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.
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.
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?
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?
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?
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.
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.
Robert R. Reilly:
Well, what is interesting is when I have asked China experts why didn’t Xi Jinping just wait for another five years, why didn’t he keep his powder dry and continue churning out an extraordinary number of naval war vessels, and increasing his missile strength – all of which he is doing – but simply not talk and behave so aggressively, and by that time, five or ten years, it would be too late for the United States to do anything. And in every instance the response I have gotten back is, oh, they already think it is too late, that indeed is why they are behaving this way. I do not know if you would agree with that as an accurate assessment of the way the Chinese leadership thinks.
I would certainly give it some some credit. You know it just might be, you know that is possible that I think after the financial collapse in 2008 or so the Chinese saw the Americans as sort of inexorably on a downslope, and them as on being on an upslope so there may be some of that.
I think there could be part of that, and you are right that if they had kept their so-called charm offensive going, if you remember the late 2000s when it was everything was smiles and their ambassadors all around the world were smiling and were talking about how it is a peaceful rise, wannabe friends, no ill intent towards anyone, etc. That was actually very effective. You could see it in Asia where all over the place there were people in every single country in the elite classes saying, you know, you Americans, you know it is you [who] are the problem, it is not China, you know. Why are you trying to tell these ghost stories to scare people? You used to hear that everywhere. It is important to remember that.
I always thought another five years and they would have had us in a position I think where nobody could have moved, could have responded to them. I think part of it may be I think a calculated assessment that the Americans are finished or just you know headed down, so you know the future is Chinese.
But also I think there is an aspect of it that is about the same as when like a fat guy goes to the buffet table and he says he is completely full, and he sees this new tray of eclairs that is delivered, and he just cannot help himself. He has got to have them all, yeah, because it is a new tray of eclairs. He does not want anyone else to have [it]. He just could not help himself and that is what I think, that is part of the Chinese motivation.
And it is something that is if you do business with the Chinese, that there is very much sort of a peasant mentality there where you just cannot help yourself; if you see something, you have got to have it, and you tend to overreach, and that is maybe part of the dynamic. It sounds a little funny, but you know I kind of consider myself like that guy at the buffet table. If I see a new tray of eclairs, I have got to have [them], and I am not even Chinese. But as I say it is this peasant mentality that you will see on display manifest sometimes in this expression, you die, I live, which you hear a lot, and it is so.
I think they made a mistake. It was the hubris what have you that the ancient Greeks knew all about, that made them play their hand too soon, and I think that may have been. You know I am glad they did because we would be in a lot worse trouble than we are today, but you know it is often hard to say motivation, what is it that – how could we fail for 20 years thing with all that much money floating around? We probably had our own version of the fat man at the buffet, trying to get rich quick off of the Afghanistan deal, and maybe not having much interest in ending it in some quarters, but so it is with I think what you have described with the Chinese, that is I think it needs to be taken very seriously.
They thought their time had come and really if you think back on the appeasement, the accommodation that was going on in the 2010s, that why would they think otherwise, you know? When a commander of USINDOPACOM, or then PACOM, says that his biggest concern is climate change, no mention of the Chinese, well, if you are looking at it from China’s perspective and you have the Americans falling over themselves to engage with you, you have these flag officers and retired flag officers who just love these trips to visit China, why would not you think that your time has come, and these people are not going to defend themselves? I think it may not get the attention it deserves because nobody likes to think that the U.S. side screwed up the answers that you are hearing from some of the experts.
Robert R. Reilly:
As you say thanks to their imprudence and their continuing wolf warrior diplomacy they have done something for the United States that I have not seen since the Reagan years in the Cold War, and that is a bipartisan understanding of who is the threat and that we have to take it seriously. And I would certainly think that today there is a bipartisan agreement regarding China, which may account for how little the foreign policy toward China has changed with the change of administration since President Trump and now we have President Biden. I am encouraged by what you say that there seems to be, I presume, a bipartisan consensus in Japan so even if the new prime minister comes from the other party, they would still take the Chinese threat seriously?
I think the public would. I think there would be a good chunk of the political class that would, but you never quite know, especially if you were to get a new party in place, but I think that if they were to go too far, that they would see some public backlash pretty quickly. I think if it is an LDP candidate – that is the ruling party – if one of those four candidates gets in, I think you would probably see a fairly similar approach to Taiwan. I do not see any huge changes, although some candidates are better than others.
