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Japan should triple defense budget ‘immediately’: Elbridge Colby

  • August 4, 2022
  • , Nikkei Asia , 5:17 p.m.
  • English Press

Elbridge Colby says Japan needs to anticipate what China will aim to do
if it succeeds in taking Taiwan by force. (Photo by Ken Moriyasu)

Ex-Pentagon official says Beijing has incentive to weaken Tokyo as regional rival


KEN MORIYASU, Nikkei Asia diplomatic correspondent


TOKYO — If China takes Taiwan by force it will be on Japan’s doorstep, making U.S. defense of its ally increasingly difficult, a former Pentagon official said in an interview.


Therefore Tokyo needs to triple its defense budget “immediately,” said Elbridge Colby, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense for strategy and force development under President Donald Trump. The alternative would be to allow Chinese domination of the region, in which Beijing will likely seek to subordinate and demote Japan’s status as the only country in East Asia that can challenge it, he said.


Colby, who led the formulation of the 2018 U.S. National Defense Strategy, spoke to Nikkei Asia in Tokyo.


Edited excerpts of the interview follow.


Q: Despite the many warnings, China did not interfere with or harass House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s flight into Taiwan Tuesday. Is China not ready for a military conflict with the U.S. at this time?


A: We’re probably at the beginning rather than the end of this dynamic. Just right now they may not be prepared, but I don’t think it tells us anything about a few months from now, or a year or two years.


One of the consequences of the Pelosi visit is that China might use it to strengthen its position across the Taiwan Strait.


China’s problem is that an invasion across the Taiwan Strait is likely to show a lot of indicators. They know that if they assemble large forces and it looks like they’re getting ready to get on airplanes and ships, the Americans are going to see that.


A permanent presence across the shore would reduce the warning time available to the U.S. and Taiwan to prepare.


China could also begin to norm activities such as penetrations into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone, such that they just seem like everyday normal occurrences and not provocative, and as a result desensitize us.


Q: Do you think Pelosi’s visit did more harm than good?


A: We need to shift away from symbolism and focus more on the hard work of shoring up our military position.


We’re like Apollo Creed in “Rocky IV.” We are out of shape and our opponent is Mike Tyson. We are talking smack to the press and they’re hitting the gym. What matters is what happens when we get in the ring.


Once Pelosi’s visit came out in the public, it was probably inevitable that she had to go, but we should be very judicious going forward. We should only provoke the dragon when we’re strong.


The Chinese have been increasing their defense spending 6 to 10% every year for 25 years. They’ve been laser-focused on Taiwan. Meantime, the U.S. has been distracted. We are increasing our efforts in Europe.


We may be getting more engaged in the Middle East.


Taiwan, meanwhile, is woefully underpreparing for a truly existential threat to its freedom. If I were Taiwanese, I would want to spend 10% of my GDP on defense.


The situation has also changed for Japan. Taiwan and Japan are essentially part of the same archipelago. If the Chinese seize Taiwan, they will be on Japan’s doorstep. They will be operating naval and air forces deep into the Pacific and they will have the ability essentially to cut off Japan from the U.S.


But yet Japan is still spending close to 1% of GDP on defense. The government in Japan is talking about maybe theoretically getting possibly near 2% over the next five years. Well, that doesn’t make a lot of sense, because former Indo-Pacific commander Adm. Philip Davidson’s assessment was that China wants to have the ability to seize Taiwan by 2027.


Japan should triple its defense budget immediately and work closely to integrate with the U.S. to be able to conduct a denial defense. I realize that’s very difficult, but the alternative is to risk the fall of Taiwan, and then Japan will have to spend a lot more than 2 or 3% of GDP in order to save itself.


Or it will have to essentially make a deal with China, which will be probably a humiliating demotion of Japan. China will try to subordinate Japan and demote it in economic and security contexts because it has an incentive to reduce Japan’s status as the only country in East Asia that can challenge it. There is also a lot of bad blood historically.


A Japanese-developed Type 81 surface-to-air missile in action.   © Japan Ground Self-Defense Force


Q: If China decides to take Taiwan by force, what else could be in Beijing’s playbook?


A: They are not developing a military just to resolve the Taiwan issue. They’re building a military that looks a lot like the American one. Large aircraft carriers, space satellites, long-range aviation and nuclear-powered submarines are for power projection.


They’re opening a base in Cambodia, they have a base in Djibouti. They’re talking probably to Pakistan, to Mozambique, Equatorial Guinea on the Atlantic coast of Africa, the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea in the Pacific. This is the scope of their ambition.


If China is prepared to attack Taiwan, they know they will suffer economic sanctions and international condemnation. If they’re already going to assume those costs, why would they simply look to the Taiwan issue?


Maybe they also put a gun to the head of the government in Manila and say, “Kick the Americans out.”


Maybe they say to Japan, “We will regard any military buildup as a hostile act.”


And maybe they say to the government in Hanoi, “Don’t you want to make a deal with us now?” And a lot of countries in Asia will probably do that, especially in ASEAN. They’ll say: “Well, I can’t rely on the Americans, and the Chinese are too strong. I’m better off making a deal now.”


Q: Japan would be the last to succumb.


A: Japan would be the last to succumb, but Japan will be isolated. If all of ASEAN is under Chinese domination, the Chinese are not going to allow Japan to trade on neutral terms with their sphere of influence while Japan is resisting them.


Japan needs to recognize the seriousness and the urgency of the situation and how little time it really has and how acute the threat to Japan is.


We do not need to transform China. We don’t need to make it into a democracy. What we need is to be able to deny them the ability to invade Taiwan or Japanese islands or the Philippines. If we can destroy or degrade an invasion force, then we can defend ourselves enough.


The advantage of being an archipelago is that you can defend against the sea invasion, even if that adversary’s land power is very strong. In Japan’s own history, the Mongols were obviously superior, but they couldn’t get across the Sea of Japan.


For Japan, that means focusing on anti-ship missiles, anti-air capabilities, space satellites, cyber capabilities, unmanned aerial vehicles, sea mines and integrate it with the Americans.

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