The Legacy of Shinzo Abe and the Future of the Indo-Pacific
(Col. (ret.) Grant Newsham, July 26, 2022)
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. Today we are delighted to welcome back for another presentation, Grant Newsham who 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 and was the U.S. Marine attaché to the American Embassy in Tokyo twice. Grant Newsham has more than 20 years of experience in Japan and elsewhere in Asia, so he is well qualified to address our subject today: The Legacy of Shinzo Abe and The Future of the Indo-Pacific. Welcome back, Grant.
Well, thanks very much, Bob, glad to be here.
Robert R. Reilly:
Good to have you on this side of the great pond, as you are resident in Asia.
Yeah, but it is kind of like really hot here even by Asian standards, so I am looking forward to getting back to where it is just 90 degrees.
Robert R. Reilly:
Oh, I see, cool off, okay.
Robert R. Reilly:
There was a statement by Mr. [Tomohiko] Taniguchi, Abe’s long serving foreign policy adviser and speechwriter in a recent interview, and he said Abe understood that Tokyo needed to do three things: enhance its economy, reinvest in the alliance with the United States, and expand its diplomatic ties by reaching out to Australia, and India. So how do you score the card on those three objectives over the long tenure of his prime ministership, the longest serving one in Japanese history, if I am right?
Well, I would give him really an A on two of the three. On the third one, I would give him a pass, and the third one is the economy, and I will just touch on that briefly. The Japanese economy has been kind of in the doldrums, are not moving really very fast, very far for the last twenty-five years, just about, maybe twenty if you are charitable. And Mr. Abe’s biggest mistake, actually, was listening to the Ministry of Finance, listening to the Bank of Japan experts, and then not doing the exact opposite, and I am not really being funny. Well, I am being funny, but it is true, actually. If he had just done the opposite of what they said, he would have probably had some success.
And the basic problem with Japan is the taxes are too high, salaries are too low. And the Ministry of Finance, Bank of Japan have really choked off the money flow to the average person. And if you heard what Japanese salaries are, you would just be astonished at how low they are, and it is really about that simple.
So they talk about how, well, inflation is now high enough, nobody is spending. Well, of course they are not spending when you have a tax system that absolutely fleeces them, and when you have companies which are not raising salaries. So that is a long way of saying I would give Mr. Abe a break on the economy. A lot of countries would like to have Japan’s problems when it comes to an economy, so for all of its problems, it is still not bad.
Abe Recognized the China Threat
But where he really was successful, and that is where Mr. Taniguchi really is correct, it that Prime Minister Abe recognized the importance of the U.S.-Japan relationship, and he knew that without the Americans, Japan really is in difficult straits in the region. China is out for blood. China wants to really pay back the Japanese, humiliate them, and they want to dominate them. And China wants to drive the Americans out of the region too. And Abe knew this, and he was actually saying this, in so many words, long before it was considered proper in American political circles, like over a decade earlier. And he understood that, and he did what was necessary to keep the relationship with the Americans solid or strong enough.
And that took some doing on Mr. Abe’s part, partly because Abe sees World War II differently than we would, most of us. And he sees that Japan was not really in the wrong all that much. He sees Japan as having been forced into doing what it did in the ’30s and the ’40s. And we would see it differently, of course. But Abe was that rare thing which is a statesman. And he was smart enough in simple terms to keep quiet on those issues because he realized the bigger point, the bigger thing that Japan needed, was not to argue over what happened seventy, eighty years ago, and have one side admit, yeah, you are right, I am wrong, but rather to look at the present and look at the problems facing Japan, the risks, the external risks facing Japan, particularly from China, but there is also North Korea and Russia in there, but from China in particular. And he knew that without the American alliance, without the U.S. presence, that Japan’s prospects are not very good.
Japan’s Invisibility in East Asia
Robert R. Reilly:
Well, I think it was early in his second and longest tenure as prime minister that he said Japan is back, and I think that was a remark certainly partly addressed to the United States.
Obviously, it is a little bit of sort of public relations, but it is also true in a way. And if you look back and you remember how Japan, just thinking from, say, the early ’90s when I first went there, that the Japanese almost had no image in the region. Yeah, they did a lot of business there, there were a lot of Japanese companies around, and they gave a lot of foreign aid, but Japan was pretty much invisible. And you never really heard much about it. And for all that it did in the region, it was always amazing how little credit it got for this.
Robert R. Reilly:
Those things being for which they should have gotten credit – what are they?
Well, I would say particularly the economic and financial investments throughout the region. You go to Thailand, for example, and you see factories with Canon and Toyota, all the big Japanese companies. And the Japanese investment throughout the region, including in China, was immense and it was almost part of the woodwork. People did not notice that, but it represented an effort by the Japanese to get out and about in the region, and to not just make some money for Japanese companies but to help these other economies build themselves up. And they never explained themselves very well.
And then after the bubble collapsed in the late ’80s, early ’90s, and the Japanese economy just went flat at best, that seemed like Japan was finished, you know, that it was just going to fade away. There were fears in the ’80s, remember when the idea was that Japan was going to takeover, we would all be working for the Japanese. Those were unfounded, of course, but the idea was that it is just gone, it had a chance, it is gone.
And yet he was able to resurrect Japan’s self-image, and also, as I said, start speaking up on Japan’s behalf. So when, for example, Mr. Abe would go, say, to the United States or even in Japan or elsewhere in the region, and give a speech, talking about his vision of Asia with Japan and other free nations getting together to protect and defend what he referred to as the free and open Indo-Pacific.
A Free and Open Indo-Pacific
Robert R. Reilly:
He originated that phrase, did he not?
