not been put in a position where they felt they have needed to do it yet, and it is really waking up late. And you always say, well, how could this possibly be after 60 years of the U.S.-Japan defense alliance, and that is a good question. How could it possibly be that the JSDF is really not where it needs to be in terms of warfighting capability nor in its ability to operate with the U.S. forces? And that is an embarrassing question. The answer is embarrassing.

There should be that after all these years that only the two navies can really operate together. I know one just example, I will throw out, of how tardy we are, is that there is no joint headquarters in Japan or anywhere else where U.S. and Japanese forces sit together and plan or carry out the defense of Japan, doing things like planning for training exercises, patrolling, and there is no such headquarters. So the plan seems to be that if something happens, everybody will wing it, and that is not really the way to do it, you know.

What should they be doing like tomorrow? They should have a joint headquarters down on Okinawa to make the defense of Japan’s southern islands, including the stance joint Japan-U.S. operation, and that needs to be done immediately. Will it? I doubt it, but it should be so the solutions are not that hard when you think about them but it just takes some some effort. And the Americans have always been unwilling to tell the Japanese what they need or what they want.

There is an idea that we do not want to be the overbearing Americans who are making people unhappy. There is any number of American officials who can tell you why whatever you want the Japanese to do is too hard. They will actually make the excuses up for the Japanese themselves, and this is a situation which has to change and I do not think people understand just how dire it is from my perspective when you consider the Chinese threat.

But if you listen to many of the alliance managers, all you hear is, well, the alliance has never been stronger, the most important relationship bar none, etc., etc. Well, where is that radio with which the Japanese air, sea, and ground forces can talk to each other? Well, it does not exist and that is hard to imagine. Where is that joint headquarters? You know we hear about an alliance coordination mechanism, which supposedly exists and everyone talks about it, and what a wonderful thing it is.

But I have always wished Mr. Trump had gone to Japan and asked the Japanese to take him to see the alliance coordination mechanism because it does conjure up an image of big screens and Americans and Japanese together, and they are tracking aircraft, and they are sending patrols out. But I think you would have heard a sort of a lot of teeth sucking on that, that it well, there is no such place, and this is to my way of thinking and there is no nice way to say it, this ought to be an embarrassment to the people on the U.S. side who have run Japan matters for all these years. This is one of these things that if worse comes to worse, the price is going to be paid by young lance corporals and sailors aplenty.

So this is something that it is not an academic debate anymore. The Chinese have been very clear about what they intend to do, which is to, one, take Taiwan but also to teach the Japanese a lesson, and also in part of that deal it is to get the Americans out of the region or else in a position from which they cannot respond. So that is just a few comments about it.

I think it surprises a lot of people not to hear just sort of how bad things are it is in terms of Japanese capabilities, in terms of our ability to work with the Japanese it comes as a big surprise, but something you are almost not allowed to say, and you can see why I never get invited many places, but no, I am sort of joking but it is kind of an emperor has no clothes sort of sort of affair. But in terms of the basic capabilities of the Japanese military and the people who serve in it it is excellent, but it just needs to be taken advantage of by both countries.

Robert R. Reilly:

Well, you know, before the United States engaged in the large defense buildup in the 1980s President Reagan had to talk to the American people about the nature of the threat with which it was presented from the Soviet Union and the strategic position in which we found ourselves, a very weakened condition after President Carter’s time in office. And politically, once the threat was perceived and taken seriously he had bipartisan support in Congress for that buildup. Do you take these remarks by Japanese politicians, the defense minister, the prime minister, deputy prime minister as something comparable in the Japanese political world to prepare the people of Japan to take the threat from China, particularly toward Taiwan, more seriously so that they then will support a more serious defense budget and take their military more seriously? Is that what you sense politically is going on?

Grant Newsham:

Yes, it is. These are significant comments, you know, it is and they really have to be valued and taken seriously, but one of the interesting parts of the Japanese dynamic is that the Japanese public has a much better sense of national defense and what is required than does the Japanese political class. When things are explained to them, they say – there is a Japanese expression called 当たり前 atarimae, which means like, ‘yeah, it is’ or ‘of course,’ and that is the expression you will get if someone says, should Japan defend itself from China? Well, atarimae, of course, but the Japanese government, the administration, is almost never clearly present what is needed, what is required to sell it to the public, and when they do, the public response is generally very supportive.

