Lightning Strikes Three Times: Japan, Taiwan & The Emerging Big Power Arms Races

Introduction: For me, the sudden abandonment of neutrality by Sweden and Finland after Putin’s invasion of Ukraine were like separate lightning bolts striking the same tree.

How likely was that? Sweden had been a neutral country for 200+ years. Finland for 75, since 1948.

I haven’t visited either nation, and am no Scandinavian expert. Yet an assumption that their neutrality was stable was part of the deeply-rooted  “tree” of my longtime, complacent view of international war and peace. Its major branches came tumbling down when Putin’s forces rolled.

And now, the lightning has struck yet again.

The third bolt came from Tokyo, arcing a jagged path across the Pacific, coming down in the White House on January 15, 2023 when Japan’s prime minister met with Joe Biden.

In its wake there’s not much left of my prewar “tree” but a pile of smoking debris and charred kindling.

Not that I cherished illusions about Japan. After all, I was a World War Two baby. I learned to read and watch a new black & white television in an era blanketed by books, movies and documentaries about the war, especially against Japan. Images of the atomic mushroom clouds rising from Hiroshima and Nagasaki are among my early visual memories.

Those images were, of course, reinforced by the decades of anxiety about nuclear holocaust that we recall as the Cold War. Day to day this prospect was abstract, yet for me close to home.

My own father, who had survived 25 bombing missions over Europe, spent several postwar years and most of the 1950s flying a big B-36 bomber, in vast lazy circles around what was then the Soviet Union. His planes presumably carried nuclear warheads (he’d neither confirm nor deny that, and no telltale classified documents ever showed up in our closets), but we all knew that was what the whole exercise was about. (He also did some even more secret airborne spying, which is described here.)

The B-36, the last of the big bombers that had propellers (six, plus four jet engines; yes, ten in all).









In my early teens, I expected to follow my father into the Air Force. But fate, or Providence, had other plans. When the Cold War turned hot in Vietnam, I ended up as a peacenik, protesting it as illegal, immoral, based on lies, illusions (all of which I would stand by today, except to add the word tragic, particularly for our veterans of it).

During these years, I often thought about Japan, and while knowing hardly more about it than Scandinavia, often gave thanks for its postwar “pacifist constitution,”  which sharply limited its military forces. In Vietnam, the U. S. was also up against allies and suppliers, Russia and China. But Japan, which so recently had been a very formidable foe, was not a player.

Vining and her student, the imperial crown prince.

Japan sidelined was not only a relief; a story learned after joining Quakers fed my new team vanity: a Quaker schoolteacher from Philadelphia, Elizabeth Gray Vining, had (again by fate or Providence) been selected as the private tutor for the Japanese crown prince Akihito during the U. S. Occupation.  For four years, Vining (allegedly) quietly filled his ears with pacifist propaganda.

It may have worked. When Akihito took the throne in 1989, the Cold War (or more accurately, the first one) seemed to be ending: Gorbachev and all that. Akihito chose a special imperial name for his reign, Heisei, which means “achieving peace.” For thirty years, he was regarded as a staunch supporter of Japan’s non-interventionist, limited military laws and policies.

But even (formerly) divine emperors can’t stop the clock. In 2019, Akihito, in his mid-80s, abdicated.  With him went whatever residual  Quaker influence: his successor, and more important the Japanese government, are all in for discarding the non-intervention era and launching a major military buildup, not seen there in nearly a century. They are reportedly determined that Japan will build the world’s third largest war machine.

Does that make you nervous? It does me.

So now, in place of the blasted stump of my lost “peace tree,” what I’m now watching unfold is not one but two successor Cold Wars (at least), taking shape over the horizon, but creeping up on us from nearly all sides. I don’t like them, but there they are anyway:

At one end, there’s the U. S. & NATO (now, plus Sweden & Finland, whose militaries are small and non-nuclear, yet tough and nothing to mess with) versus Putin’s Russia, which is getting help from China and some other authoritarians. In these cold wars, there are several more countries with nukes.

Then at the other end of Asia’s vastness there’s the U. S. vs. China (again), looming over Taiwan on one side, and Japan on the other. China evidently wants to do to Taiwan what Putin wanted to do to Ukraine (namely absorb it and obliterate its identity, history and culture. Then it plans to establish hegemony over the western Pacific, which would give it control over much of the world’s busiest sea-lanes, on which much of everything we buy and sell, wear, eat or plug in, travels.

