PacNet #23 – Japan’s new strategic policy: Three overlooked takeaways

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Japan has signaled its intent to strengthen its national security and defense posture significantly in an increasingly volatile Indo-Pacific. When he met President Joe Biden in January 2023, Japanese Prime Minister Kishida Fumio, referring to Japan’s new National Security Strategy, declared he would “fundamentally reinforce our defense capabilities.” This includes raising the Japanese defense budget to approximately 2% of GDP by 2027. This will gratify many in Washington who share a determination to strengthen the alliance militarily and bolster combined deterrence postures.

Kishida’s remarks came a month after the release of the new National Security Strategy, accompanied by the National Defense Strategy (renaming the prior National Defense Program Guidelines) and Defense Build-Up Program (formerly Medium-Term Defense Program).

Together these documents together present a grim picture of the security situation Tokyo and its US ally face. The NSS states that “Japan’s security environment is as severe and complex as it has ever been since the end of World War II.” Russian aggression in Ukraine, Chinese assertiveness in the East and South China Seas and across the Taiwan Strait, and North Korea’s nuclear missile ambitions top the list of dangers. The NSS identifies them as countries that seek to “revise the existing international order.” In the context of strategic competition, the NSS states the boundaries between peace and war have become blurred through “gray zone” activities, malicious operations in the cyber and information spaces, the use of economic statecraft, and a vigorous technological arms race.

The NSS (along with NDS and DBP) represents a highly coordinated response on Japan’s part. They have been dubbed “historic,” a “paradigm shift,” and a “revolution” by some analysts, while some have offered more skeptical appraisals on their actual implementation. Heretofore debates have primarily centered on defense budget increases and acquisition of counter-strike capabilities.

But there are three other key leitmotivs of the documents that have not attracted as much comment.

First, the NSS unabashedly foregrounds “universal values” as a “national interest” and “fundamental principle” of its strategy. While many observers have questioned the sustainability of the former prime minister (and current vice president of the Liberal Democratic Party) Aso Taro’s “values-oriented diplomacy” since his time as party leader, it appears to be back with a vengeance. The NSS speaks of “upholding universal values such as freedom, democracy, respect for fundamental human rights, and the rule of law.” It excoriates states that do not share such values and points to their malignant actions to undermine a “free, open, and stable international order.” Japan’s commitment to project its Free and Open Indo-Pacific “vision” thus frames the almost Manichean contest between liberal democracies and authoritarian states as “a historical inflection point.” Japan now states it “will maintain and protect universal values.” For a country that long eschewed taking ideological leadership and intrusive democracy promotion, this emphatic statement is quite a departure.

Second, Japan’s new security strategy emphasises its “holistic” approach. This is evident in its “integrated” approach to strategy—where it will lever all aspects of its “comprehensive national power” (a term originally invented by the Chinese) to achieve its strategic objectives. It will employ diplomacy, defense capabilities, economic strengths, technological prowess, and intelligence assets in service of an integrated strategic approach. It seeks to create a “comprehensive defense architecture” by increasing coordination across organizational sectors such as the Japan Coast Guard and Maritime Self Defense Force, for example. The documents are replete with references to “cross-governmental” and “whole-of government” coordination, and “cross-community collaboration” (in advanced technology and R&D), indicating desire to break down institutional “siloing” that could impede a joined-up approach to the implementation of strategy.

This “integration” includes the military domain, where Japan continues to build a “Multi-Domain Defense Force” by marrying the “traditional” land-sea-air domains with the space, cyber, and electromagnetic domains. Integration also extends to allies and partners, with greater efforts to harmonize US and Japanese forces, since “No country can protect its security alone.” This includes bilateral integration with the United States through the Alliance Coordination Mechanism and Flexible Deterrent Options. The former focuses on information sharing, improving common situational awareness and coordinating responses from peacetime to conflict contingencies. The latter is designed to coordinate combined responses to deterring Chinese coercive activities within the maritime domain through military signalling and escalation control. Greater interoperability with close strategic partners, such as Australia and the United Kingdom, through Reciprocal Access Agreements, which provide legal and logistical frameworks  necessary to facilitate overseas training and military operations in one another’s countries, are a means toward improving inter-military coordination and force interoperability. This will result in a “multi-layered network” knitting together Japan’s regional ally and “like-minded” partners (e.g. Australia, India), in conjunction with “minilateral” mechanisms such as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue and Trilateral Strategic Dialogue. Japan is thus transcending its role as a single bilateral “spoke” of the US-led “hub-and-spoke” alliance system to become a subsidiary “hub” itself.

