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The more I read about last week’s summit in Washington, D.C. between President Biden and Japan’s Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, the more I’m reminded of that expression ”putting lipstick on a pig.” For far from the unalloyed success described by the Biden administration and so many of the press accounts (see, e.g., here and here) the results of the meeting can easily be seen as just the latest sign that, from the U.S. standpoint, the so-called alliance between the two countries still can’t be counted on to pass what must be the acid test of such relationships – and at a time when Tokyo’s support looks more important than ever.

The reason Japan’s contribution counts can be summed up in one word: Taiwan. As known by RealityChek readers and many others, the island has emerged in recent years as the world’s leader in the knowhow needed to produce the world’s most advanced semiconductors. These devices of course are not only the electronic brains of all those wonderful high tech devices we all enjoy using – and need. Microchips also control most of the highest tech weapons in America’s military arsenal, and the ever more capable versions that will be turned out by factories (or “fabs”) on Taiwan and, to a lesser extent, in South Korea, will power the cutting edge weapons that will determine victory and defeat on the increasingly electronic battlefields of the future.

If Taiwan was located, say, in the Caribbean, its semiconductor manufacturing leadership mightn’t be such an urgent problem. But it’s sitting in the South China Sea a scant 100 miles from China, which has not only become a powerful rival to U.S. interests in Asia and all over the world, but keeps sounding increasingly determined to take control of the island – which it regards as an outlaw province.

Once upon a time (when Taiwan wasn’t nearly so important), the United States could be sure of deterring a Chinese invasion or military operations aimed at resting major concessions from Taiwan’s government, or of actually defeating such Chinese actions. Now, though, as RealityChek reported years ago, the U.S. nuclear edge needed for high confidence deterrence is gone, and it’s widely agreed that the non-nuclear military gap has narrowed considerably as well – especially for a conflict in China’s backyard.

Which is where Japan (and other U.S. allies in the Asia-Pacific – now more often called the Indo-Pacific region) come in. It would greatly increase the odds of both U.S. deterrence, and victory if need be, if Washington could count on Tokyo to fight alongside America’s military if a war over Taiwan heaven forbid broke out. This is the acid test I was talking about up top. Any military planning for war needs to know for sure what assets it can absolutely rely on when the shooting starts and what assets are only “maybes.” And the results of the Biden-Suga summit left way too many maybes.

It’s true that Japan has added significantly to its military strength in recent years – though such a wealthy country can afford to spend much more. It’s also true that Japan has agreed to take on more responsibilities for preserving security in that Indo-Pacific region. Moreover, the joint declaration issued by the two governments after the summit specifically mentioned “the importance of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait and [encouraging] the peaceful resolution of cross-Strait issues.” Similar recent statements by Japanese officials during Mr. Biden’s term are widely considered breakthroughs in terms of Tokyo’s recognition of the situation’s gravity.

Suga actually added in remarks to reporters following the summit that “We agreed to oppose any attempts to change the status quo by force or coercion in the East and South China Seas [where Taiwan is located], and intimidation of others in the region.” So that sounds like a somewhat more assertive description of Japanese intentions on Taiwan.

But “oppose” could mean all sorts of things – a stern diplomatic note, a few sanctions. Maybe a very stern note. Or lots of sanctions. Neither Suga nor any other Japanese leader has said “If China attacks Taiwan, we’re sending in our troops, too.” In other words, uncertainty over Japan still leaves American war planners with a big problem.

And much more is involved here than my own personal skepticism. As noted here, even if Japan ultimately agrees only to provide logistical and other forms of non-combat support to U.S. forces fighting over Taiwan, itse home islands would run major risks. For due to China’s “ability to launch missiles to virtually anywhere in Japan,” Beijing could target “bases that the U.S. military would rely on for executing operations” and inflict major casualties on Japan.

Further, Tokyo’s distinct reluctance to voice full-throated condemnations of Chinese human rights violations and even atrocities for fear of disrupting lucrative economic ties raises even stronger doubts as to Japan’s willingness to participate in a full-fledged war with its leading trade partner. Indeed, in a post-summit event, Suga repeated another recent mainstay of Japanese diplomatic rhetoric:  “[W]e must work to establish a stable and constructive relationship with China.”

Given these considerations, it should be apparent that words alone simply can’t resolve legitimate doubts about Japan’s real intentions or likely responses to outright Chinse aggression anywhere in the region except for its own territory. 

I’m a foreign policy realist – someone who emphasizes the inevitably central role played by unsentimental, frankly selfish, judgments about concrete interests in all countries’ formulation of their foreign and defense policies. So I’m the last person to complain about Japan’s continuing caution and hedging as such. I can think of many compelling reasons for Japan to become more gung ho – e.g., does Tokyo really want to see China’s thug totalitarian government as the kingpin of its own neighborhood?. But this is a judgement for the Japanese people and their leaders to make.

Japan’s fence-sitting obviously also represents a challenge for American diplomacy, and President Biden has made improving cooperation with allies a centerpiece of his foreign policy. But major skepticism is justified as to whether he and his aides can turn Japan into a military ally worthy of the name, since their globalist emphases on alliances can too easily turn into prizing smooth ties for their own sake, as opposed to firm insistence on greater burden- and cost-sharing that’s bound to ruffle feathers at least in the short term. In fact, signs of such alliance fetishizing have already appeared in administration agreement to ease pressures on both Japan and South Korea for paying the costs of hosting U.S. forces clearly essential to these own countries’ defense.

And in this vein, this foot-dragging by Japan (and most other ostensibly staunch U.S. allies, too) raises a crucial question for Americans. Should they keep allowing their leaders to keep prodding and cajoling these countries in the hope that someday they might demonstrate plausible reliability?  Or should they conclude that the meager results of literally decades of prodding and cajoling mean that the success that’s so desperately needed should be written off as a pipe dream? As shown by rising tensions over Taiwan in particular, the clock is ticking – and quickly.