A couple of them have closer ties with China than one would like. Apparently there are some business ties between one candidate’s family and the Chinese, and that has manifested itself in the past in going easy on China. That was a few years back now, but, for example, the Japanese were going to do a small sort of amphibious landing on one of the islands near Okinawa, and the Chinese went berserk and they launched sort of these rental mobs that went after Japanese businesses in China, one of which was like a department store/supermarket. Actually, the family that owned it is a Japanese one, but the family that owns it was one of the deputy prime minister’s family, and somebody called off that exercise, basically on Friday afternoon, and it appears to have been the deputy prime minister, operating his family’s business.
So that is always an issue just as business in the United States, and while there is a degree of bipartisan support on China policy in the U.S., keep in mind that Wall Street, the business class, have immense influence and immense influence in every administration, including the Trump administration. They are doing their best to ensure America does nothing that makes the Chinese unhappy.
But back to Japan. I think that the sort of the consensus has pretty much shifted sort of towards a stronger stance towards China and in a general sense towards supporting Taiwan, but as with a lot of things Japanese you do have to wait and see what the concrete outcomes of this are, but there is also something in the Japanese psyche that I do not think they are capable of taking a sort of a submissive or a secondary role to China. The idea that they would say, okay, China, yeah, you are the top dogs, that would be very hard to imagine for Japan in general, but even its elite class I am not sure that they could do that, so there is a point at which they have gotten pushed too far and I think they are just about at that point.
At the same time do they have the ability to respond and defend themselves by themselves? That is debatable. Probably not, but with the Americans their odds improve immensely. And vice versa, it also works to our advantage also. But if it is an ally or friend – you know the Japanese for the last 75 years have been a much higher manifestation of human decency, and good behavior, and consensual government, rule of law, human rights, etc. than just about anyone and certainly just about anyone in northeast Asia. You know we are fortunate I think to have friends like the Japanese, but they have got to do more. We have to do more as well, and we also have to help them more than we have, and I think we expect them to actually make a bigger contribution to the alliance.
Robert R. Reilly:
Could we talk now about the Taiwanese perspective and Taiwanese capabilities regarding their own defense?
Sure, yeah, that does matter, you know, what the Taiwanese actually think. There is a lot of debate. As you noticed it is a lot of other people talking about Taiwan and what Taiwan can or cannot do, what they should or should not do, and the Taiwanese themselves actually get relatively little attention in all of this debate. And you would see this in Taiwan with these teams of Americans come through like ex-officials, academics, etc. They all come through and what they say is, you know, you have got to spend more on defense, you have got to have asymmetric capability, and you have got to buy this, this, and this, and you should not buy that, that, and that.
And the poor Taiwanese just, you know, they must be the politest people on the planet because they sit there and smile and take it. And my guess is that as soon as the yankees are gone they must just be kicking, just I do not know, you know, swearing, you know, a storm, but at this because these people come in, tell them what they need to do, and then leave.
So when you think of Taiwan, the thing to remember is that for the last 40 years Taiwan has been effectively isolated and the Taiwan military – nobody will deal with it except at the edges and that is all, but the Americans will not do joint training, joint exercises with the Taiwan military. Their interactions are very limited so this is like Taiwan has developed like a it is like a Galapagos situation where for forty years Taiwan’s military has not developed or improved the way that it needs to because it has not been allowed to operate with anyone else, hardly, and not in any meaningful way.
And as I said the bottom line is, well, will the Americans do joint exercises with them? No, and that tells you everything, that the Americans are still too frightened of the Chinese to actually defend the 24 million free Chinese people, and this is something that for all the talk about, you know, having Taiwan’s back, you know, of being more supportive than ever, the Americans still will not really interact with them, with the Taiwanese. That is from a military perspective.
Economically, it is better of course, but politically, once again the Americans have not defended Taiwan on the political front the way that they should. So when you think of Taiwan and the way it looks at its defense, you have to consider the effects of 40 years of isolation and of being beleaguered, and for a while it did not matter all that much because the Chinese military was not enough to be much of a threat, but now it certainly is. Now, the PRC writ large is an immensely powerful country, and Taiwan is to say the least worried and why would you not be, you know?
And there is always something, a fear that, well, maybe the Americans really are not that serious and maybe they will not defend us. It tends to over time to wear down a population. It can create a sense of fatalism, that, well, there is nothing we can do, we do not have any friends so why should we even try.
