Editor’s Note: On this Inauguration Day, we spoke with Dr. Andrew Erickson, a professor of strategy in the U.S. Naval War College (NWC)’s China Maritime Studies Institute (CMSI), to get his take on how President Biden should manage the U.S.-Japan Alliance amid security threats from China and North Korea. The views expressed here are Erickson’s alone and do not represent the assessments or policies of the U.S. government.
Q: What are the stakes for Washington and Tokyo?
A: As the Biden Administration assumes office, the United States, Japan, and the Indo-Pacific region face difficult challenges, particularly from the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Due primarily to threats from China and North Korea, the region is a very worrisome neighborhood for Japan, with direct implications for vital American interests. There Beijing is attempting to carve out a zone of exceptionalism within which international rules and institutions—long taken for granted in Tokyo, Washington, and around the world—are subordinated to parochial PRC policy preferences. The risk is greatest in what PRC strategists term the Near Seas—the Yellow, East, and South China Seas—which are home to all China’s disputed island and maritime claims. In and around those troubled waters, Beijing continues to pursue coercive envelopment of claimed territories, with the suffocation of Hong Kong a tragic canary in the coal mine. Throughout the surrounding region, Beijing works to subordinate and subjugate its less-powerful neighbors. Of the three seas surrounding mainland China, the East China Sea contains highest stakes and most intense risks: those concerning both Taiwan and the Senkaku Islands.
Major trends in the force structure China is developing and deploying to these ends pose particular challenges to Japan, the region, and the United States. Each of China’s three major armed services has its own sea force. The People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), China Coast Guard (CCG), and People’s Armed Forces Maritime Militia (PAFMM) all answer to a military chain of command under paramount leader Xi Jinping himself. Each of China’s sea forces is the world’s largest in numbers of ships—by a significant margin. Other PRC military operations—including flights near Taiwan—are likewise increasing. Overall, China’s armed forces enjoy both dominance in numbers and growing sufficiency in quality. There is no room for complacency, and regional security risks have most likely entered their most dangerous decade in a long time.
Q: What must the United States and Japan do, and why?
A: Given the stakes for the United States and Japan as well as the region’s future, the allies must get their response to these challenges right. As the incoming Biden Administration correctly recognizes, one of America’s greatest advantages, and one of its best foreign and security policy tools, is its global network of alliances and partnerships. China has nothing at all like this, and no prospects for closing the gap. Washington simply must get it most important alliances right; and no U.S. Alliance is more important than that with Japan.
Multiple factors make Japan critical and irreplaceable for the United States. Washington and Tokyo enjoy a comprehensive partnership built from the ashes of World War II on a bedrock of shared sacrifice, values, and highly compatible political and economic systems. When it comes to regional basing for U.S. forces, Japan with its archipelago of more than 6,000 islands is simply irreplaceable. The enduring nature of geography has granted it a dominant position astride both of the region’s “island chains,” which strategists have repeatedly prioritized in great power competition over the past century. Upon that unparalleled foundation, Japan is enhancing its already unique role in upholding power projection and regional access for American forces as a full-spectrum partner with growing capabilities and interoperability. It has unique opportunities to change local and regional military dynamics in its favor through deployment of land-based conventional mobile missiles, both indigenously and in partnership with U.S. forces. Japan also makes complementary contributions that fit well with American efforts, including in its support for regional Coast Guard forces and other maritime domain awareness enablers. Of note, Japan has been welcomed by Duterte Administration in the Philippines in way that the United States has not.
The current state of U.S.-Japan security cooperation is already excellent, and is likely to grow even stronger. Successive American administrations’ emphasis on the coverage of the Senkaku Islands by Article 5 of the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty underwrites peace and stability. The incoming administration is committed to continuing that stabilizing tradition, as affirmed by Biden’s own statement to Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga during their first telephone call of November 12, 2020
But President Biden and his team must make new efforts to address the ongoing challenge of China’s maritime gray zone operations. Such erosive PRC activities remain difficult for both the United States and Japan to counter with maximum effectiveness. For example, neither the United States nor Japan has anything even remotely equivalent to China’s PAFMM. The U.S. force structure in the region typically includes little in the way of Coast Guard or other Maritime Law Enforcement assets, and it can be difficult to respond effectively with U.S. Navy assets while limiting escalation. Moreover, with its operations in the East China Sea, China appears determined to exploit the organizational “seams” and differences in rules of engagement between the Japan Coast Guard and Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF).
Great and growing information-sharing regarding PRC activities between Washington and Tokyo and among regional allies and partners will be part of the solution moving forward. Here, Japan’s continued legal and bureaucratic reforms and growing capacity to participate in a “Five Eyes-plus” partnership is a transformatively positive trend.
Q: What should the Biden administration do, particularly with Japan?
A: U.S. and allied competition with China is far more complex and multidimensional than U.S.-Soviet Cold War competition. Major differences include the fact that Beijing is a formidable competitor across the entire economic and technological spectrum; American, Japanese, and Chinese societies are more interconnected; technologies are more dual-use and inter-domain than ever; and the U.S.-Japan Alliance’s geographic fulcrum has shifted from Hokkaido to the Ryukyu Arc of “Southwest Islands” and beyond. The PRC is using the world’s largest organizational infrastructure for technology acquisition and application to harness all possible foreign technology. It is incubating domestic technology development, incorporating foreign technology, and applying all comprehensively. Pernicious PRC practices pilfer American and Japanese investment and jobs and undermine the allies’ security and prosperity. The U.S. and Japanese governments must make special efforts to staunch the flow, safeguard the most valuable apex technologies (especially cutting-edge semiconductors), and prevent the PRC from enveloping and exploiting Taiwan and its leading tech industries (particularly semiconductors).