He deserves credit for it, yeah, he did. And what it means, free and open Indo-Pacific, is what it says, that it is a place where big countries do not suffocate little countries and strangle them. And he is talking about China, of course. And he is the one who started that idea. He also thought of the so-called Quad.
Robert R. Reilly:
But if I say, just still including his characterization of what the Indo-Pacific should represent, or does represent, [that would be] rule of law, free commerce, open sea lanes, and human rights, all of which are not favorably looked upon by China.
Well, they do not exist, or they do not exist in a form we would recognize. China is the antithesis of all of those ideas, and it is ironic that today’s China is pretty much the Japan of the 1930s, where the Japanese in the ’30s saw it as their right and their destiny to dominate and control all of Asia, and the idea was, well, under Japanese leadership, Asia would thrive, and the foreigners would be driven out. And now it is the Chinese who are trying to recreate the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, which is what the Japanese called their effort. And it is ironic that it is now Japan which is the much higher manifestation of human rights, liberty, law, and really fair dealing between nations.
And I would just point out if you do not believe me, well, when was the last time China had an election? Or go to China and try to have a contract enforced. A contract means nothing more than Xi Jinping, the dictator of China, says it is. And Japan today is just the opposite of all of that.
The Legacy of Imperial Japan
Robert R. Reilly:
Now, you mentioned that Abe had a different view of World War II, and of course, he comes from a very distinguished family. His grandfather was also a prime minister back in that era. On the other hand, his speeches on the open and free Indo-Pacific were very eloquent. He spoke about that here and throughout Asia. Was that enough to alleviate the bitterness from the legacy of Japan’s behavior in World War II?
I remember when I was in China as a guest of the Central Committee Foreign Department of the Communist Party. One of the first things they did was take our little delegation to a memorial dedicated to Japan’s atrocities against the Chinese in Shanghai and elsewhere. Obviously, the Chinese [have not forgotten], or do not want to forget, but Korea, Taiwan, Indochina, I mean there are other places that also have that legacy. Has that pretty much been dealt with by the country Japan has become since 1946?
I think it has. And I grew up with stories of the river Kwai camps, and I actually used to teach law of war for the Marines, and I would use the Imperial Japanese Army’s behavior in World War II as case studies of depravity and what not to do, so it is ironic that I lived in Japan for twenty-five years and helped the Japanese start their Marines Corps. But countries change, and Japan is a very different place. And I would suggest that even twenty years ago that most of the bitterness towards Japan over its behavior in World War II is gone, and you never hear that, but go down the country list.
You will find the Chinese, who do have the resentment, and their government stokes that as it suits their purposes. Korea, the same thing, there is plenty of ill will towards the Japanese. If you think about the Irish and the English, you are kind of in the [ballpark], that is sort of the Koreans and the Japanese. But go down the rest of the area. [In] The Philippines, the Japanese are very well liked. [In] Taiwan, [they are] extremely well liked. [In] Indonesia, the Indonesians see the Japanese as having helped drive out the Dutch. [In] Vietnam, same thing, the Japanese get credit for having helped ending colonialism, though it took a couple more wars from the Vietnamese perspective.
India [is] very, very supportive of Japan, and there is no ill will towards Japan, quite the opposite. And Malaysia as well. It was the Chinese who suffered the most during the Japanese occupation. The Malays kind of [think], well, [they were] not so bad. Singaporeans have been wise enough, [or] whatever, to let bygones be bygones, and the Australians as well, and they have a pretty good relationship with the Japanese. So when you keep score, yes, the Chinese and the Koreans [have] some memories of World War II, and it is not to dismiss it, but the rest of Asia realizes that, well, this is a different Japan.
And that is something that I wish the Japanese could speak up and explain themselves better in that regard. They are not very good at explaining themselves. In fact, a famous New York Times reporter told me not that long ago that of all the peoples he had ever met anywhere, the Japanese were the worst at explaining themselves. And they have got a good story to tell, and sometimes it would be nice if the Americans would help them tell it. But as I said, the issue of World War II, I do not think it is much of an issue except when China tries to raise it, and it is there with the Korea-Japan relationship.
And I would point out that [since] 1945, the Chinese Communist Party has killed at least 50 million of its own people in peacetime and good weather. And this is something the Imperial Japanese Army could not have dreamed of doing, and yet the Chinese Communist Party has done it, so it offers some context for this argument that you hear a lot. You hear it all of the time, ‘Well, Asians do not like Japan because of World War II.’ As I just explained, it depends on which Asians you are talking about.
And Mr. Abe, as I said, was smart enough to not talk too loudly about those issues because he saw Japan’s bigger need was not to redo history [or] to settle scores, but rather to protect itself for the present time and also protect an idea, which is this free and open Indo-Pacific. [And] really, you could change Pacific for world, I think, and the same ideas would apply.
But to have a Japanese Prime Minister speak in this way, this articulately, I cannot think of one who did, and I counted the number of prime ministers who Japan has had since I got there, and it is about twenty. And before that there was Prime Minister [Yasuhiro] Nakasone, who was a statesman as well, so that has been among those twenty, I think you might have one who is a candidate, but the other one is Abe, and he definitely was a statesman.
Beijing’s Lake, the South China Sea
Robert R. Reilly:
One phrase he used that really caught my attention early on, not recently, but [in 2012], he said the Chinese growth in its military power threatened to turn the South China Sea into Beijing’s lake. Now, I would expect that his perception of that threat would be shared by those other nations, including Vietnam, Thailand, even Indonesia, Singapore, and The Philippines, which see their interest, their economic interest, not to say their military interest, would be deeply affected if China succeeds in doing that, and it is pushing to do that all the time.