Robert R. Reilly:
If I could just interrupt with one question because I have heard that the Taiwanese military like the Japanese military also is always falling short of its recruitment requirements. Is that so and if it is so is it a reflection of what you just said, the discouragement they feel?
It is partly that, but actually if you compare the situation with the Japanese military and the Taiwanese military, it is very similar, actually, because in both cases the problems they have and the solutions are pretty much the same, and they start with personnel. And as you said, they switched to an all-volunteer force recently, a few years ago, and that has not been able to attract sufficient numbers of people, but if you look at the terms of service, it is not an attractive profession. There is no GI Bill, you know. Housing is practically like living in poverty. You are not well-treated, not by our standards and even by Taiwanese standards. It is a life of deprivation if you join the military.
It is amazing just how good they are, how many people do join, just how capable what they do have is, but in both cases each country does not spend what it needs to spend on defense, they do not focus on the need to give, to buy personnel hardware. It is in shambles, but I think could be fixed very quickly, and there are Taiwanese who understand what needs to be done, and they are trying to do that.
So, the Taiwanese military faces the challenges of, I would say, forty years of isolations, feeling like you have no friends, and it has not been properly funded by the political class, which does not see that as a vote getter, and that really is unforgivable. But with some effort it could make itself into such a tough nut to crack that Xi Jinping would not want to try it, not to mention the knock-on effects worldwide that would pretty much stop all of China’s foreign trade, etc., etc. if they were to go after Taiwan.
But the concern is the foreign nations will not provide Taiwan with enough support that it feels like it can defend itself or it has some decent prospects, and it just might at some point feel like it has had enough. It sort of reminds one of say the – nobody will get this, but Rhodesia in about 1978, ’79 when the population just tired out. A few years earlier they had sort of considered a mark of pride that they were taking on the world, but it just wears you out, and you sort of feel that sometimes when talking to the Taiwanese. But I have never met anyone in Taiwan who wanted to be part of China, and it is getting even less likely that you will meet anyone in that, so it is going away from any possibility of willingly going.
They have never been part of the PRC, but willingly submitting to the PRC, so there is a lot of talk in DC as well about bolstering Taiwan and things have been different around the edges, sending American officials to Taiwan as equals. These are things, but one likes to think that step-by-step that things will improve, and more will be done to the point that gradually, you know, we take this support for Taiwan as a given. You would like to see it happen that way, but really one of the big things is you have got to help that military break out of this Galapagos effect, and that will do more to bolster Taiwan’s defense or lead to the steps necessary to do that and just about anything that we could do. I would say more than any particular piece of hardware, I think it would be the Americans helping the Taiwanese actually get out and about.
What would that look like?
One possibility is a sort of central Pacific, HADR, humanitarian assistance disaster relief force, that combines the Americans with the Taiwanese, and you set up a small headquarters or office in Taiwan, where American officers work with the Taiwanese to do the plans, and then go out and exercise or HADR, and then respond to real world instances. And if you get the Americans involved, the Japanese just might get involved because they tend to follow along there, and see what the Americans are doing towards Taiwan, and then sort of calibrating what they will do.
But once you do that there is an operational benefit, but also once again there is a psychological, a political benefit. This is something that should have been done ten years ago, and it was suggested, and our ruling class was not interested, but it is like going to the dentist. If you go when you just need a filling, it is a lot better than just taking a shot of vodka every time it hurts and then waiting ten years and going to the dentist when you have really got some problems. But we do need to make that trip to the dentist, to my way of thinking.
Robert R. Reilly:
With respect to Taiwan, it is interesting that China also shot itself in the foot through its behavior in Hong Kong, which I imagine removed a lot of political favor within Taiwan for a peaceful reunification, and solidified the opposition to doing so. You mentioned however, this factor of demoralization from isolation.
We have not talked about Chinese capabilities yet, but as you know, the enormous buildup of missile forces across the straits of Taiwan on the Chinese shore, the harassment by Chinese air forces probing into Taiwanese airspace, the huge increase in the capabilities of the Chinese naval forces, China presumably would wish for capitulation to have the fruits of war without war, and just get Taiwan for nothing. Well, except for the price of the military buildup. But at you know, a number of American admirals before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee have said to expect war in Asia within five years. And I believe in every case it is related to Taiwan, about which China has said, move towards independence or jeopardize our claim to that as Chinese territory, and we will go to war. How do things stand in terms of their capabilities to do that now?