Japan is now acting to become accountable for its own national defense, eventually assuming responsibility for dealing with any invasion more independently (by 2027). This does not portend a move to complete national defense “autonomy” and a decoupling from the US alliance, but rather a determination to progressively assume of the primary burden for self-defense of its national territory.  Though it will rely on its US ally for some time, this will be a major step, prospectively freeing up US forces based in Japan for other activities. The DBP also indicates that “Such a defense capability must come with high readiness and response capability.” To achieve this, the increased defense budget will need to be allocated accordingly to acquire counter-strike capabilities that can deter or defeat an enemy invasion, supported by a robust defense industrial base (a “virtually integral part of defense capability”), and a hardening of its defense facilities, with ample stocks of fuel and munitions. As well as providing for the defense of Japanese territory, this makes a greater contribution to the alliance considering the diminishing resources (and increasing obsolescence) of the US’ force posture.

Third, combined with greater responsibility for its own national defense is the emphasis on streamlining the “responsiveness” of its defense architecture. This is part to the overarching recognition that “a strategy that integrates its national responses at a higher level” is required. The 2016 Peace and Security Legislation set the groundwork for this by freeing Japan of some of the former constraints upon it activities and permitting more collaboration with allies and partners. If deterrence fails, responsiveness of government and defense apparatus will be at a premium. To improve reaction times, decision-making procedures will become more “seamless,” contingency plans drawn up, and the mobility and readiness of rapid reaction forces improved (“mobile deployment capabilities,” per the NDS). This builds upon the earlier establishment of a National Security Council (in 2013) and centralization of decision-making in the Prime Minister’s Office, initiated under Abe Shinzo. This extends to inter-service crisis response coordination between the Self Defense Forces, police, and Japan Coast Guard, for example.

Japan’s new strategic approach is perhaps best seen as an apotheosis of the determined efforts put in motion during the premiership of the late PM Abe, and a validation of these. This trajectory has been pursued by his successor Kishida, first in his “vision for peace” address to the Shangri-La Dialogue in June 2022. Unified by a clear statement of national objectives, including universal values and a commitment to uphold a rules-based order, Japan is investing heavily in marshalling the requisite resources to back this (“pragmatic realism”), drawn from the whole spectrum of the comprehensive national power it possesses. This is a recognition that strategic competition occurs across all domains, and it has become a national security imperative for Japan to improve its ability to deter and defend against attacks on its national territory, whilst assuming a greater burden within the US-Japan alliance. The ambitions of the national security documents, by their own admission are “unprecedented in terms of size and content.” Nevertheless, they signal Japan’s “steadfast resolve” to achieve them.

Time will tell if they are successfully implemented, or if they can be realized within the urgent timeframe available before a potential conflict breaks out.

Thomas Wilkins ([email protected]) is an Adjunct Senior Fellow (non-resident), Pacific Forum, Senior Fellow, Australian Strategic Policy Institute, and Associate Professor, University of Sydney.

PacNet commentaries and responses represent the views of the respective authors. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed and encouraged.

Photo: Prime Minister Kishida Fumio commemorates the 70th anniversary of the foundation of the Maritime Self-Defense Force on Nov. 6 by Pool via Reuters. 

Issues & Insights Vol. 23, SR3 – Strategic Competition and Security Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific

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There is a growing acceptance among countries in the Indo-Pacific region that strategic competition between the United States and China is changing perceptions about security and the adequacy of the existing security architecture. While some have characterized the competition between the two as a new Cold War, it is clear that what is happening in the region is far more complex than the competition that characterized the original Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. First, the economic integration that has taken place since the early 1990s makes it much more difficult to draw bright ideological lines between the two sides. Further, the Asian context of the emerging competition is one where the two competitors have grown to share power. As the dominant military power, the United States has been the primary security guarantor in Asia and beyond. China, on the other hand, has emerged over the past decades as the primary economic catalyst in Asia and beyond. Currently, each side seems increasingly unwilling to accept that arrangement.