That is right. Prime Minister Abe and other Japanese, he was not the only one thinking this, I would note particularly the Japanese military, has been saying for years, for example, Taiwan’s defense is Japan’s defense. And Mr. Abe recently was saying that, but I have heard it for many years from the military. And it is true that the Chinese have their eyes on the South China Sea, but unfortunately, they have kept their eyes on the South China Sea.
And I would suggest that maybe by about 2015 or so they had effectively de facto control of it. They just have not gone about enforcing that control to the point where they say, well, Japanese ships, if you want to come through, you are going to have to get permission, etc. Other countries’ ships, same thing, they have not tried to enforce it, but they have actually passed domestic laws where they say that this is Chinese territory, we have administrative control over ships coming in. I would say they have not enforced it, but one day they will. I do not want to say they have ‘locked up’ the South China Sea, but that word, de facto control, is not too far off.
And something like 80 percent of Japan’s oil comes through the South China Sea, a huge amount of its trade, and it is even higher for South Korea. As you have said, the Vietnamese have similar interests, particularly in the fishing end, and there is no love lost between the Vietnamese and the Chinese in general, and the Filipinos as well. They have lost some of their territory. The Chinese have just taken it. And in 2012, the Chinese took an area called Scarborough Shoal, which is just to the west of The Philippines. It is only like  miles from the coast, so it is well within the Exclusive Economic Zone.
It is Philippine territory, and the nearest Chinese turf is at least eight hundred miles away, but the Chinese came down and took it. And the Filipinos were expecting the Americans to help them out. The American State Department and administration at the time thought up all sorts of reasons as to why they did not have to despite there being a treaty. And this was a devastating blow to the U.S. reputation in Asia. But that is talking about the South China Sea. And the threat is understood, and not just in the South China Sea, but in the rest of Asia, that the Chinese are looked at askance. But there is also a sense that, well, you know, we kind of need them for business, we do business with them, and we sell them a lot of stuff in particular.
But also, you are leery about getting a country that big, mad at you, particularly when their military has beefed itself up in the last twenty years in what I think is fairly called the biggest, fastest military buildup in history to the point where they are a formidable force. They have their shortcomings just like everyone else, but in certain circumstances they would give us a run for our money. And one telling example is if you notice the Americans send an aircraft carrier into the South China Sea, and they exercise, and they send a destroyer through the Taiwan Straits. If the Chinese wanted, they could deploy at least ten ships for every one we can put in. And at one point I think you are going to see the Chinese effectively escorting us and publicizing it. Well, we let them come through, and we escorted them through.
But that is the overmatch, and the numbers do matter, and ten-to-one is probably being optimistic. If you are conservative, if you say, for example, well, for one thing, they are building seven ships for every one we are these days. And the math adds up. They have got, what, 350 ships and are heading upwards. We have 298 to cover the entire world.
Robert R. Reilly:
And it is going downwards.
That is right, to about 280 is where it is headed, and they claim they are going to build more.
But also, the Chinese have a fishing fleet and something called the maritime militia, which are like fishing boats built to hurt. And you know, you put an anti-ship missile on a maritime militia boat, and it looks like a fishing boat. And yet if they decide to pull the trigger, you do not want to be an American destroyer skipper who has got twenty fishing boats around him, and then suddenly he finds himself with six anti-ship missiles coming in at supersonic speed, and he has got about twelve seconds to figure out what to do.
So I do not think I am overstating how potentially dire the situation is, but of course, there is more to it than that. If China did decide to play rough in the South China Sea, then they would run the risk of really punishing financial and economic sanctions, and we still have the ability to cause them no end of harm for now.
Shifting Japan’s Thinking on Defense
Robert R. Reilly:
Well, another part of Abe’s thought when he announced that “Japan is back” was Japan’s ability to defend itself, or at least to increase its ability to defend itself, which was not too impressive twenty years ago or so. You would be able to speak very authoritatively to this question. To what extent did he succeed? I mean he did increase defense budgets, he established a National Security Council, passed the secrecy law, but he was not able to revoke Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution, which the United States imposed after defeating it in World War II, which makes it a pacifist country. So how would you judge his achievements in that area?
I think after I am done talking, you will probably see why I do not get invited many places by the Japanese government or the U.S. government.
Robert R. Reilly:
You are always welcome here.
I know. But he did a good job up to a point, and what I am getting at is one of the big things, the big changes, is that he helped Japan shift itself psychologically to the point it realized that it did face risks, and it just might have to fight a war to protect itself, and that it needed to do more to assist the Americans, because for a long time the Japanese literally said, well, you Americans have to defend us, but we do not have to. We are not going to do anything to help you. We are not allowed to because of the Constitution.
I was talking once to a Japanese diplomat, and this would have been 2005 or ’06. It was before Abe came even the first time as I recall. And I told him, you know, look, if you guys think that you can whistle up the Americans like you would a taxi outside the Mayflower Hotel, to come die for you, that is not going to be a vote getter in Washington. And you may not want to be too sure of that if you guys do not do more.
And he looked and he said, well, no, that could not be because – and he said, 安保条約 anpo jōyaku. He almost stuck his tongue out at me. And what 安保条約 anpo jōyaku means is defense treaty. He said, well, we have a treaty, like they have a contract that obligates Americans to come die on Japan’s behalf. And I like the Japanese as much as anyone, and have done more for them than most people, but that resonated with me in the wrong way.
What Mr. Abe did was to get that thinking shifted, and that was no small feat. And he got it done with I would say the population at large because he often spoke directly to the population. And the Japanese read newspapers. They have a pretty good sense of foreign affairs, and I would say better than most people, probably better than most Japanese politicians, but he also got the Japanese political class to go along with this.
And there has always been a conservative element, an element in the Japanese political class that wants a strong defense. But then there have been others who do not give the matter much thought, and then there is a smaller group that is opposed to it. It is the others who do not give the matter much thought that he was able to martial.
