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Chinese military buildup ’cause of instability’ in Asia, ex-U.S. Indo-Pacific Command chief says

  • January 20, 2022
  • , The Japan Times
  • English Press

By Editor-in-Chief Takashi Yokota and Staff Writer Jesse Johnson


As concerns over China’s growing assertiveness rise, including fears of a contingency — or even full-fledged conflict — erupting in the Taiwan Strait, Japan’s role in its alliance with the United States is getting renewed attention.


In a testimony before the U.S. Congress last March, then-Indo-Pacific Commander Adm. Philip Davidson said China could attempt to take control of Taiwan by the end of the decade, prompting a flurry of concern and headlines as Beijing ramped-up military exercises near the self-ruled island.


Davidson, who has since retired from the military, recently sat down with The Japan Times to discuss Asia’s security situation and Japan’s role in the region and in its alliance with the U.S.


Below are edited excerpts from the conversation.


You warned in a congressional testimony last year that China could invade Taiwan within the next six years. What are your current views on this?


In that Senate testimony, I made my consideration of the timeline for any potential conflict across the Taiwan Strait. That leaves the situation wide open for all kinds of military adventurism. It’s not solely about amphibious assault, or amphibious invasion.


I made that calculation based on my observations of how I saw the People’s Republic of China’s military capacity — the number of ships, aircraft, rockets, and its sea, air, space and cyber capabilities, and how it has evolved throughout the 21st century.


Certainly since 2012, my evaluation of their exercise and training and testing of those capabilities. And then thirdly, what I believe will be an important political calculus for Chairman Xi Jinping himself, is the potential for a fourth term in 2027.


It is certainly a very risky undertaking for China to do. But the potential within six years, given some of the strains within China, is there.


Could you elaborate on what these strains are?


The long-term promise over what the (Communist) Party articulates as sovereignty issues. The potential limitations in Chinese economic growth over the next 10 years. And its own assessment of how it’s doing, when it comes to the sovereignty issues it has taken on already, but Hong Kong, Xinjiang, the Uyghurs, the South China Sea, a line of actual control with India.


Some observers have expressed concern that China could take over the Pratas Islands in the southwest corner of Taiwan’s air defense identification zone, either as a means of frustrating Taipei or maybe as a first step toward a larger invasion. What are your thoughts about that kind of a scenario unfolding?


We’ve seen similar types of adventurism back in the 1950s. I wouldn’t exclude that from the realm of possibilities, when I was asked about what is the potential for conflict.


Recently you mentioned that Washington’s “strategic ambiguity” regarding Taiwan should be maintained — for now. What future scenarios would warrant a shift from this strategy, especially as the Chinese have been sending aircraft to the Taiwan Strait at record levels?


I won’t speculate on that. … The policy of strategic ambiguity has served all parties well over the last 42 years, and I think it’s been reaffirmed at this point. I’ll leave it at that.


Does Washington have a red line regarding Chinese provocations toward Taiwan?


The U.S. approach is rooted in the U.S. “One China” policy as it relates to the Taiwan Relations Act and the three joint U.S. communiques, and that outlines what the American stance is.


It has long been said that while the Chinese military’s capabilities have grown exponentially, its navy has been untested, and that interoperability will become an issue in real combat. Does this still hold true?


It is apparent that they haven’t been a tested force over the last few decades. I think that’s a fair assessment.


But does it speak to how they might assert themselves in the region, or pursue some kind of military adventurism? I think that would be part of the calculus of the political leadership, when thinking about any adventurism. That’s not to say that it would be a force in being forever. That’s a bit of a form of art, a fleet in being. At some point, whether it’s tested or not, there will be a calculus as to whether to put it to use when that time frame comes.


One of the things that we observed in my time at Indo-Pacific Command was deepening joint exercises, within and across their theater commands, and more realistic scenarios. Much, much higher numbers of live missile firings, at sea, from the air with the Rocket Forces, things like that. And all those things are used to test the force, short of combat. They’ll make their judgments based on how they observe the progress really in those in those three areas. I would add combat logistics and sustainment, as well.


Taiwan is 200 kilometers away from Japan’s Yonaguni Island. Officials in Tokyo are becoming more vocal about the possibility of Japan’s involvement in any sort of conflict involving the Taiwan Strait and from the U.S. standpoint, how would you assess Japan’s readiness?


I had the opportunity to actually travel to Yonaguni Island with Adm. Katsutoshi Kawano, chief of the Joint Staff of the SDF at the time, so I have a good sense for how far it is from Taiwan.


When I think about a crisis in the East China Sea, it’s a pretty far afield crisis. When you think about the range of capabilities that China possesses in the air again, on the sea, with our Rocket Forces, it’s a pretty broad expanse across the East China Sea.


I was impressed in the Keen (Sword/Edge) series of exercises that we the United States do with Japan, on the readiness and of Japanese planning and forces. I was very, very pleased with the advancements that we have made in improving the transparency of our planning, and improving the transparency of our day-to-day operations, being able to sequence better threats as they presented themselves, whether it was combined Russia, Chinese bomber flights … in the Sea of Japan or in the Philippine Sea.


