Decades of ambiguity did not eliminate risk of catastrophic kinetic action in the Indo-Pacific. Deterrence in a commitment to repulse aggression has to be communicated with explicit precision.

TOKYO: Having served as a thematic staff member and consultant/advisor in several multilateral agencies, it has always been intriguing that professional diplomats appear to take macabre pleasure in obfuscating and making unclear statements. A tragic case in that respect in the communication by then-US Ambassador April Glaspie ostensibly speaking on behalf of then-Secretary of State Jim Baker to Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein that made Hussein believe that the US had “no opinion on the Arab-Arab conflicts, like the border disagreement with Kuwait” and that he and his army could just roll into the oil-rich Emirate and take their oil in perpetuity. In the Middle-East, many countries believe “their” oil and/or natural gas is being usurped by neighbouring countries as oil and gas fields extend across borders. There has never been, even in Houston’s Rice University’s Baker Institute, a thorough public recounting, accounting and analysis of the exact sequence of communications that resulted in such enormous “misunderstanding” that a major war began in 1991 that has forever changed the entire world with ramifications and numerous after-shocks that continue to this day.
As tensions rise in the Indo-Pacific, this issue of clarity of thought, action and communication becomes paramount. There are multiple misconceptions driving military manoeuvres and associated rhetoric. The foremost theatres of potential conflict appear to be the East China Sea and the Himalayas. In the East China Sea, Taiwan has been threatened repeatedly—now with 148 PRC aircraft incursions into Taiwan’s Air Defense Zone over a four-day period.
In the heydays of the bromance with the PRC, country after country switched diplomatic recognition from Taiwan (then officially called Republic of China) to the People’s Republic of China in 1971, including at the UN. But that itself was because of the rapprochement driven by a desire of the Nixon/Kissinger duo to find a way to end the Vietnam war that was tearing apart American society given the forced drafting of youngsters into the war; many returning thereafter in body bags, others with severe injuries including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The subsequent outmanoeuvring of the US and allies on the economic front by master-strategist Deng Xiaoping who designed the economic reconstruction following the disastrous Great Leap Forward (1958-1960), albeit periods interspersed with his purging from office, twice, when rivals ascended, has continued even thereafter. It is only in recent times, that the world has awoken to what has transpired. Even today, much of the world wishes that PRC and Taiwan will maintain peace and the enormous trading and investment relationship they have had for decades. Nevertheless, some in the PRC appear determined to vanquish the bright Taiwanese democracy by force, and that is the issue at hand.
Taiwan (called Formosa in historical documents) has not had a formal relationship with mainland China since 1895, when it was ceded “in perpetuity” under the Treaty of Shimonoseki to Japan by the then-Imperial Qing Chinese government. The wording in the 1895 Treaty is, “China cedes to Japan in perpetuity and full sovereignty of the Formosa (Taiwan)”. However, in 1945, when Japan unconditionally surrendered to Allied Forces at the end of World War II, it gave up the island of Formosa and military administration passed to forces of General Chiang Kai-Shek, then functioning on behalf of the Allies, whose troops were battling the Communist Chinese army led by Chairman Mao Zedong on the mainland. Thereafter, when Chiang lost power on the mainland, he and his troops made a hasty retreat to Taiwan that has remained separate from the mainland thereafter as well. Legal scholars have opined that none of the post-World War II peace treaties explicitly ceded sovereignty over Formosa (Taiwan) to any specific state or government. Thus, the “One China” policy appears to have appeared through expediency rather than considered legal deliberation. It is remarkable that no country bothered to study the issue with due seriousness before signing on to the “One China” policy without even asking for reciprocation. Nevertheless, as we have seen with the use of the wording “in perpetuity” and how much value such solemn-sounding statements actually mean in international agreements, countries facing hostility can in turn change their tune as well. An example is the Vajpayee government’s reversal of diplomatic recognition to the government-in-exile of the Western Sahara that had been granted by the government of Indira Gandhi, purportedly over a phosphate fertilizer joint-venture of his pal industrialist K.K. Birla with Morocco that maintains actual military control over the territory that had been decolonized from Spain.