And he also did some things that were legally very important. And one is he got the formal sort of reinterpretation of something that is called collective self-defense, and that is the idea that Japan would not get involved with any sort of mutual assistance, mutual defense assistance or collective self-defense with another country, except maybe the Americans. And he got the interpretation of that expanded to the point where the Japanese military can do almost anything it wants, if the government tells it to, to be of use to other countries.
And along these lines, he got what are called the U.S.-Japan Defense Guidelines changed, and some very good work was done at the lower levels, the working levels on both sides, and now there is no legal objection, really, to Japan providing all necessary support to the Americans. And Japan has established agreements that allow for support to be provided in both directions with the Australians and some other countries as well, I just cannot think of them, and even the British. I think they signed one recently.
And the point is this was unthinkable maybe five years ago, but I think Mr. Abe deserves all the credit for that, and he faced a lot of opposition to everything he wanted to do, and that is important to remember because he did not just snap his fingers and get what he wanted. He really had to do the political work necessary, the persuasion, to get these changes done.
So you had a psychological change [and] legal changes, but where I would say he came short was (and it is how it is) really in improving Japan’s defense capabilities. I mean in actual concrete terms, and the ability of U.S. forces and Japanese forces to really operate together well. There is still a lot of work to be done in that regard, and I would give you just a couple examples. The Japanese Self-Defense Force can barely do joint operations, which means they have an army, a navy, and an air force, but they can barely do a coordinated operation.
Robert R. Reilly:
That is right, and it would be like your fingers each doing what it wanted to, or just saying, well, hand, go take care of it, but there was nothing controlling each finger. They do not have a joint sort of command system. And they do not go out and practice the stuff, so they are not even the sum of their parts, unfortunately. There is one exception to this, and that is the Japanese Navy, which has very good niche capabilities in submarine warfare, surface warfare, anti-submarine warfare, surveillance. They are excellent, and you can almost regard them as an adjunct of the U.S. Seventh Fleet, and that is how good the relationship is. And it shows what Japan is capable of, and it shows what they are capable of doing with us.
But as far as the U.S-Japan military relationship goes, the thing that I would point out is, okay, where is your joint bilateral headquarters in Japan? Where is that room where you have screens and you have Japanese and American soldiers, and sailors, and airmen together, coordinating in the defense of Japan, carrying out training and exercises to defend the country? Where is it? It does not exist, and this is after almost 60 years of alliance, and this really is the truth teller.
So, if the Americans and the Japanese are going to work together to defend the country, say something happens with Taiwan or someplace you need to respond. Well, the plan seems to be to wing it, and that is not really how you want to do it. The navies are the exception, but the Japanese Navy is probably half the size it needs to be for all the missions that it has, and that is obviously a problem, but Mr. Abe gets credit for, I would say, arresting a decade of declines in Japan’s defense spending, because for the 10 years before he came along, roughly, every year the Japanese had cut their defense budget. The Americans said please do not [cut your budget], but they did it anyway because they were not afraid of anybody.
And then Mr. Abe came in and he stopped that, and every year he got these small increases, not big enough, but what he was doing was bringing Japan out of a trough, so I think Japan’s defense spending during those years, his second term, increased something like in total 15 percent, whereas the Chinese increase a lot more than that every single year, so that is where, you know, say in terms of actual capabilities, there is so much more work to be done that whenever I hear somebody say, you know, that oh, this is the Japanese military is this or that, or it is all set, can take care of itself, it cannot yet. But I would say parts of it are good, the Navy in particular and their new Marine Corps, of course, but it is not big enough. But you see the potential there because the potential is really good if we could get it, but Abe as I said did not have quite the success that I think he would like to have had.
You mentioned, Bob, the Constitution, this Article 9, which is the provision which pretty much says that Japan will not ever use force to solve disputes, and it is like the cornerstone of the so-called pacifist constitution. If you read the plain language of this, the Japanese would barely be allowed to have a police force, or almost not even be allowed to have knives and forks. That is how clear the wording is, and it is understandable if you think of 1946 and everything that had come before that, you just did not want to have that happen again.
But it has been reinterpreted out of its plain meaning almost since the day it was written. As soon as the Korean War broke out, the Americans said, well, you know, maybe we overdid it a little bit, and as I say, it has been reinterpreted constantly so that Japan has been able to do whatever it needs to do to defend itself when it feels like it has to, but they do use it the way you would a monopoly get out of jail free card. Sometimes when they do not want to do something, they will say, hmm, Article 9, and the Americans will [shrink back]. It works like kryptonite on the Americans, but you know, we should call them on that more than we do.
Revisiting Article 9
Robert R. Reilly:
Well, as part of Abe’s legacy, there was an election in Japan on July 10th, and his Liberal Democratic Party triumphed. The new prime minister, Fumio Kishida, has said he wants to increase defense spending. That is part of the legacy he embraces, and he also is very frank about the dangers from China. In fact, he said Ukraine today may be East Asia tomorrow. Because of the super majorities that the Liberal Democratic Party and its ally now have in both houses, is it more likely that Kishida will push for a formal revocation of Article 9?
I think he will. It will not be revocation; it will rewrite it. And it is also important to remember that when we talk about if, say, even if they did revoke it, that Japan today is [different]. There has not been a better-behaved country in the last 65 years. It is the higher manifestation of just human decency and freedom, and so I say that needs to be kept in mind because often you will hear a picture from the Chinese propagandists that, well, Japan is rearming, re-militarizing, that it is going to become the Japan of the 30s. And that is nonsense. It is just absolute nonsense, but it goes unchecked, so I am just pointing that out.