In pursuit of these “interests,” Japan, Russia and China are all building massive armies, navies, air and space forces, not to mention swarms of killer drones, AI and other electronic weaponry; even balloons.

Not to be outdone, the U. S. Congress recently passed the biggest war budget ever, and is cementing alliances— old (NATO) and new (Japan). The newly Republican-controlled House of Representatives is supposedly dubious about such foreign adventures; they make noises about abandoning support for Ukraine. But when push comes to shove, the votes for Cold War (and hot ones too)are almost always there.

So far, the House GOP seems to prefer to focus on nuclear (family?) threats at home, such as drag queens reading children’s stories, an errant son’s lascivious laptop, or Black citizens wanting to vote.

These plagues are familiar. Surges in domestic repression were continuing outgrowths of the previous Cold War. While Americans ritually praised Dr. King over this past weekend, many sincerely, it’s still true that for much of his career the FBI just as sincerely wanted him dead or in jail for life.

Also in those years many professors, teachers and librarians were harassed for echoing the questions Dr. King (and others) had raised about economic and other forms  of injustice, though then, ironically, the label to avoid was not”woke” but “red.”

Even so, in that first Cold War, and in the new ones too, there were and are in my view what some call civilizational issues at stake, here and abroad.

Despite fifty years of protest against America’s largely unremedied (and yes, systemic) racism, I’m now persuaded we’re less dangerous to human rights than the Russian or Chinese rulers (though I won’t stop speaking for racial justice as way opens). And up against the imperial drive and genocidal visions of Chinese and Russian rulers, I see no option but to resist their willingness to violently pursue expansion. Soft power is still my preference, but I can’t deny that when the Ukrainians resolved to fight for their survival, I could not tell them they should carry on their struggle only according to my biases.

Still, my ditherings are not the point here. The new Cold Wars are described by many more expert and insightful observers (such as those in the articles below; if you’ve come this far, don’t skip them) are not just talk: they are happening, regardless of what I think or worry about. Immense resources in many nations are being deployed.Soon, citizens in many nations, now merely grumbling at home, are to be mobilized. The effects may not be felt at once, but are likely to be vast. With the number of players armed with nukes much increased (& here comes Iran?), the chances for regional catastrophes are increased as well.

How will ordinary Americans feel it? Here’s one imponderable to ponder: less than six months from now, June 30 will mark fifty years since the U. S. Military draft expired. For half a century young Americans have not been obliged to join the armed forces; few but us geezers now even remember conscription. But the last draft, begun in 1948, was a creature of the first Cold War.

Note that while the U. S. Military is awash in money, it is starving for live bodies. Even the Marines, who usually have plenty, are straining to “make numbers.”  Would the new Congress dare to consider coercing citizens to staff up the rapidly-growing New Cold War(s) military? Or will they train my grandchildren (& yours) to sit at remote screens near home and aim swarms of killer drones at Chinese ships and planes mounting an invasion of Taiwan? Would that stop a real invasion? If not, then what?

Or here’s an option: they could require the kids to begin learning Chinese, and studying their rewritten history textbooks that say nothing happened in Hong Kong  or Tiananmen Square, and the Uighurs and Tibetans don’t even exist.

Stranger things have happened.

Washington Post, Jan. 11, 2023

Japan’s prime minister warns that Ukraine today could be Asia tomorrow

Opinion by Josh Rogin
 — January 11, 2023

TOKYO — As fears of war grow in East Asia, the United States’ chief Pacific ally, Japan, is moving away from decades of self-imposed restraint and launching its largest military buildup since World War II. As regional tensions increase, Japan’s Prime Minister Fumio Kishida is urging the United States to grasp the urgency and gravity of this historic but dangerous moment.

“The global security environment is going through a major change,” Kishida told me in a long interview in his official residence just before departing for a five-country tour that will end with him meeting President Biden at the White House on Friday. “Japan has made a major, huge decision to strengthen our defensive capability. And for that purpose, we also wish to deepen the bilateral cooperation with the United States even further.”