I think they are pretty good. One of the debates is can the Chinese get across the Taiwan Strait, and the consensus thinking or the majority seems to be that they do not have the capability yet. I disagree with that, and I think they could have gotten across the Taiwan Strait even ten years ago. I think they could probably get some tens of thousands ashore in a day if they had a mind to do so. The fact that they do not have an amphibious force exactly like the American one does not really matter. They use their civilian resources well. They have a lot of amphibious ships that are older, but they work perfectly fine. They have got barges, etc., etc. and they have been training for this for fifty years.
There is a tendency to underestimate Chinese capabilities, so personally I think they could have a pretty good go at an amphibious assault if that is what they wanted to do. And keep in mind that that would take place in the context of a lot of other things, you know, just sort of missile barrages, you would have the Chinese Navy out and about, the Chinese Air Force, all over the place. There would be cyberattacks, electronic warfare, the Fifth Columnists (of whom there are plenty in Taiwan) causing trouble all over the place. You can move people across by helicopter.
As well, you could have a what you call a coup de main, where you seize a couple of Taiwanese ports, say use Taiwanese organized crime, which is very closely linked to the PRC. There are ways you could make this a really multi-faceted, multi-directional attack, and an amphibious assault is just one part of it, and I think they probably could slip that in in the context of everything else that is going on. But you know, that said, do keep in mind that if that is done, that China had better get used to seeing all of its foreign trade end, and that sort of money-making machine on which the Communist Party depends, seeing that stop other than what you can do with North Korea and Iran [or] trade with the Pakistanis, so the knock-on effects would be immense. But they may think it is worth it, that is always a possibility.
Additionally, while we talk about what I just described, a pretty big war, sometimes some would say, well, just declare a blockade, will serve the purposes very well and tell the Americans to stand back or else, and if you get the right administration or the wrong administration in power, they just might say, ‘Well, you know, [there is] nothing we can do. You know, 24 million people versus one point however many billion. Well, you know, sorry, that is unfortunate.’ And with eyes primly averted we let these people be enslaved. You know one always wondered what people were thinking in 1938 about Czechoslovakia, how did the elite classes actually rationalize delivering this independent, free people into slavery, overseeing that happen now, and it is not all that farfetched.
You can imagine all the arguments and you can see the American Chamber of Commerce, China-U.S. business organizations, etc., saying look, it is just not [worth it], we do not want to fight and cause too much trouble. You can see Wall Street, which, you know where they would vote, so it would not necessarily have to be a sort of an all-out attack, but rather you know just an assault on the economic front could do very well, and Chinese political warfare in Taiwan is immense. They do have a lot of influence in parts of the media. Academia is really bad in terms of just outright quislings, and it is non-stop, as I say, non-stop. In the political class you have got this influence as well, so while most Taiwanese do not want any part of mainland China, that Chinese political warfare is no less effective in Taiwan than it is in the United States, and maybe even more effective given the ease of operation that they have.
The Chinese nearly pulled off sort of a presidential election the time before last. Well, they even tried this last time, but by really bringing their candidate out of nowhere, and using social media in particular to create sort of a groundswell of attention and support for him. And fortunately, this was detected at the last moment, and Madam Tsai’s administration did a pretty good job of cracking down on it, but the subversion in Taiwan is very serious, something to worry about. Could China seize Taiwan? I think they just might think they could at the present time. Do they think they could go after it with lesser measures than that? I think they are trying. They would like to have Taiwan just rollover and just give up, but much depends on the cost-benefit analysis, and what they think the rest of the civilized world would do on Taiwan’s behalf.
One of the interesting dynamics of the whole equation or one of the parts of it is that in China, and this has been going on for a few decades now, is that anybody who can, tries to get their money out of China and put it into a country that is like, that is not China, that has rule of law, property rights, etc., so they are trying to get their money into the U.S., into Australia, Canada, the UK. And they also want to get a relative out with a Green Card, so you have your elite class and a lot of people outside that class, but particularly at the very top they are trying to hedge their bets and, say, set up in the country they declare as their main enemies. And that is like a futures market sort of where the people who are benefiting most from the system appear not to have all that much confidence in the future, so that is something that works to our advantage.
I wish we would take it would take advantage of it, but I cannot think of another historic example where this has been going on, you know. If you want to test the thing, just have China remove exchange controls for four weeks and you would see everybody who can selling their Chinese currency and putting it into dollars, yen, euros. [It would make] this sucking sound that Ross Perot used to talk about, but it would be 10 times louder, that everyone trying to get their money out of the PRC and as I said, these are the people who benefit the most from that system, so that is it is part of the dynamic that needs to be paid more attention to and capitalized on. I think if we were wiser, [we would do that] and I hope one day we will [wiser].