I would cite Mr. Abe, who actually did try, and did some good work. He was the prime minister before the current prime minister and he was able to sell the idea of changing the interpretation of collective self-defense from a Japanese perspective, which really just means Japan will do the commonsensical things required to defend itself and also to provide support to the Americans.

And the public at large just thought, yeah, what is the big deal? And yet you had a very small number of protesters outside of the Diet, and that is what the foreign press focused on. I forget what the maximum figure was at any time, it was maybe ten, but when you consider that probably seventy million people live within maybe an hour or two’s train ride of Tokyo, ten thousand people is not very many. If you put that many into, say, old DC stadium where those losers, the Senators, used to play (and I used to watch them), 10,000 people would have been a huge crowd, but DC Stadium would also have looked empty.

And most of those people were old. There were very few young people there so it was really these remnants of the anti-war movement or even some who had some direct memory of World War II, and I do not blame them for not wanting to repeat any part of that. But the point is that the Japanese public just shrugged and said, yeah.

You know you take public opinion polls in Japan, ask questions, do you have a good feeling about China, and the answer is like 90 [percent] no. And the Japanese public still, they watch the news and they read newspapers and they are very thoughtful about these things. So when you have Japanese officials talking about Taiwan and the requirement, the dangers and the risks, I think many people do understand that and would support a more effective sort of approach towards military and things, and national defense.

But it is on the capitol it is on their Nagatachō, their Capitol Hill, that the people are late getting to it, and part of that is decades of very effective Chinese political warfare or subversion where they have bought off an awful lot of influence in Japan’s political class, just as they have in ours and in just about every other major city or major country around the world.

So the pump has been primed, and if Japan gets that encouragement to do what it needs to do, I think they could actually surprise us, but it does take the Americans to tell them not just what we want, but what we must have because we have gotten ourselves into a position where by ourselves our prospects against the Chinese are not [a sure thing]. [It] Is not as if we are doomed to lose, but it would be a lot harder than it needs to be now, and we need that help.

But also there is a political significance of the leading democracies in Asia and elsewhere aligning together, developing a real capability to conduct military operations together, and which manifests itself in a political tightness that makes it very hard for the Chinese to split that the way they try to do, using particularly their very effective political warfare operations. So there is both an operational importance to Japan getting things right but there is also a political significance and a psychological significance, which does not always get the attention it deserves.

But the Chinese do notice it. They like to take on their victims one at a time and they do not like seeing a united front against them so that is a part of what is the play in the U.S.-Japan relationship, but also the Taiwan relationship as well. China certainly reacted very strongly to the statements by Japanese officials. One almost attempted to say, hysterically, they have to be concerned over a more serious Quad, that is India, Australia, the United States, Japan and their approach to China as well as the new arrangement between the UK, Australia, and the United States regarding nuclear submarine technology and other technology for Australia, even though that would be a long time coming.

Robert R. Reilly:

Do you take these things as a serious expression of political will by those who are threatened by China?

Grant Newsham:

I do, especially if you have – and you remember this as well as I would, you know, just look back not all that long [ago] where you could not even say China was an adversary, you know. I will give you one example. In 2013 I was with the Japanese, who sent their first amphibious force over to their first amphibious force period, but they sent it over to California for an exercise. It was the first amphibious exercise they had really ever done, much less done with the Americans, and this was down in Camp Pendleton, and I was interviewed.

I think [this] was by Associated Press, and I made a comment that, you know, if recent history has taught us anything, it is when that the democracies get together to defend themselves, it has a stabilizing effect. That is what I said, something very close to that. The U.S. Marine Corps ruling class and its commissars and its courtier class went absolutely berserk. You know, this is the marine corps, supposedly the bloodthirsty guys looking for a fight and aiming to defend freedom, you know. I was a reservist so I did not care, but also I had others there, wrote other things to do, and this was an unhelpful distraction.