Emerging from three years of covid isolation, Japan confronts a neighborhood where China and North Korea are expanding their military arsenals and advancing their missile capabilities, the prime minister told me. Adm. John C. Aquilino, the head of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, has described Beijing’s expanding armament as “the largest military buildup in history.” North Korea fired more than 90 cruise and ballistic missiles in 2022, often sending Japanese citizens scrambling for cover.

In December, Kishida’s government completed the rewriting of three core documents that make up Japan’s national security strategy. For the first time since 1976, Japan will no longer limit its defense spending to 1 percent of gross domestic product. Under the accompanying five-year defense budget plan, Japan is now set to nearly double its defense outlay to 2 percent of GDP by 2027. This would make Japan’s military budget the world’s third largest, behind only the United States and China.

The objective is to raise deterrence against China and North Korea, in the hopes of stopping leaders in Beijing and Pyongyang from contemplating the use of violent aggression of the kind Russian President Vladimir Putin has unleashed in Ukraine.

“This was a major a decision that we had to make,” Kishida said. “We have had to question whether we will be able to defend the lives, the livelihood and the industry of the Japanese people and the country.”

Japan had previously pursued a conciliatory policy toward Russia, hoping to resolve long-lingering territorial disputes. Yet after Moscow’s Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine, Kishida has completely reversed that approach; Japan is now the Asian country most supportive of Ukraine. Russia’s unprovoked attack and nuclear threats should send a warning to those facing the growing aggressiveness of dictatorships in Asia, the prime minister told me.

“Ukraine today may be Asia tomorrow,” Kishida said. “Unilateral attempts to change the status quo by force are not acceptable.”

Although it is not explicitly stated in the strategy documents, Tokyo’s primary concern is a possible attack by China on Taiwan. Japan’s military reorganization shifts resources toward Japan’s southwest islands, near Taiwan. The Japanese military reform is focused not on buying lots of ships or planes, but rather on getting Japan’s already large Self-Defense Forces (Tokyo’s name for its armed forces) ready to fight in a Taiwan-related scenario.andday,

Kishida emphasized the importance he places on peace and stability across the Taiwan directly to Chinese President Xi Jinping in their November meeting in Bangkok. In his meeting with me, Kishida said that “the peace and stability of Taiwan are also extremely important for the global community.”

U.S. Ambassador Rahm Emanuel told me that the Biden administration is helping Japan modernize and integrate with the U.S. military, boosting cooperation on the coast guard, cyberwarfare, space and undersea security. Washington and Tokyo are also pursuing more sophisticated coordination on economic security, in part by moving supply chains and onshoring critical manufacturing to ensure China can’t use its economic power to pressure democracies. Many in the region vividly recall how Beijing used its monopoly on critical public health supplies to blackmail other countries during the pandemic.

“Covid, coercion and conflict have all made everybody reassess their assumptions,” Emanuel said.

Japan is attempting to build up its diplomatic role along with that of its military. Kishida is hosting the Group of Seven Summit in May in his hometown of Hiroshima, where many of his own family members died in the United States’ nuclear attack there in August 1945. He is visiting five of the G-7 capitals this week to prepare for the summit.

When Kishida and Biden meet in Washington on Friday, they will likely discuss the plan for Japan to become only the second U.S. ally (after the United Kingdom) to be sold Tomahawk cruise missiles, which will give Japan the ability to strike ground targets.

Tokyo intentionally avoided acquiring this “counterstrike” or “standoff” capability for decades — but no more.

Speaking with Japanese officials and experts in Tokyo, I repeatedly heard a solemn acknowledgment that Japan is sacrificing some of the soft power that came from its identity as a country that voluntarily gave up the ability to wage offensive war. But most Japanese genuinely fear that if China, Russia and North Korea are not shown a serious response to their escalating antagonism, conflict will come to Asia.

“Unfortunately, it’s an arms race,” said Yoichi Funabashi, founder of the Asia Pacific Initiative, part of the International House of Japan, a Tokyo think tank. “But, if you cannot acquire sufficient deterrence, you will end up paying more in the long run when the deterrence fails.”

There is irony in that Kishida, the leader of the more dovish wing of Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party, is in power at the moment Japan emerges from its pacifist postwar stance. In fact, his liberal bona fides likely account for the lack of significant domestic opposition to these plans, which were set in motion by hawkish former prime minister Shinzo Abe, who was assassinated last July.

“The reality is that the leader of a country cannot choose the era in which the person takes that leadership position,” Kishida told me.