Download the full volume here.

Table of Contents


Carl Baker

Chapter 1 | Southeast Asia Faces Its Boogeyman – Great Power Competition Returns to Southeast Asia in the 21st Century

Drew Thompson

Chapter 2 | Geoeconomics and Geopolitics in Southeast Asia

Thitinan Pongsudhirak

Chapter 3 | Economic Aspects of National Security

Brad Glosserman

Chapter 4 | China as a technological power: Chinese perspectives and the quantum case

Hoo Tiang Boon

Chapter 5 | Minilateral groupings as an alternative to multilateralism in an era of strategic competition

Thomas Wilkins

Chapter 6 | The Role of Indo-Pacific Economic Institutions in Shaping Security Competition

Prashanth Parameswaran

Chapter 7 | Economic Development Cooperation amid Indo-Pacific Strategic Competition

Gong Xue

Chapter 8 | Regional Security Cooperation in the US-China Strategic Competition

Kei Koga

Chapter 9 | Strategic Competition and Security Cooperation

Raymund Jose Quilop

PacNet #18 – China has a digital grand strategy. Does the president know?

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The answer to the above question is, regrettably, no. We have been unable to find anyone in government, who has heard of this strategy, which raises a few questions: Does China have a digital grand strategy? If so, is it part of our calculations in the current grand strategic competition over technology?

This is worrying. China’s digital grand strategy has a name: Digital China. “Digital China” was elevated to the elite level of a Chinese Communist Party national developmental strategy by Xi Jinping personally, 6 years ago. As a concept, it dates back even further to Xi’s elevation to General Secretary in 2012. In fact, Xi Jinping started thinking grandly about digital technology more than 20 years ago when he was still a provincial governor. All of this has been extensively covered in Chinese-language newspapers for 20 years.

So, why is China’s digital grand strategy so poorly understood?

Because it was published almost exclusively in Chinese. Not in English. Not only that, what is out there has been carefully designed for Western audiences.

On Feb. 27, the CCP Central Committee and State Council issued guidelines (in Chinese only) for accelerating “Digital China,” a standard practice on informatization policy dating back more than 15 years. Within hours, PRC state-owned media launched a propaganda campaign to describe to the world for the first time—in English—what Digital China is. It was artful. It was masterful. It was also inaccurate in many ways.

It was an example of disinformation at its best. Although overlapping with the truth, the state media narrative is inconsistent with Digital China’s theoretical origins, party definition, and current execution, as laid out in authoritative PRC sources. Beijing admitted it had a digital grand strategy for the first time and designed our first impression. Why did it take 10 years to come out? We are not quite sure, but we have a guess.

Nor has Western media covered the project. Only the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong took on the challenge—in the opposite direction. The venerable newspaper repeated the state-controlled message and elevated it. Digital China was now a “grand digitalization plan.” Comically, Digital China is a grand digitalization plan (the term “digitalization” is a CCP term-of-art), just not the one described in South China Morning Post.

In contrast to the obsessive Western coverage of China’s Belt and Road Initiative in 2013, Digital China has only been discussed by a handful of China and tech experts—many of whom are still struggling to understand the nature of the strategy. Just a few days before the announcement of Digital China’s new guideline, Pacific Forum published a major research paper on the strategy, “Digital China: the Strategy and its Geopolitical Implications,” where we sought to introduce the plan to a Western audience.

It is difficult to know why the plan seems to have escaped widespread notice in the West. Perhaps the daily nature of the US-China technology competition makes for better reading, perhaps the nature of the strategy—theoretical and couched in dry CCP jargon—makes it hard to digest. But this should not stop anyone from trying to understand what it is and informing our government and the public.

As noted above, the concept has been around since 2012. However, the intellectual—even ideological—origins date back to 2000. At this time, Xi Jinping was governor of Fujian province and was casting around for a campaign that would bring local government into the digital age and jumpstart the digital economy. This role that Fujian has as Digital China’s “ideological source” is still in evidence as the province hosts the annual Digital China Summit.