But what they would do, the main thing, would be they would rewrite it to formally recognize the Japan Self-Defense Forces as lawful, as a sort of a legal organization, because it is vague right now. And without that, think of the morale effect that would have. Suppose everyone in the U.S military were kind of considered, you know, not quite legal, that, you know, you do not really belong here, but we will tolerate you. And in fact, they are treated like civil servants, so the guy who issues the dog license at the ward office in Minato-ku in Tokyo has about the same status as a member of the military, and they are very different activities where the downside risk from being in the military is pretty darn high, not so much [for] the guy who issues the dog license.
And that is one of the things that they want to do, give this morale boost to the military, the Japanese military, and that I think is way overdue because these people really are Japanese patriots. Most people never meet a 自衛官 jiei-kan, which is what you would call a member of the military. Most Japanese do not even meet them. If you saw the terms of service, the salaries, the living conditions, the lack of a GI Bill, and yet these people serve, you would be amazed. And it is once again an example of how they do it. And the housing that the families live in is generally decrepit, and in the summertime many families will not turn on their air conditioners because they cannot afford it. And it is as hot in Japan as it is here, but they do serve.
I mean these people do not do it for money or for the things that a lot of us would join for or the added part, and that is what part of this change of the Constitution is intended to do, give a morale boost to the military and also just take away this lingering suspicion that somehow there is something tainted about Japan’s Self-Defense Force.
And I think Kishida is going to try. He has the legislative clout to do it now, and what it requires is, let us see, two-thirds majority in each house, each house of their Parliament, and I think he has got it. And then you have to have a national referendum. You have to win by one, or one vote, or 50 plus one. And I think he is going to try. I think a lot of the benefit of that would be psychological as much as anything else, and political in some respects.
But you will notice also, and it is worth mentioning because it tends to get lost in the sort of the reportage, is that when Prime Minister Kishida says he is going to double defense spending in roughly five years, he said something like I am going to substantially increase defense capabilities. He used another word, but it was substantially increase, and he does not say what exactly he is going to do, like what is he going to spend the money on. That has not been clear. Is it just going to be on new fancy hardware? Is it going to be personnel, you know, the salaries, etc.? Is it going to be to allow better training? Is he going to use it to improve Japanese capabilities, say for joint operations? How about building some war stocks because they do not have them, or they do not have what they need, and then improving the capabilities? What exactly will that mean? And that has not been laid out in anything near clear terms at all.
And part of the reason here, I think one of the problems is, it is a bit like trying to build a house. Say you have a lot of money, you want to build a house, what do you do? Well, I think I need a permit, or I think I need to get an electrician. Well, okay, where are you going to [go]? How do you do that? How do you [assess] the expertise, the sequence of know-how, and actions that you need to build a house? It requires some specialized expertise and experience. The Japanese do not have it.
Japan’s Industrial Capacity
Robert R. Reilly:
One of my questions was going to be regarding military hardware, whether they have the industrial capacity to build the things they need. I mean you mentioned the growing size of the Chinese Navy, and they have a huge number of shipyards. The United States is down to two. How many does Japan have? If you say their navy is half the size it should be, have they maintained the industrial capacity to rearm?
Not really. I do not think they have it. They could have it, but you find that a lot of Japanese companies see defense business as an interesting niche, but not the main thing. It is a 10 percent of your business it is nice, but it is not anything that is prioritized. And to do that you have to have some reason to do it, and the government has not given that to them. They could have it, but they do not have what they need, and that is obviously a problem. We do not have it either, of course, but the Japanese do not either.
But in terms of knowing what you need to do, say, to just get the right hardware, the right capabilities, to spend the money the right way, that what I think they need is that they need some expert, somebody to tell them, just as if I wanted to build a house, I would find a general contractor, and say what do I need to know? If you are Japan, you cannot say, okay, take care of it for me, but what do we do? And that is where I wish the Americans would help them, and it is not policy people that you need to do this, because, you know, policy is easy, but the nuts and bolts of what do you need to put together an effective military [requires military planners]. And in Japan’s case, it would be taking a really good base and then making it into what it needs to be able to fight in its own right against the existing threats, and to fight alongside the Americans in a really integrated way, and with other countries.
And that is where I wish we would get some of our planners, American planners. There are some good ones. Quietly link them up with the Japanese and say look, here is what you guys ought to [do and] need to do, and you will find that when the Japanese know what they need to do and they feel a sense of crisis, they will often come through pretty well, but the Americans have held back on that. It is as if we do not want to be the overbearing American, but the Japanese will not figure it out on their own.
Robert R. Reilly:
So they do not feel a sense of crisis?
Oh, they do, but they do not quite know what to do about it.
Robert R. Reilly:
Well, one thing Abe did was he was one of the real moving forces behind the Quad, India, Japan, Australia, the United States, as a counterweight to growing Chinese power. But, you know, is it? My sarcastic comment about NATO until recently [has been that] there was an inverse proportion between its expansion and its own disarmament. Most of the nations in Europe took it as occasion to simply decimate their own militaries because either there is no threat, or the Americans will protect us.
Did Japan turn to the Quad in a way that we need these other nations to help do what we ourselves are incapable of at the time? And do each of them, India and Australia, think that or is there a sufficient sense of crisis that they all think, no, we have to increase our capabilities so that we are a credible deterrent?
I think sometimes compared to NATO, the Quad, as short-lived as it is, actually looks pretty good. And I would say, and I complain – I am not complaining, I am just pointing out the realities of Japan’s defense, but compared to some big NATO countries, the Japanese look awfully good, but you go down the list and we are probably the ones that have the least sense of crisis. The Australians clearly understand the threat they have got from China.