Japan has concluded that preparing for conflict is the only way to maximize the chance to avoid it. As a neighbor of both Russia and China, it doesn’t have the luxury of choosing to focus only on Europe or Asia. From Tokyo’s perspective, the fates of the two sides of the globe are interconnected and inseparable.
The biggest open question in Tokyo is this: Can a worried Japan count on a distracted and divided United States to increase its focus on Asia while preoccupied with a war in Europe? The truth is that nobody knows. But Japan has now bet its future on the hope that the United States will rise to stand beside it.

“I would like to ask the American people to be more interested and to be engaged in the Indo-Pacific region,” the prime minister told me. “And I’m convinced by doing so, that would ensure the peace and prosperity of this region.”


Josh Rogin is a columnist for the Global Opinions section of The Washington Post. He writes about foreign policy and national security. Rogin is also a political analyst for CNN. He is the author of the book Chaos Under Heaven: Trump, Xi, and the Battle for the 21st Century.

Summary of Hal Brands’ Reports for Bloomberg:

ByTobin Harshaw
November 26, 2022

Tobin Harshaw is a Bloomberg Opinion editor and writer on national security and military affairs. Previously, he was an editor at the op-ed page of the New York Times and the newspaper’s letters editor. @tobinharshaw

It’s no secret that the US has the world’s dominant military. But it also has a secret weapon: friends. And of late, they’ve been more like BFFs: The North Atlantic Treaty Organization has hung tough against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and is adding two new members; the so-called Quad, a security partnership with Australia, India and Japan, has been reinvigorated; and last year, Washington formed a new alliance with Australia and Britain known as AUKUS.

While these relationships have been strengthened by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s bungled war, we don’t know how they might they fare if facing a far more serious crisis and opponent: a Chinese assault of Taiwan.

Bloomberg Opinion sent our columnist Hal Brands on a mission to four nations that could be critical in repelling any aggression from Beijing. Hal’s overview and his dispatches from Tokyo, Sydney, New Delhi and London are all worth your time.

We did a debriefing as a Twitter Spaces event on Tuesday. Below is a condensed transcript of our chat:

Tobin Harshaw: Of all the hotspots in the world, why did you choose these four countries?

Hal Brands: If a conflict over Taiwan breaks out, one of the determining factors is whether US could rally a big military, diplomatic and economic coalition to push back against China. When you look at the geography and geopolitics of the Indo-Pacific, and when you think about America’s global alliance of networks, Japan, Australia, India and the UK are critical in their own right; they are also bellwethers for a larger set of states that would have to make difficult choices.

TH: Was there one thing that stood out to you during the trip, maybe a conversation that surprised you?

HB: In Canberra and Tokyo, I was struck how closely aligned Australian and Japanese policymakers are with the US. Yes, there are debates about when an attack on Taiwan might happen, about what scenarios are most likely, about the ideal way of responding. But there’s a general alignment on the sense that a crisis is coming, and probably sooner rather than later.

TH: I found your Japan dispatch to be the scariest one.

HB: Japanese officials were the most concerned group of folks that I talked to on the trip. There is clearly a sense in Tokyo that the danger of a very aggressive Chinese move in the Western Pacific is rising, that time is relatively short, and that Japan would be severely threatened — perhaps even territorially threatened if you think about how close some of the southwestern Japanese islands are to Taiwan. We’re talking about 100 miles or so.

Japan has to get very serious very quickly about improving its military capabilities. It is going to more or less double defense spending over the coming five years. It’s trying to harden and fortify some of those little islands. It’s investing in long-range, precision-strike weapons like US Tomahawk cruise missiles that can be very useful against either North Korea or China.

TH: I think Australia is not generally on Americans’ radar in terms of global security. But AUKUS is about more than selling some submarines, right?

HB: Australia is in some ways America’s most reliable military ally; it has fought with the US in all our major wars since 1917, including Vietnam. If you put the question to the Australian public — If China attacks Taiwan, would you favor sending Australian forces to fight alongside US forces? — a plurality of Australians say yes.

As for AUKUS, the headlines were about the nuclear-powered attack submarines that will materialize sometime in the late 2030s or early 2040s. But there’s a variety of other pieces to it with more near-term impact: the development of autonomous maritime vehicles for instance, and there are rumors that the US may lease the Australians a Virginia-class attack submarine submarine to bridge the gap to the newly built boats.