To some extent, Western confusion is understandable. There have been so many technology plans and strategies that it feels like “just another” strategy/slogan dreamt up by Xi Jinping. As we note in our paper, Digital China did originally emerge as just another plan—a strategic plan, before gradually evolving to become a “grand strategy,” by which Xi wishes to digitally transform China, and through this process provide a “strong digital impetus” for China to become a “Modernized Socialist Great Power.”

So, why should Western policymakers—and Western journalists—care about Digital China? Given that we are in a deep competition with China over technology and data standards, it only makes sense for us to know the overall structure, foundational thinking, and assumptions of Chinese policy. At present, it rather feels as though the United States is responding piecemeal to Chinese actions rather than understanding Chinese intent and then developing a counter strategy of our own.

The US effort to counter Huawei’s penetration and domination of global 5G architecture is a case in point. Huawei is just one part of a much larger Digital China 5G ecosystem made of up dozens if not hundreds of firms. Similarly, concern over TikTok’s usage of data is understandable. But China focuses on “Basic Systems for Data” at strategic level many tiers higher. Efforts to stymie China’s semiconductor ambitions through chokepoints are having an impact. But the Digital China strategy has long anticipated such an action and is already implementing responses, such as digitalized supply chains carried by a new global Industrial Internet, part of Digital China.

Not knowing or understanding China’s grand strategy also impacts US messaging to third party nations. At present, US allies and partners in Southeast Asia and Europe remain skeptical of US motivations. Seeing no strategy of our own, partly-persuaded by a new “Digital China” strategy that state-run media tells them is both forward thinking and focused on global cooperation, they view US policies as mercantilist, driven by the same mindset that saw Washington pull out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership in 2017.

The problem is one of messaging. The United States has not effectively persuaded others that Chinese ambitions are a threat to their national interests as well. But here’s what China is doing, right now. Beijing has executed a digital grand strategy for 6 years and is now building a “new” messaging campaign to describe it to a world often baffled by the US-China technology competition.

What should we be doing?

There are two elements to the Digital China strategy that we believe play against Beijing’s narrative that its intent is only to assist the developing world develop their economies. The first one is that Marxism is a deliberate part of Digital China—right down to the way that the CCP elevated data a factor of production. For the first time in decades, Marxism is being touted as a “modern” ideology, an alternative model to governance and development. The problem with that should be easy enough to understand for those familiar with the failures of Marxism 1.0.

Secondly, the strategy is very much about China becoming the dominant power in the international system through the mastery of data intelligence. A world in which the primary superpower is a Marxist data-obsessed one-party state should scare European and Asian allies and partners—no matter their creed.

At this stage, there’s no way we can know whether China will be successful in this ambition. But we do know that our responses so far are responsive, tactical, and do not draw from a wider appreciation of Chinese thinking. China has an ideologically driven strategic approach. We are playing whack-a-mole.

We’ll say it again: Can someone please brief our president?

Dr. David Dorman ([email protected]) was the inaugural director of the China Strategic Focus Group at US Indo-Pacific Command, executive director of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China, senior professional staff member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and as a senior China program manager at the National Security Agency.

Dr. John Hemmings ([email protected]) is Senior Director of the Indo-Pacific Foreign and Security Policy Program at the Pacific Forum. He works on aspects of the US-Indo-Pacific Strategy, including understanding China’s approach towards the region.

PacNet commentaries and responses represent the views of the respective authors. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed and encouraged.

Issues & Insights Vol. 23, WP2 – Digital China: The Strategy and Its Geopolitical Implications

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February 22, 2023

By Dr. David Dorman & Dr. John Hemmings

Over the past few years, there has been growing concern inside the United States, Europe, and in the Indo-Pacific on the strategic direction behind China’s technology policies. Beginning with the debate over 5G and Huawei, this debate has covered Artificial Intelligence (AI), quantum teachnology, and semi-conductors – a foundational technology. And despite a large number of policies in place – Made in China: 2025, Cyber Super Power, and the New Generation AI Development Plan – few in the West have known China’s overall digital grand strategy.

In the first installment of a three-part research project, Dr. Dorman and Dr. Hemmings lay out the rise of China’s overall digital grand strategy, Xi’s role in it, and how it has been organized to fulfil Party objectives.