The Indians will tell you they have been at war with China since 1962. And they had a fight up on the border a year and a half ago where lives were lost, and it is ongoing, so there are no doubts about the problem they have with China. They actually kind of make fun of us sometimes and say, well, don’t you Americans understand, you know, what you have got going with them?
And the Japanese really do understand [the threat from China], but translating that [understanding] into the concrete steps necessary to really build Japan’s defense, that is where a lot of attention needs paid. And once again, I think if we would just help the Japanese understand the specific things they need to do, [they would do them].
But interestingly, when they take surveys of the Japanese public, and they ask something like do you see China as a problem, the response is like 90 percent yes. Now, if you took the same survey in Japan’s Parliament or Diet, they would probably [respond yes with] like 60 percent, and that is up from 40 percent. It would be a little higher maybe, but that shows the success of Chinese political warfare over decades really subverting Japan’s elite class, which sounds a little like us.
But it is really a long way of saying yes, I think [within] the Quad, each country there have its minds focused in the right direction. And once again, Mr. Abe started this and he started the basic idea in his first term, 2005, 2006, and he was laughed at, if you remember, by the commentariat and the China hands. [They] all laughed at him, but he was right. And then he got his second chance, and he brought this thing about, and he has had some good people around him, of course, but at the same time if he had failed in all of this, he would be taking all the blame. I think he deserves much of the credit.
And what is really unfortunate, amongst other things, is that he recently before he was murdered, was really not outspoken but he was speaking out loudly about what Japan needs to do, what it needs to do for Taiwan. He was talking about the threat. And he was an influential politician, I think the most influential one in all of Japan, and it really is unfortunate that he is gone.
Ambiguity on Taiwan
Robert R. Reilly:
Well, one thing about which Abe spoke forthrightly and recently, this was just this last April, he said the following about the United States, “The policy of ambiguity,” that is regarding Taiwan, “worked extremely well as long as the U.S was strong enough to maintain it, and as long as China was in far inferior to the U.S in military power, but those days are over.” And he finished by saying, “The policy of strategic ambiguity,” and this again is a quote, “is now fostering instability in the Indo-Pacific region by encouraging China to underestimate American resolve while making the government in Taipei unnecessarily anxious,” unquote. “There must be no longer any room for doubt in our resolve concerning Taiwan.” That is [a] pretty strong statement.
It appeared as if fairly recently President Biden dismissed that ambiguity, until the White House cleanup crew said, well, that is not exactly [the case], he did not mean that, we are sticking with our traditional point of view. [This is] on top of which, by the way, late last year the Defense Minister of Taiwan said their military situation and capabilities was the worst he had seen in 40 years.
Yeah. What Mr. Abe said, I have never heard a Japanese prime minister say that. In fact, you barely hear any other prime ministers or presidents speak that clearly on the issue. Before [the] Japanese, this was unheard of, and yet from my perspective, I could not, would not challenge him on a word.
Robert R. Reilly:
So you agree with the substance of that remark?
I do. In fact, when I first heard it, though, my initial reaction, because I am by nature resentful, I suppose, is, well, he is telling the Americans what they have to do. But is he telling the Japanese what they have to do? And the answer to that is, yes, he was. And once I looked into it a little, once I got over my initial resentment, you look at what he was also telling the Japanese. He was saying we have to do more, and he was saying we will be the laughingstock if we do not [do more], and that is the kind of direct talk that has an effect.
It was just so unique for a Japanese prime minister to say that, but that is the second half of what he was saying, that not just the Americans need to take this really seriously and do some things, but the Japanese do too, and that is where there was really some momentum that was built, and I think it is going to continue despite Mr. Abe’s departure. In terms of the characterization of Taiwan in its situation, I think that is probably not far off.
You know, you hear so much about how much America supports Taiwan, you know, we are rock solid support and this and that. You hear politicians and presidents say this, but what I would say, and the Taiwanese are too polite to say it, but they all think it, is okay, if you really support us, why won’t you be seen in public with us? And what I am specifically referring to is the American forces doing joint operations, joint training with the Taiwan’s forces. We do not do it, so the Taiwan military has effectively undergone 40 years of isolation, so it is a little bit like a Galapagos military, that it has not developed in the way it should just professionally, capability wise, hardware wise because we have isolated it.
And why have we isolated it? Well, as we are afraid of the Chinese Communist Party. Ultimately, that is the reason. I think maybe for the first 10, 15 years, the idea was that, well, if we give the Taiwanese too much, they might attack China, which has never been [a real risk], you know, imagine that. But now that excuse is long gone, but you still hear it, and that is why they will not sell certain weapons to Taiwan.
Robert R. Reilly:
It would be provocative.
That is the idea, provocative to the Chinese, but I would suggest everything is provocative to the Chinese Communists, and not being glib, but you know, I think Taiwan could surrender tomorrow and the Chinese would probably complain. But the provocative part is actually the idea was that it would encourage the Taiwanese to lash out at, you know, this Chinese behemoth, which they have no intention of doing. It would be nice to have the capability to reach into China and sting them if the attack comes, but it is that 40 Years of isolation that we still will not break.
It not only hurts Taiwan’s defense capabilities but think of the psychological effect on Taiwan’s military. Well, we think we face this enemy that wants to [destroy us], says it is going to destroy us and enslave us, and we sure need some friends but the biggest friend, you know, does not really want to be seen in public with us, and he does not like us enough to actually like train with us, exercise with us. When we go to America to visit, when they do allow us, we have to wear civilian clothes. Our officials used to have to meet in the nearby Starbucks at the State Department because they would not let us in. Well, what sort of message does that tell you?