In late September, Australia and Japan issued a joint declaration that looks like “alliance-lite,” with language saying the two countries would consult closely on their prospective responses to threats to the stability of the region. The US, Japan, Australia relationship isn’t a trilateral Alliance, but it’s getting there.

TH: Australia’s commodities-based economy has been very dependent on trade with China. Yet because of recent disputes, it seems like Canberra is in a stage of decoupling. Have the Australians shown the rest of the world a way to lessen its dependence on Beijing?

HB: The Australians showed a lot of toughness dealing with economic sanctions that China threw at them back in 2020. But the dependence remains: A third or so of Australia’s foreign trade is still with China. If there was a war over Taiwan, and it led to a rapid decoupling of the Chinese and Australian economies, that would be a huge hit to Australia. How devastating it would be would depend on whether Australia was able to find alternative markets. If you want countries to rally geopolitically, you have got to find ways of softening the blow geo-economically.

TH: You describe Japan as America’s most important ally and Australia as our most loyal ally. India, obviously, is not either of those things. So, what is it?

HB: You should think of India as being aligned with, but not allied to, the US on China. India is deeply ambivalent about aligning with the US on a variety of issues other issues, such as Ukraine. Look at the position it has taken, or not taken rather, on the Ukraine crisis, in part because of its dependence on Russian gas and Russian energy and Russian military gear.

But India has a major China problem: a contested frontier where the Indians feel very vulnerable. So on China, they’re going to be more receptive to defense cooperation and diplomatic cooperation with the US.

The problem is that India is really not a major military power in the Western Pacific, and it has to consider how any position it might take on a Taiwan conflict would affect its own security on the line of actual control in the Himalayas. That, along with the residual influence of Cold War-era non-alignment, makes it a far more challenging partner for the US than Japan or Australia.

TH: Given its military limitations, how could India help in the case of a Taiwan invasion?

HB: Reasonable asks from the US or other countries would be things like: Would you give access to the Andaman and Nicobar Islands off of the Malacca Strait to conduct a blockade of Chinese energy imports? Could you help us maintain security in the Indian Ocean so that we can focus on the Western Pacific? Could India help lead diplomatic condemnation of China among developing nations, where it has a lot of a lot of influence?

The US-India relationship is mostly headed in the right direction. There is a recognition that a world in which China has reordered the Western Pacific by force, and is free to focus on its border dispute with India, would be a pretty nasty world for New Delhi to live in.

TH: The final place you visited was the UK. What would their role in a conflict be?

HB: The Royal Navy has a persistent, if small, presence in the Indo-Pacific. Some other Europeans, such as Germany and France, have been signaling that they have a real interest in the stability of the region.

They’ve become convinced that China is a systemic threat to a world in which Europe has done pretty well. They worry about Taiwan because it is a vulnerable democracy. And they understand that if the NATO allies are not helpful to the US on its top national security priority, which is China, Americans may take a more jaundiced view of NATO in the coming years.

That said, there’s much uncertainty around exactly what the British or the French or any other European country would actually do in a Taiwan crisis, in part because their military capabilities in the Western Pacific are fairly limited — not nonexistent, but limited. Some of the other options, like slapping really harsh economic and technological sanctions on China, are plausible, but haven’t been worked out in detail.

TH: I want to finish with a sentence that you had in your introductory piece to this series of five: “A war that the US fights in the Western Pacific without allies is a war it runs a very high risk of losing. A war that it fights at the head of a large democratic coalition is one China probably cannot win.” How confident would you be that, if China invaded in the near future, this democratic coalition would come together?

HB: I feel quite confident that you would have at least what’s sometimes called the “three-plus-one coalition”: the plus one being Taiwan, and the three being the US, Japan and Australia. I am fairly confident that Britain and probably France, and maybe a couple of the other European allies, would do something, although exactly what isn’t yet clear..

The critical question is how quickly these things can be firmed up. If a US-China war over Taiwan kicks off, it’s going to be terrible. There are no good options. So, you really to deter that war rather than have to fight it. And that requires signaling what sort of multilateral opposition China might face before the crisis begins.

This sculpture of a winged atom bomb mushroom cloud stood in front of Pease Air Force base in New Hampshire for many years during the first Cold War.


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