The report tracks the rise of the strategy over the past 10 years, the acceleration of that rise during the Covid-19 pandemic, and the current state of the strategy. In particular, it finds

  • Digital China has been supported and designed by General Secretary Xi Jinping himself, and is a bid to make China more competitive vis a vis the West through the digital transformation of rules, institutions, and infrastructure at the national level.
  • Over the past few years, the strategy has risen to become the “overall” strategy for digital development in the eyes of the Chinese Communist Party leadership, bigger than the Digital Silk Road, deeper than the Belt and Road Initiative, more far reaching than 5G or AI, more important than Made in China: 2025, and wider than Cyber Great Power.
  • A renewed Digital China seeks to challenge a hegemonic global system anchored to a previous age. A successful Digital China has profound implications for China’s developmental path, great power competition, and for the norms that will undergird the international system for decades to come.
  • The Party leadership has re-written Marxist economic theory in its bid to incorporate “data” as the basis of its digital economy and in order to foster a Chinese “Digital Marxism”.
  • Digital China seeks to whet the “sharp weapon” of innovation to facilitate its great power rise and challenge to the West. Beijing is testing whether innovative thinking can be created through the digital transformation of tools, talent, and learning.

The US and its allies have begun to effect strategic counter-effect to the myriad of PRC technology policies, there is almost zero understanding or public discussion of this digital grand strategy. Whether inattention, mistranslation, or obfuscation, Digital China has been mostly missed by the West over the past decade.

Read the report here.


Digital China shows us that China’s geopolitical ambitions go beyond becoming the unrivalled power in the Indo-Pacific. Under Xi, the PRC is building a domestic digital universe that, over time, will parallel its global economic, diplomatic, and military expansion.

Anchored in Marxist ideology, Xi’s digital universe is expeditionary by nature. For those of us who want to remain untethered from the PRC surveillance state, Digital China is essential reading. Our digital sovereignty depends on it.

Andrew Hastie, Shadow Minister for Defence, Australia 


When it comes to the Chinese Communist Party’s digital strategy, Las Vegas rules do not apply – what happens in China will not stay in China. As Digital China demonstrates, the CCP aims to make its techno-totalitarian values the bedrock of the global digital future. David and John’s report is essential reading that should galvanize action across the free world.

Rep. Michael Gallagher, Chairman, House Armed Services Subcommittee, Cyber, Information Technologies, and Innovation


As Dr. Hemmings and I wrote in our 2019 paper ‘Defending our Data’, the debate about Huawei and 5G is ultimately a debate about China and technology. It is less a discussion of cyber security, but more about China’s future intentions on the global order. It is properly understood, a debate on how different political systems apply technology to governance. In Digital China, Dorman and Hemmings have found a critical element in understanding China’s global intentions and the role that Marxism plays in that.

 Bob Seely, MP, Member, Foreign Affairs Committee, UK Parliament

PacNet #13 – After China’s Party Congress, steeling for competition with the West

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Xi Jinping’s dark assessment at the October 2022 Party Congress was the most prominent public signal to-date that Beijing is preparing for a “protracted struggle” with the United States and other Western countries. Looking ahead to 2023, this new assessment, and Xi’s emphasis on controlling risk, is likely to steer China’s entire political, economic, and national defense system, to act and operate as if they are already in crisis, creating new challenges for the United States and its allies and partners.

At the Congress, Xi gave a 2-hour speech, in which he articulated leadership consensus around a more urgent assessment of international developments than at any point in the last 30 years. Xi declared the world faced a “peace and development deficit” and “unprecedented challenges.” He described looming threats, including “external blackmail, containment, blockade, and extreme pressure.” He called on officials to “prepare for danger in times of peace” and be alert to “gray rhinos”—highly probable, potentially catastrophic events that are ignored.

What Xi’s speech did not mention was equally important. Specifically, he omitted two key phrases that Party leaders have used for decades to guide China’s foreign policy. They are: (1) “peace and development” are the “trend of the times,” and (2) China is in “an important period of strategic opportunity.” These phrases reflected the Party’s judgment in the 1970s that the large-scale global war that China expected during the Mao era was no longer inevitable. This calculation prompted China’s leaders to prioritize economic growth over wartime readiness and military spending previously needed to prepare for conflict with the United States or the Soviet Union.