Robert R. Reilly:
What are China’s other vulnerabilities?
The main one is that, well, one, it is a country where you know they take live organs or organs from live prisoners. There is no rule of law, and I am a lawyer like two out of three Americans, so I would sort of recognize it if I see it. There are no property rights. There are regional differences, as well, where the northerners do not like the southerners, and there are other splits, as well. You have corruption despite Xi Jinping allegedly going after it, it is still a huge problem in China, but the one thing where I see is that we still have a sort of a handle on is the U.S. dollar, and that is the U.S. dollar is the world’s reserve currency, which is another way of saying everybody wants the dollar, and China’s currency is not convertible.
And what that means is that for everything China wants to do overseas, if you want to buy technology, you want to buy companies, if you want to buy iron ore or you want to fund the Belt and Road, you have to pay in dollars. And if you do not have dollars, you cannot do all those things or you have to make some very hard choices and, unfortunately, America’s financial class and business classes have probably been pumping in two or three hundred billion dollars a year into China every year. And then there is the Europeans as well and the Japanese, so we have effectively been funding China’s foreign currency needs, but otherwise, if your currency is not convertible or freely convertible, you have effectively got the same problem that Jefferson Davis had in the old Confederate States of America. If you want to buy Enfield rifles from the British, you have got to pay in Yankee greenbacks, and if you do not have them, if you do not have that money, you cannot buy those things, and that hurts your defense. It is really a similar problem to Zimbabwe, just on a much bigger scale.
Without those dollars you are not quite as mighty a country as you think you are and that is why, you know, you see everybody who can in China trying to put their money into dollars, but that is the big advantage we have, is the threat to them, saying, okay, you know, here is your choice, you know, if you want to terrify Taiwan and our Japanese friends, go ahead, but you are going to have to do it with somebody else’s money. And you cut off, you sort of de-link China from the U.S. Dollar system. That would, of course, give vapors to any number of commentators and Wall Street, etc. and the financial class, but at some point a country is such a threat that you have got to play that card, but that I think is their biggest vulnerability, [it] is financial [and] economic, as well.
And if your currency is not convertible, it also suggests a certain sort of lack of confidence in the country, in the system. And ultimately, the PRC really is run like an organized crime game that is just a really big one, and so much of the dynamic, the way that it operates is what that is, and those sorts of regimes they seem pretty powerful sometimes, but they also have a certain fragility, a brittleness, that at some point it will play itself out, so that is just a couple of things that I would point to as vulnerabilities, but particularly on the financial front.
And if you are going to fund your biggest adversary (and they will tell you, Chinese will tell you that America is their enemy), you are going to fund them, it is hard to think of why we should expect to prevail. It is about that simple. If you think of Germany in the 1930s, it is not all that different. We have four aces to play if we would play them, but we seem to like to give two of them over to the Chinese.
Robert R. Reilly:
Yeah, how do the Chinese themselves view their own vulnerabilities aside from these financial matters, some of which Xi seems to be indifferent to when a trillion dollars disappears in stock market values due directly to his actions? He appears more interested in asserting control than he does in those Chinese companies doing well, but they when they look out, they have energy needs, they are not an autarky. A lot of what they need goes through the Straits of Malacca and through the Straits of Taiwan and down by the Philippines. Aside from the fact that they are an anti-status quo power and the fact that they are fired by a sense of grievance, they are always expressing a grievance from their century of humiliation, there is a certain strategic sense to their naval buildup to protect the necessary energy supplies they need to get, plus their own interest in reliance on trade.
I often find that it is useful to actually step back and admire what the Chinese have accomplished. They have sized up their situation, they have sized up their opponents, they look at the whole map, and they figured out what they need to do to support themselves. So, you have got to hand it to them, and there is a sort of an industriousness to the Chinese that has always been there. In fact, I think this apparent success, such as it is, of the p of the CCP, the Chinese Communist Party, is that they about, what, 30 years ago they actually stopped killing and starving their citizens, and let Chinese industriousness kick in, and that is what will get you some prosperity.
And you will notice that there used to be something called the Yankee trader. Now, you could go to any part of the world and there would be some Americans selling something. That species is, I think, mostly extinct, unless there is a five-star hotel in wherever it is, but you will find Chinese everywhere, and that is the same industriousness that built the left half, the hard half of the American transcontinental railway, so you have to admire what the Chinese have done and you underestimate them at your peril.