Plus, to free people anywhere, to hear this, see this sort of reaction from these fools, it did not escape notice. And my mother is East European, so I inherited her full capability for resentment, so I have got plenty of it, but it shows you how the U.S. side and the military, the civilian world, you could not even say that Japan was an adversary and this was reflected. You could tell stories like this forever.

So it is really just in the last few years that people have kind of woken up, and you see this even in the United States, but Japan as well Australia and the Australians I think woke up first and they really realized that they had a problem. This was about 2016 and they had a problem with Chinese subversion, and they went about addressing it right away, and did a very good job of it.

Now, as for the Indians, you know, I have heard Indian generals, actually retired ones, sort of say, ‘look, you know, we have been at war with China since 1962,’ and then they do not say it, but ‘what is wrong with you Americans that you cannot figure this out?’ So the Indians always knew it though they do have a sort of a slice of their political class that sees things differently, but if you look around, think back a few years and this is a big change. It remains to be seen if we can keep the momentum going and also translate this into really some concrete capabilities.

Also, not on the military front, but that includes, say, an economic Article Five so when China puts economic sanctions, say, on Australia or Taiwan or Japan or India or any or on us, will the other countries step in to back them up? And that is just as important, actually, I think as the military front, but it is potentially a very good thing, but if you look back five years, it looked a whole lot better than it did, but there is a there is a long way to go. But nonetheless, the first step is realizing you have got a problem and then setting out to do something about it.

So this recent agreement that you mentioned between the UK, Australia, and the Americans is a good thing to see. I think it is momentous, but now the thing is what do we make of it and can we even? And also it is important to look at it as augmenting the Quad, that semi-formal relationship between the Japanese, the Indians, the Australians, and Americans. That is based on security matters for now, but it is intended to have a political, economic, and a broader sort of element of cooperation.

This latest, the AUKUS, the three-way UK, Australia, U.S. thing, is augmenting the Quad and vice versa rather than something that is done in isolation. It is important to link these together and to bring in the Japanese for starters, somehow, obviously the nuclear angle is not one that is going to go anywhere anytime soon, but there are other ways that the Japanese can contribute to this. And bring them in and once you start working with people on sort of matters that are not theoretical but are directly relevant to their self-defense, it tends to change the relationship, and that is what we need, is a more deeper, more equal relationship with the Japanese.

In fact, what I would say is that so much of today’s relationship with the Japanese is the outcome of 60, 70 years of what I would call pathological dependence by the Japanese on the Americans, this idea that, well, the Americans will take care of it, you know, we do not have to do what we need to do for defense because the Americans are there. Some Japanese politicians when they are drunk, these older guys will actually refer to the Americans as their attack dogs; the idea being, well, you give them a bone and some water, and they will take care of things. And that is not really what you want people saying much less thinking or vice versa.

Robert R. Reilly:

The fiasco in Afghanistan may have helped disabuse them of that.

Grant Newsham:

I think so. Well, we will see how soon that is forgotten, but I am not so sure. I think it has woken up some people that they need to do more on this and I would not be surprised if the Japanese were brushing off, dusting off their nuclear weapons plans at the moment, and maybe a few others are giving it some thought as well, and you cannot blame them.

That business in Afghanistan, you know, we may see they on the U.S. side, the administration in particular, you will hear, ‘Well, it was just Afghanistan, it is not important, but we are really serious about the Indo-Pacific because that is important.’ Well, sometimes these little things have an outsized effect and they send a message, they discredit you.

As I said there is a psychological aspect to all of this and if people think America is confused and weak, it is inwardly focused, it is fighting with itself, well, it is not the America that it was 20 years ago. It is just seen differently and it is not just our allies and friends who see it that way but the enemies do as well, and they may think they have got an opening.

The one thing that may hold them back I suppose is that they may think if they wait a little longer, we will destroy ourselves even more and just make things easier, but that is being a little cynical, but I do not think it is entirely unreasonable to think that.

See Grant Newsham’s talk on YouTube