In this era of new technologies, social media, and societal challenges, Beijing tries to have it both ways and to pursue coercive power at the expense of American and Japanese interests and society. The PRC pushes propaganda via social and conventional media (including directly sponsored “supplements”) while blocking it brutally at home. This is and will be a particular challenge to manage, especially since the United States and Japan must not compromise their own open capitalist democracies in countering pernicious PRC challenges. A regulatory area meriting further discussion and effort is the development and implementation of shared U.S.-Japan technology standards for private sector corporations to work within even as they compete economically on an individual basis.
The Biden Administration’s emphasis on alliances and partnerships is a vital critical enabler. The stakes could scarcely be higher, particularly for maritime East Asia. To make its commendable commitment to alliances in principle truly effective in practice, the Biden Administration must fully flesh out and operationalize alliances, while avoiding pitfalls in terms of both substance and optics. Even partially defaulting to patterns of yesteryear would be disastrous. Specifically, “leading from behind” and relying on China to “contain itself” already did not work years ago when the PRC was not as strong and assertive as it is now under Xi. It will definitely not work in China’s “home region” now. Instead, the Biden Administration must prioritize the U.S.-Japan Alliance by often “leading from the front,” firmly opposing and countering damaging PRC behavior, and accepting some friction and risk in the process.
As America’s leading representative and communicator in Tokyo, President Biden should expeditiously appoint an Ambassador befitting the Alliance. This should be a senior professional universally respected for their caliber and capabilities. They should be specifically experienced in security and crisis management, not simply sharp in business or another field. They must be recognized to have the President’s ear. There should be no cause for speculation that selection was subordinated to a “musical chairs”-style juggling of other priorities. The Ambassador should begin the job on day one with no distractions suggesting a lack of focus, empowerment, or resolve.
Keeping Taiwan free, democratic, and part of an open Indo-Pacific is critical for the U.S.-Japan Alliance. Ensuring this remains the case could well become the Biden Administration’s single most decisive foreign and security policy challenge. State Minister of Defense Yasuhide Nakayama’s statement in late December 2020 underscores the stakes: “We are concerned China will expand its aggressive stance into areas other than Hong Kong. I think one of the next targets, or what everyone is worried about, is Taiwan.” Regarding the Biden Administration’s Taiwan policy, the Minister was clearly looking for America to lead from the front: “I would like to hear it quickly, then we can also prepare our response on Taiwan in accordance.” In answering this clarion call to more fully articulate policies in this area, the Biden Administration must continue to underscore how critically important Taiwan is to both American and Japanese interests in terms of values, politics, and security; with particular geographic stakes for Japan. Additionally, Taiwan’s irreplaceable role in critical apex technologies (most importantly: cutting-edge semiconductors) should be further emphasized. In techno-industrial terms as a lucrative prize in great power competition, Taiwan today is a larger, more comprehensive analogue to the Škoda Works in the Nazi Era. For all these reasons, the allies should do as much unglamorous “bottom-up homework” as possible to support and protect Taipei. The United States and Japan can safeguard Taiwan by continuing to deter the worst PRC predations continually into the future, most importantly through this critical decade and through 2035.
Last but not least, Korean Peninsula issues will surely rank among the greatest foreign and security policy challenges for the Biden Administration. The problem is centered on the ongoing tragedy and threat of North Korea under the Kim Dynasty. A sibling succession might well add to the complexity, but any form of Kim family leadership will only continue the central conundrum: maintaining political mythology and ruthless repression mechanisms underpinning regime survival precludes sufficient information openness and societal circulation to enable meaningful economic development. Hence, Pyongyang is likely to default repeatedly to “crisis manufacturing” and “shakedown diplomacy,” in an attempt to monetize its acute ability to threaten South Korea, Japan, and increasingly populations beyond. Unfortunately, no U.S. President or Japanese Prime Minister in the post-Cold War era has found anything close to a silver bullet for managing North Korea. With regard to Korean Peninsula challenges, the messy but best-possible approach is to manage key related factors as well as possible, including deterrence relations with North Korea and China, and Alliance relations with both Japan and South Korea.
The challenges for the United States and Japan in during the Biden Presidency are significant, but nothing is stronger than their shared Alliance. With continued effort, it will weather all difficulties through the current decade of danger and beyond. Doing so will extend the eight decades of precious peace and prosperity purchased with terrible expenditure of blood and treasure that must never be squandered.
Andrew S. Erickson is a professor of strategy in the U.S. Naval War College (NWC)’s China Maritime Studies Institute (CMSI). A core founding member, he helped establish CMSI and stand it up officially in 2006, and has played an integral role in its development. CMSI inspired the creation of other research centers, which he has advised and supported; he is a China Aerospace Studies Institute Associate. Erickson is currently a Visiting Scholar in full-time residence at Harvard University’s John King Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies, where he has been an Associate in Research since 2008. He blogs at www.andrewerickson.com.