For the first time I feel the chilling danger in my bones that the Chinese Communists may start a conflict in Asia. Intellectually I have been aware of this possibility for forty years. I have always strongly advocated powerful deterrence to prevent such a disaster. I have not expected a crisis.
Something has changed in the last few months that has transformed a serious possibility into a looming crisis. The Chinese Communists have been behaving so provocatively, and with such deluded confidence and toughness, that even I am taken aback and now worried.
I believe that now the majority of Japanese share my concern, more, perhaps than even the United States government.
Deputy Premier Tarō Asō (1940-) confirmed this concern in his simple, measured statement of July 6. He said no more than what everyone already knows, which is that China’s massive and rapid military buildup poses a particular threat to Japan. Likewise he confirmed what is obvious from a look at the map: namely, that a Communist Chinese attack on Taiwan, which geographically is part of the same archipelago as Japan, would be a mortal threat to the very existence of the Japan that is today such a cultured, intellectually advanced, and peaceful country . Japan would have no alternative to fight for her own survival and that of the free Asia of which she is a jewel.
Mr. Asō did not add another fact of which I am sure he is aware; a fact that I stress as strongly as I can to my Japanese friends. This is that the United States is an unpredictable ally. Being part of an alliances or coalition is infinitely preferable, but if necessary, Japan must be prepared to defend herself alone. This capacity necessarily includes appropriate nuclear capability.
After the Washington Conference (1921-22) which brought the end of the stability assured by the Anglo-Japanese alliance (1902-23), for which the broad but insubstantial assurances of multilateral security consultations promised by Four Power and Nine Power treaties proved no substitute, there ensued a mindless and ill-informed American tilt toward China that contributed to the bloody destruction of Japan’s democracy, and then war.
This danger of war, and then its gradual emergence, preoccupied such deeply thoughtful Japanese figures of the time as Kazuhige Ugaki 宇垣 一成 (1868-1956). It has always been present, even though one might imagine that the Pacific War and its aftermath had totally changed the political configuration of the Indo-Pacific region. No: the deep structure is little changed. Indeed, the catastrophic miscalculations of the Nixon-Kissinger policy that staked all on China and bypassed Japan, only to culminate in the creation of a hungry new would-be hegemon, is in certain respects an uncanny recapitulation of that earlier history.
Japan of course has changed, from a new and vulnerable democracy in 1921-22, to a militarist dictatorship in the 1930s and half of the 1940s, , to a now stable and long-established constitutional state. China, to be fair, has probably regressed even as Japan has reconstructed. herself. This is not my view alone. It is shared by many Chinese.
We have just seen the one hundredth anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party, a gala event that no foreign dignitaries of rank attended. Great efforts were made by Yang Jiechi 楊潔篪 (1950-), the combative and abusive former Foreign Minister (with whom I have argued on occasion), to lure Mr. Putin (1952-), claimed as a close ally by Peking, to the festivities, but a video-conference was all the wily Russian would give. Not even the North Koreans, erroneously thought to be in China’s thrall, if perhaps not her friends, did not show up. One must grasp that the complete lack of foreign attendance at this much publicized commemoration, was a deeply-felt humiliation to Mr. Xi Jinping [習近平 1953-] and his colleagues.
Why did nobody come? The reason is simple. China’s increasingly-aggressive foreign policy and her blistering rhetoric, has gradually alienated nearly every country in the world. The Germans, for example, are inclined to be friendly with China. Certainly they take no orders from Washington. Yet they are sending some naval forces to upcoming Indo-Pacific maneuvers. When Chinese diplomats threatened the German defense ministry, however, Berlin did not back down as expected. Rather she asserted that China must abide by International Law, in particular the binding decision of the Permanent Court of Arbitration in 2016 that found China’s maritime claims and expansion illegal, under the Law of the Sea, which China has signed.. My mind takes me back to the decision of League of Nations, also an international legal body whose authority both China and Japan recognized, to order Japan to leave Manchuria in 1932. This decision could not be enforced, so Japan left the League instead, in 1933.
Today China is following Japan’s 1930s script, paying no attention to the findings of the Court (whose jurisdiction she acknowledges), perhaps irrationally imagining that this major legal setback, in a system that 122 states recognize, will simply be forgotten, or (like Japan then) that her mighty military is more than a match for a decision written on paper by jurists in the Peace Palace in The Hague. This is as bad a mistake now as was Japan’s ignoring of the League almost a century ago.
In fact, the Chinese mistake is worse.
First, this time enforcement mechanisms exist. The American Secretary of State, Mr. Blinken (1962-) has stated that continued Chinese violation of international law with respect to the Philippines, will trigger the defense provisions of that country’s alliance with the United States (1951. 2014). This is serious business, almost as unwelcome to Mr Blinken, who wishes for peace and knows little about preventing war, as it is to the Chinese Communist Party.
Second, although the Chinese Communists possess a vast army, it is not the equal of a coalition including Australia, India, Japan, and the United States – “the Quad” (or “four”) skillfully nurtured by all parties, with the quiet patronage of former Secretary of State Michael Pompeo (1963-)—whom I consider to be second only to John Quincy Adams (who served 1817-1825) in his distinction in that office.
Given these facts, Peking is less likely to resort to war than was Japan in the last century. Not only is she in violation of international law, but also the international community is almost unanimous in opposition to her policy. The opposition has teeth.