And if you go to Taiwan and sort of hang around a bit, you kind of get a sense that people are being worn down, and the sense that you do not have friends. It will kill you, this idea that somehow that people like the Israelis are gamely ready to fight off any invader, no, when you feel like you are isolated, it does not have a good effect. And that is what you see with Taiwan, and the idea of, as Mr. Abe said, strategic ambiguity. In other words, America ought to make it clear that it will defend Taiwan and publicly announce it. It can be debated either way. If you asked me what I think, [and] held a gun to my head, I would tell the Chinese Communist Party very clearly that if they do something to Taiwan, whatever they do to Taiwan, we will do to them, or that if they do, they will lose everything, and that is how serious we are.
Tell them that quietly. You do not have to yell it and poke them in the nose, but make it clear that we are serious, and it does help if you are taken seriously when you make those statements, unfortunately, and that is part of the equation. But also, public statements would be useful, but once again, you word it the right way, but make it so the Chinese Communists have no doubt what they will face.
And when I say lose everything, I mean you look at [the fact that] in some ways they resemble an organized crime racket, and each of them, the leaders, have accumulated a lot of wealth, much of it overseas, for example, and they have their relatives overseas with green cards. I would make it clear that they are going to lose personally, all of this, because I think they are quite willing to let the Chinese masses suffer to no end, but [we should] make it clear that you guys will pay for this if you do. [That] would be my take.
Robert R. Reilly:
Let us touch upon another issue for Japan, and that is China’s claim of sovereignty over the Senkaku islands. Does that resonate with the man in the street in Tokyo, and with the parliamentarians? Is that a sensitive issue for them?
It really does [resonate for them]. Its point of reference is in Japan they have a newspaper called the Asahi Shimbun, and that is like their New York Times, but even maybe a little more anti-military, and the Asahi Shimbun from a few years ago at least has been saying we do not like what the Chinese are doing to the Senkakus in that area, so it really does resonate. It would be about the same as if say some country tried to take a square foot of Texas. The Texans would not like it, but it really does resonate.
For a long time, the U.S government really ignored [this. It] was not aware of the issue. It had been allowed to disappear. Around 2009-10, the Chinese sort of started applying real pressure on the Senkaku islands.
Robert R. Reilly:
By which you mean what? I mean there is nothing on them, right?
That is right. They are very small rocks or islands. I would almost compare them to the Channel Islands off California, but not as big. If you took some of the smaller ones with nothing much on them, that is about what you would have. But one, it is your territory, either that square yard of Texas [matters or it] is just a square yard of something. Countries defend their territory. They do not want to give up an inch of it, but it is also useful economically. Defense wise, it is essential as to defend Taiwan, you have to have control of the Senkakus, and you have to have control of your own southern islands.
And the Chinese have said not just the Senkakus but all of the Ryukyu chain, that string of islands that goes from about Taiwan up to Southern Kyushu, [belongs to China. Southern Kyushu Island] is the biggest southern island in Japan, so it goes up there – goodness, I do not know, 900 miles, and it is a good long way. And the Chinese have said pretty quietly, or they have said in their own way, the whole thing is ours. Yeah, Senkakus for now, but we will get the rest of it when the time is right.
And the Japanese do understand that threat. They tried to ignore it until about a decade ago. [They] just pretended the Chinese would not notice. In fact, you would go down there, and you would see no Japanese military presence, except maybe a surveillance plane now and then, and they have taken steps to get a military presence in the southern islands, but what they need to do
Robert R. Reilly:
Do you mean on the ground or just naval?
On the ground. They have put ground forces with sort of surveillance equipment and anti-ship missiles, and there is going to be anti-aircraft systems down there, and the Japanese Navy is more active down there, the Japanese Air Force too, but they are not really doing it in unison. It is as if each service has its own scheme, and they are not doing it with the Americans. If you make this a real sort of a combined defense, U.S. and Japanese, of the southern islands, that sends a political message beyond the operational benefits that you get, and that needs [to be] done. It is easy to do, it just takes a little imagination and some will.
And Mr. Abe did not get that done, but if someone who considered Japan’s defense 15 years ago looked at it today, [they] would be very surprised at how much it has it has advanced in terms of capabilities. It is not where it needs to go, but it is better. And as I say, the psychological shift has been immense to the point where the citizenry and the politicians, the political class, see their military’s purpose as fighting, not putting on the snow festival in Hokkaido every year.
Losing Taiwan Would Make Japan Indefensible
Robert R. Reilly:
With all the emphasis that Abe and Kishida gave to the issue of Taiwan, would you say it is their perception that the loss of Taiwan to the Chinese would make Japan indefensible?
Robert R. Reilly:
So it is that key?
It really is. I do not know how one would argue otherwise. I think theoretically you might be able to say, well, we could lose that, and we will just somehow defend to the south, but that is not quite how it works. This would be the equivalent of having the walls of Constantinople breached. You could still have some bastions on maybe each side or one side, but when the Turks are pouring in, they are going to come around you.
And what you would find is the Chinese People’s Liberation Army, the Navy in particular, would now be able to operate with ease to the east, and then it just swings up to the north a bit, and they have outflanked Japan’s southern defenses. They are in a position to surround Japan, something that has not been the case since 1945. And they swing south, and you can isolate Australia from the U.S., from the rest of Asia. You get out into the central Pacific, and suddenly the Americans find themselves having, if they want to stay there, they have got to fight to their rear, or if they want to get back in, they have to fight through what is now a Chinese opposition well beyond the so-called first island chain, that chain from Japan, to Taiwan, to the Philippines, down to Malaysia.
If you have been defending along that line like we have been, suddenly the enemy is in your rear, and that is the problem. And also, the economic problems for Japan particularly if their sea lanes are cut, that would just be an immense problem for them. And those sorts of conflicts, though, do not tend to stay confined. One could easily see this expanding into a global [conflict].