The fall of Taiwan would pose existential risks to Japan. It is therefore incumbent upon Japanese leaders to speak with utmost clarity to ensure that the reality is clear to all. The closest Japanese inhabited island to Taiwan, Yonaguni, is only 110 km away. Japan has 6,852 islands within a claimed cumulative EEZ of 4,470,000 sq km. The Japanese Senkaku islands, that PRC disputes the sovereignty over, is another flashpoint. Japan and the US have ironclad collaborations ingrained in multiple security agreements including on nuclear weapons. Yet the Japanese Constitution, written post-War with heavy influence of US authors, is at odds with those security agreements. Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution reads: “the Japanese people forever renounce war”. Japan and the US signed a defence treaty in 1960. If the US is attacked, it would be interpreted as affecting Japan’s survival, and therefore Japan will constitutionally be able and obligated to use lethal force. The US is committed to Taiwan’s defence, and so is Japan, as it would have to help the US when attacked in Asia. The US’ Taiwan Relations Act 1979 states “to maintain the capacity of the US to resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion that would jeopardize the security, or the social or economic system, of the people on Taiwan”. The launch of US F-35 fighter jets in the past days by US marines from Japanese aircraft carriers, the first time such flights have occurred from Japanese aircraft carriers since 1945, would have astonished many who have never studied the legal bases of the US-Japan agreements firmly in place.
Japan itself has been guilty of miscommunication or incomplete explanations. In World War II, much of the US believes that the war started with a dastardly sneak-attack on Hawaii’s Pearl Harbor by the Imperial Japanese Navy Air Service. A financial war was underway 35 years before Pearl Harbor, when then-US President Theodore Roosevelt became alarmed at Japan’s decisive Naval victory over Russia in 1905, the first Asian nation that had resoundingly defeated a European power in modern times. Few know that Japan was under US economic sanctions since 1906, a financial siege designed by Admirals George Dewey and Alfred Thayer Mahan, who as young Naval officers during the Civil War, had designed the Union’s “Anaconda Plan” against the Confederacy.
The siege included denying imports of vital metals and fuel to the natural resources-poor mountainous island nation. The War Plan Orange (Japan was code-named Orange) also included coercive pressure on Wall Street to deny funds to Japan. It envisaged final and complete commercial isolation that would lead to eventual impoverishment, exhaustion and economic ruin with the intention to strangle and thereby bankrupt Japan. Further, there were creeping encroachments by European colonialists in Asia and the Pacific, therefore endangering the freedom of Japan. One has to wonder how history might have been different if Japan had made a concerted effort to mobilize US public opinion against those sanctions before taking military action that was always doomed to fail.
Billions of dollars of Japanese aid to PRC, including high technology, over decades did not change hearts or minds there. Similarly, Japanese economic outreach to Russia, which seized the four Japanese Kuril islands even after the US nuclear attack, has been a failure according to most observers. Even today, no peace treaty has been signed and Russia appears to be stridently unwilling to return the islands. Compare with India that has always been a partner or ally, albeit with the unintelligible phrasings of non-alignment during Cold War 1.0, but has received much less investment from Japan than has the PRC. It is therefore time for a tectonic shift upwards in economic relations. And it ought to be the same uptick with Taiwan-India economic relations.
Decades of ambiguity did not eliminate risk of catastrophic kinetic action in the Indo-Pacific. Deterrence in a commitment to repulse aggression has to be communicated with explicit precision. Surely, after the near-World War losses created by the pandemic, the world can ill-afford new catastrophes, least of all those caused by inadvertent miscommunication.
Dr Sunil Chacko holds degrees in medicine (Kerala), public health (Harvard) and an MBA (Columbia). He was Assistant Director of Harvard University’s Intl. Commission on Health Research, served in the Executive Office of the World Bank Group, and has been a faculty member in the US, Canada, Japan and India.