But there is a rapaciousness to all of this, which over time it wears on the recipients of it, but at the same time they have looked at the whole map, they have looked at outer space, they have looked at below the oceans, and they have set about furthering their interests up there, and they are just as smart as we are. They have just as able, maybe even a little better, at thinking out a long-term plan and then trying to carry it out. Once again, as you have pointed out, the Chinese do have their own ideas of ways [of] what they want the world to look like and their position in it, and they set out to make it happen. We have tended to assume that, well, they are just like Canadians and they do not mean anybody ill (well, the old Canadians at least), but they are not, and they say you got to hand it to them in some respects, but unfortunately, given the nature of that regime it is one that we should stay as far away from as we possibly can and do everything we can to defend ourselves.
In some respects, it is the modern-day version of the Mongols, showing up in the east, you know, three days ride from Krakow. You know, this is the kind of threat that we face and they are, but I do not want to [be] in any respect underestimating or belittling the Chinese at all. [I] used to hear this a lot actually with the Marines, since that is something I know, that when you would suggest that they could have an amphibious force like ours, you would be told, you would see the eyes roll as if, oh, they will never be as good as us.
Well, [they] got that wrong.
This is a formidable foe, and I am not sure exactly how it will play out. I would like to think that, you know, God gives the U.S. more chances than it deserves and maybe this one, too, we will figure out a way to get a get out of it all.
But also, one thing about the Chinese psychology – and I hesitate to sort of analyze the entire population, but like people anywhere, you will find a widespread love of the country, such as it is perceived, and also a sort of a willingness to greater or lesser degrees to defend it and to take offense when [they] think that you have been wrong. And Xi is smart enough, he is trying to stoke all this sort of thinking. And, you know, who would not [stoke this] in his position? And that is a dangerous thing, when people are out for blood. Goodness, you saw the Argentinians when they went after the Falklands. For a few weeks they were all jazzed up about you know sticking it to the British, and then the outcome was not happy, and it caused the thinking to shift pretty quickly.
But China is not the first regime to play to sort of mass psychology and to, as part of their sort of this comprehensive national power, that expression that they will use, and when country and people in it think that they are on a roll, that they have got the momentum, that can be a dangerous thing to my way of thinking.
Robert R. Reilly:
Well, let me close with a touchy issue. You mentioned earlier that perhaps at some point Japan would dust off its nuclear weapons plan. It was some years ago that a Chinese General said something like this, regarding the United States, you will not trade Los Angeles for Taipei or something like that. In other words, the nuclear exchange would be so devastating for you, you are not going to do it for this little island.
Well, the deterrent situation would change considerably if, indeed, Japan and even Taiwan had a nuclear weapon or weapons, and China had to take that into calculation. What do you think about that? I think it would, you know, if you consider North Korea, that the only reason anybody pays it any attention is because it has nuclear weapons and has a lot of artillery within range of Seoul, but it is those nukes and the nuclear weapons, and the ability to launch them so they go quite a ways away and potentially hit us. That is why North Korea gets so much attention.
I would say that there is maybe a similar sort of thing that would be at play to Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, or even Australia that get nuclear weapons as unimaginable as some people will say it is at the present time, but it changes the dynamic when you can cause that much damage with one shot, and that at the same time nothing is ever simple as it seems because one could imagine circumstances where China might say, okay, fire away, we have got for every one you send, we will send 10, and so it is not quite the ace in the hole that it sometimes seems, depending on the kind of regime or country you are dealing with, depending on circumstances.
It opens up just a lot of other scenarios, potential problems, as well, sort of like when you sort of change a figure on an Excel spreadsheet that it seems you get these changes all over the place that you did not think about. And so, it is something that once you take that step, you never quite know where it is going to end, but sometimes it could seem to be the sort of the least bad of the choices that you have got, and if you cannot depend on anyone else, well, might as well give this a try. But it is just how things have changed over the last 10, 20 years and kind of what a dilemma that we have gotten ourselves into.
Robert R. Reilly:
Well, great, I am afraid we are out of time, and I would like to thank Grant Newsham for discussing with us today how the threat from China is perceived by Japan and Taiwan, and other issues. I would invite our viewers to go to the Westminster Institute webpage or google us, and you will find a library of such videos, addressing China, Russia, the Middle East, Afghanistan, and other issues. Thank you for joining us today. I am Bob Reilly.