One very prickly question remains, however: namely, nuclear deterrence. I believe firmly that only genuine fear of nuclear war will prevent the Chinese Communists from continuing their dangerous course. But of the Quad countries, only India and the United States possess nuclear weapons. Would either use them to defend Japan, given the ghastly retribution China could unleash with her own nuclear weapons?
I cannot speak for India, though I doubt she would. I am certain, however, that the United States would not enter nuclear war to defend Japan, whatever the treaty says. I should add for the sake of clarity that I am not certain the United States would launch nuclear retaliation immediately, even if one or two nuclear bombs struck her territory. Can one realistically envision former Presidents Clinton (1946-) or Obama (1961-) unleashing dozens of thermonuclear strikes under such circumstances? No, and perhaps rightly No. The moment after the United States had been struck would be the last opportunity for humanity to save herself from suicidal destruction. The best course might be hair-trigger mobilization, but urgent diplomacy first, to bring the world back from the abyss.
Japanese security policy, however, rests on what I believe is a mistaken belief that the United States would defend her, as we have unwisely promised. Our guarantee, however, may well prove as evanescent as the Anglo-Japanese alliance.
Given this history, and given Japan’s recognition of the clear and present danger, what then should Tokyo do?
The Japanese Ambassador was my guest for dinner several years ago. I outlined to him the concerns I have just set out, as I do regularly. For better or worse they are the product of decades of thought and experience. Fear, in the gut, is the basis of deterrence, I concluded that the Chinese Communists did not fear Japan, while they over estimated themselves, so therefore might attempt some sort of military action—perhaps a “short, sharp strike” against the Senkaku Islands, as one of our wisest students of security, Captain James Fanell (USN, Ret’d) puts it. The Ambassador was nonplussed. “Surely” he replied, “China understands we are a threshold nuclear power?” I had to reply I was not sure.
China’s historical memory is filled with propaganda fantasy. In most of the world art drives home the horror of war, as in Erich Maria (1898-1970) Remarque’s Im Westen nichts Neues (1929). Not so in China: instead of the pain of an honest war novel, we have romanticized books of imaginary heroism, such as 樣沫 (1914-1995) 青春之歌 (1958). 張正隆 (1947-) 雪白血紅 (1989-subsequently banned) is perhaps the exception.
Propagandists come to believe their own propaganda. I fear that some in the CCP may actually imagine a smooth, bloodless victory can be won. I have made several visits to ground zero, Hiroshima, to ponder: most recently with my two then teenage sons, who were absorbed by the fine museums. I simply sit near the half-destroyed buildings from the time, and imagine the flash, the burst of radiation, explosion, the shock wave, the soaring mushroom cloud—and the victims —all of it. Time well spent: I recommend this visit.
What did I suggest to the Japanese ambassador?
First, a the development, right now, of a submarine carried minimal nuclear deterrent, such as France and England possess. The purpose of such a force, one cannot stress strongly enough, is not to wage nuclear war, but rather to prevent it. Such a deterrent is the strongest preventative we know.
Second, to be sure the message is clear, the detonation, underground, on August 6,the anniversary of Hiroshima, of an atomic weapon of perhaps twelve kilotons (“The Little Boy” that destroyed that city, , was fifteen). I say underground, but for the Chinese I feel that belief and fear will come only when they see the actual blast and mushroom cloud, so were it not for concern about fallout and pollution, I would recommend an explosion in the atmosphere. This small demonstration should be accompanied by sincere declarations of peaceful intent. That was all I said to my distinguished guest.
From this the rest follows easily. Expansion, but not over-expansion, of Japanese forces. The manufacture of the ships, aircraft, and infantry armament as good as the best in the world. The further improvement of Japan’s already excellent intelligence capacity. Preparation of bases and population centers to resist attack.
On this foundation, I would have suggested, further development of Japanese diplomacy, of her involvement with the rest of the world, of her partnership with other countries, in Asia and elsewhere, for humanitarian and cultural, as well as strategic reasons. Real effort to be a leader as well as a good ally, above all in the search for freedom and stable peace.
Compared to a decade ago, this agenda is relatively easy politically now that the CCP has shown her hand. After all, when Malaysia, an inwardly-focused country not in the first rank of military power, feels it necessary to scramble her jet interceptors against CCP intruders, as she did on June 1, 2021, then one may be certain that Peking has been pushing much too hard, and in a way counter-productive to her ostensible purposes. (My own view is that Chinese foreign policy is driven by the domestic rivalries of the Party, and her need to distract the population, but that is for another essay).
To conclude: the hardest part is the crossing of the (minimal) nuclear threshold. The time has arrived, however. Some will disagree, but on serious reflection, many more will see that credible deterrence is a better choice than a conflict of incredible destructiveness.
The mistaken termination of the Anglo-Japanese alliance was a contributor to the Pacific War, but something over which Japan had no control. A minimal Japanese nuclear capability as well as a strong defensive military and robust alliances, is essential now if war is to be ruled out. A weak Japan invites conflict. This fact one must never forget. By contrast, a nuclear Japan will bring us incomparably closer than we are today to secure peace for all. Unlike the ending of treaty with England, a unilateral act by London over which Tokyo had no influence, in this case the decisive choice can only be made in Tokyo. No evasion is possible. Nor is there any substitute.
Joining the (minimal) nuclear club is Japan’s duty, that she may or may not choose to ulill. On her choice may well depend the peace of the world.
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