That required coordination between our two nations and is just one example of that. And I was very pleased with the advances that we made there.


Previously you said that while basing new missiles in Japan that would have violated the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty is a decision that obviously should be left to Tokyo, you can’t deter by defense alone, and that an adversary has to know that there’s a potential response in the offing. Do you think basing those kinds of weapons is an option that Japan should seriously consider?


I think that’s right. You can’t deter by defenses alone. If you have no way to do two things, either impose costs on an adversary that their adventurism will result in punishment or an ability to deny their ability to actually execute the military adventurism they’re pondering, if you can’t do those things, you can’t deter.


So … the idea that missiles alone are some sort of change in the calculus, as we’re seeing the proliferation of missiles of all ranges from China, has to be considered.


Certainly Japan has advanced their capabilities over the last 70 years, (joint strike missiles) are pouring in now. They’ve got Aegis capability. They’ve got supremely capable land, sea and air forces. They’ve been modernizing and advancing the capabilities, range and all that stuff over the lifetime of the Self-Defense Forces. These things ought to be considered, but certainly it is a policy determination and I know how profound a policy determination it is for the government.


Are there other options besides basing such missiles on land?


Certainly there are options for basing. There are options for them to be seaborne, airborne.


Do you believe those might be more palatable to Japan?


I won’t speak for the people of Japan.


You testified in Congress that the U.S. posture in the Indo-Pacific needs to be more expeditionary. Would this require adjustments in the U.S. Forces Japan basing arrangements?


I was very satisfied with the basic arrangements that we have in Japan already. Those are jewels in our alliance. When it comes to our mutual defense obligations, my discussion about expeditionary bases and capabilities, meaning the forces that might use them as well, speak pretty much beyond Japan.


(The SDF) have a good understanding of what the threats are in the region, and what their posture might be within Japan, and that requires an expeditionary posture as well. We need it as part of the deterrence backbone that I articulated earlier. And our ability to deploy from the United States, to occupy some expeditionary bases along the first and second and island chains is critically important.


Are there any areas in the alliance that could be further improved upon or deepened?


The most important alliance in the 21st century is the one between the U.S. and Japan.


I was really pleased with the advances that we made and planning and operational transparency. I think going forward if we were to deepen our relationship, something like Australia-U.K.-U.S. (AUKUS) thing that transpired, what are the real opportunities there? Deepening our transparency and information-sharing, and doing that by assuring our respective security systems and values.


Second, deepening our interoperability and relationships in missile defense — even extending that to others, the Republic of Korea and Australia, is an opportunity for our two nations.


And the third thing is to deepen our cooperation at sea, especially. Japan is modernizing its seaborne forces going forward, there’s opportunity for us to share more deeply our experiences between our two nations and operate more robustly together. I would say the same as the same is true with the Air Self-Defense Force and the United States Air Force, as well. There’s opportunity there to deepen our relationship.


Are there any domestic hurdles for Japan in terms of deepening information-sharing?


From both sides, the preservation of information is really, really important to deepening the relationship. We’ve found that if we’ve been able to share deep intelligence information with others in the region, they’ve been able to get a clarity of understanding of how they intend to respond in these situations. I just think that’s something that we could do more of.


Do you think that Japan could join the AUKUS grouping or something similar?


There’s nothing more fertile than the alliance between our two nations. It speaks for a lot. I’ve always been impressed with our technological co-development: Aegis, the Standard Missile … we’ve done a lot there. There’s opportunity to do more of that. In the future, I’d like to see that deepened.


Could the introduction of new capabilities in Japan risk triggering an arms race in Asia?


The instability comes from China. The speed and the rate and the growth in their change in capability and capacity, when there is no external threat to China or any of its concerns, is the cause of instability in the region.


What do you make of China’s testing and development of its hypersonic missiles?


It’s the nature of warfare, right? Going back to the arrow.


And here we are now, in the next phase of this development with hypersonic weapons, things that could have kinetic impact, from a cyberattack to the potential for weaponry in space, these are all developments that are alarming, but have to be coped with going forward. You just can’t deny the potential capabilities that are coming to the fore with the idea that well, we’re not going to do that. It just causes instability and puts nations at risk going forward.


For China, I would say … they’re developing a hypersonic system to threaten others in the region on their way to what they believe is necessary to be a global power. And they’re doing so when there is no external threat to China. I think that’s the source of instability in the region.


In terms of offensive capabilities in the region, in what areas does the United States need to step up?


My advocacy for the Pacific Deterrence Initiative had some key components to it. Some of that came from better posture in the region, expeditionary base in places that we could go, better long-range missiles, both seaborne, airborne and land-based, as well. The operating concepts, the joint-fires network, the things that would go along with that. Deepening our information sharing, not only with our allies in the region, but partners in the region to logistics and sustainment that goes with it.


Those were all key components, and the defense of Guam and other key U.S. bases in region, those were all key components of the Pacific Deterrence Initiative. My stance is unchanged from that, and I’m pleased so far with the progress of (the National Defense Authorization Act) for ’22 as it moves through the Congress. There’s a little ways to go here still, but I’m hoping it comes to fruition.

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