Robert R. Reilly:
The question is to what extent do the other nations in the area share that perception of the stakes in Taiwan? Vietnam?
The Vietnamese do. I think most of them understand it, few of them will say it publicly. The Australians will.
Robert R. Reilly:
The Koreans get it as well. And once again, it depends on which Koreans you talk to because there are some Koreans who are basically pro-Chinese and pro-North Korea, which is like the last administration that they had, but Koreans understand it as well, as much as Japan because Japan at least has the prospect of some sort of a corridor to the east that they could keep open and get things in and out. The Koreans would [be] easy to cut off. They would be surrounded, and the Koreans understand it. Plus, the nature of their economy is so much dependent on exports and also fuel imports that they would have a huge problem, and so they understand it, but once again, speaking out [is one thing], and saying this is another thing.
The Vietnamese, of course, understand it, though they too are unlikely to actually say it publicly because [if] Taiwan is gone, then guess who [China] turns on? That is in hand. Vietnam is an easier target. The Philippines [has the] same problem, but their defenses are so weak that they once again have to be careful about what they say, and you do have Chinese subversion, [which] has bought off a good chunk of the Philippine ruling class, so that is a problem as well.
But the Australians [have] been very clear that they see Taiwan about the same way that that we do, the same way the Japanese do, which is to their credit, that they have said that, but if you get the Chinese operating their military into the central Pacific [and] the South Pacific, Australia can be interested in helping out with Taiwan, but they may find that by the time they get any ships and aircraft up there, they have got a lot fewer than they started with. They would almost have to fight their way to get in there. And the Indians, of course, are big supporters of Taiwan. They understand [it]. They have a very good sense of the geopolitics of this.
The Future of the Indo-Pacific
Robert R. Reilly:
Given all the problems you have addressed, Grant, the last part of the topic today was the future of the Indo-Pacific. [Do you feel] guarded optimism, guarded pessimism, or where would you [place your feelings about the future of the Indo-Pacific?
It depends on what time of day you ask me, and probably what kind of day I have had. I think [that] weighs into it too. If not optimistic, you have to be willing to fight it out. What I mean is I do not have time for people who say the game is over, and I am an old Washington Senators fan, so I am used to a game being over before the first pitch is thrown. No, I think that we have got a pretty good hand to play. When I say ‘we,’ it is Americans and the free nations, and I would include Vietnam in that, but we have a good hand to play if we keep our wits about us and we play it.
America’s military is still not chopped liver, and it can still at least for a few more years could cause the Chinese no end of trouble. They would lose everything they have got outside of China if they made a move, say, on Taiwan or against Japan. They cannot protect it, and that is all subject to interdiction [and] seizure. The Chinese Communist Party leadership would lose all of their, say, condos in Vancouver [and] in New York City. Green cards would get revoked, and they would lose their bank accounts, and we are talking billions of dollars here.
Plus, you combine the military capabilities of, say, the Americans, the Koreans, even the Filipinos in certain cases, you could use them [to] help usefully the Australians in particular, and then the Indians. If you show that you are willing to stand up and fight, you will find others want in on it.
Robert R. Reilly:
So the Quad has some very favorable potential?
I think done right, it does, and once again, often if you show you are willing, that you are not going to back down, then the bully’s response is, well, maybe I did not really mean it. Plus, if he is going to find most of his trade cut off, he is going to lose access to U.S dollars, which he absolutely must have, just as Jefferson Davis needed Yankee greenbacks, because the Chinese money is not freely convertible, so if you have these levers to play, and plus we have something as important, but it will not get you very far without the ability to knock somebody on the rear end, is that we are free people. And we are not trying to defend a system like 1930s Germany.
For all the problems we have got, we have people who are literally dying to get into the United States and the other free countries, and this is something that gives us a huge advantage, that people want what we are defending. And I think they are more willing to join in with us, but we do have to wise up quickly. Recognize the threat. Get our own financial house in order. It would be nice if in the United States, one half of the political class did not want to destroy the other, and you can guess which one I am talking about. That is unhelpful. [It] reminds you perhaps of what happened to this last administration, where the efforts were made to destroy it, to sabotage it. It reminds you of the Hungarian princes, fighting amongst themselves whilst the Mongols were coming from the east.
Robert R. Reilly:
But at least you can say that there is a bipartisan agreement in the United States regarding the growing threat from China, and the value of our allies such as Australia, Japan, and India.
I think there is, though we have got to deal with this problem of Wall Street funding the Chinese Communist Party, pumping in convertible currency.
Robert R. Reilly:
Well, that will be for another program.
But we have to deal with that, but we do the military capability, the political strength, [and] we have the alliances. And the Chinese hate alliances, which tells you something. If they do not like it, it is because it works. And we still have the global reach and the economic power, the financial wherewithal to really to shut down the Chinese Communist Party, to give them a choice between if you want to do business with North Korea, and Iran, and Russia, go ahead, but not with the rest of us. So, you have to keep your wits about you, and then decide it is worth fighting for. And I think we have an excellent hand to play. We just have to look at it and say, oh, we have got four aces, let us play them. That would be my sense.
Robert R. Reilly:
That is a great way to describe the Quad, four aces.
It is four, I had not thought of that, but I will trademark it. Okay, I have got it.
Robert R. Reilly:
Well, I am afraid we are out of time today. I would like to thank Grant Newsham from the Center for Security Policy for joining us today to discuss: The Legacy of Shinzo Abe and the Future of the Indo-Pacific. I encourage our audience to go to the Westminster Institute website to see our other offerings, or to our YouTube page, where there are a number of recent presentations on Ukraine, Russia, China, and other subjects. Thanks for joining us. I am Robert Reilly.