Xi’s speech was the clearest public signal to-date that another consequential shift is taking place in Party leaders’ thinking. Since 2017, Xi has described this adjustment as “great changes unseen in a century.” China’s leaders believe the world is experiencing a power transition in which the United States and powerful countries take risks to preserve their status, and China and other developing nations strive for greater influence. A large body of literature by China’s political scholars compares the current period to earlier system-shaking shocks to the international system on the magnitude of the Napoleonic Wars and World War I or II.

As was the case in the 1970s and 1980s, the Party’s shifting assessment will result in new policies, economic and diplomatic approaches, the types of contingencies the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) prepares for, and reallocation of resources emphasizing security, defense, and crisis prevention. Of note: current elevated tension in US-China relations is not a temporary state resulting from the latest item in the news, or an episode in the South China Sea or Taiwan Strait; rather, it is a long-term persistent feature that will cause crises to unfold differently than in the past.

The United States and other militaries in Asia will be among the first to observe these changes. The shift may start with increased PLA posturing on China’s periphery, intended to emphasize PLA capabilities to deter and coerce regional rivals, “Taiwan independence” advocates, and the United States. PLA deterrence doctrine calls for displays of military strength “to influence an opponent’s strategic judgment” including by “inciting psychological fear” in the target audience. In the Taiwan Strait, these demonstrations are part of Beijing’s operational campaign to induce a sense of inevitability about future Chinese Communist Party (CCP) rule in Taiwan.

The Party will also lay the narrative groundwork for future crises by strengthening China’s “discourse power,” that is, setting the agenda of international debates and shaping global audience behavior in a manner conducive to China’s interests. Beijing is already pursuing a more sophisticated approach by promoting its positive vision of international security through the Global Security Initiative and portraying strong support for its position on Taiwan. In August, following Speaker Pelosi’s Taiwan visit, Chinese media claimed more than 170 countries and international organizations and 80% of the world’s population supported Beijing’s “One-China Principle.” This campaign is aimed at seizing the moral high ground and swaying third-party political support away from Taiwan, including in a future cross-Strait crisis.

Internally, the CCP will strengthen state capacity to deal with crises, by reallocating resources, restructuring organizations, and reassigning personnel, including increasing the mandate and activity of its public security forces. If a serious US-China crisis arises, such as a bilateral military mishap, US citizens in China may become political targets, as have Canadians, Australians, and Japanese in recent years. With more foreign correspondents expelled from China, it will be difficult to gain an accurate picture of what is happening inside the country.

China will also redouble efforts to insulate its economy from external pressures. In crisis, the Party may selectively deploy economic countermeasures it has been developing but not yet used on high impacts targets, such as imposing fines, freezing assets, and banning individual travel.

There are several considerations for US and other policymakers dealing with Chinese leaders who see the threat of crisis as no longer the exception but the norm. Washington and Beijing have fundamentally different views of crises: Beijing views crises as a permanent feature of international relations requiring dedicated struggle over time, while Washington sees crises as temporary, unusual situations to be resolved by special teams and policy measures. Successfully navigating incidents will require preparation, imagination, and recognition of ways in which China is already laying the groundwork for gaining advantage in the next crisis, such as through public narratives. In addition, Washington and Beijing will need to get better at reading each other’s signals. In a serious military crisis, it will require deep, expert analysis to discern whether PLA demonstrations are shows of strength or imminent military action. Finally, China’s leaders are unlikely to abandon strategies to out-compete the West, but Beijing remains flexible in the timing and mode of tactics used to manage the risks of competition. The Party’s shifting assessment about international affairs, as noted above, may provide a window to influence Beijing’s calculus.

Kim Fassler ( is the senior analyst at the US Indo-Pacific Command’s China Strategic Focus Group. Her research focuses on China’s political and military leadership and decision-making. She has worked for the Department of Defense since 2011 and is an alumna of the Pacific Forum Young Leaders Program. The views presented are her own and do not necessarily represent the views of the Defense Department, the Indo-Pacific Command, or their components.

PacNet commentaries and responses represent the views of the respective authors. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed and encouraged.

Photo: President Xi Jinping at the 20th National Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC) in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. (16 October 2022, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China).

PacNet #65 – To change Taiwan’s conscription system, change the culture

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Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in late February, Taiwanese polls indicated that, should the People’s Republic of China attack Taiwan, 74% of Taiwanese citizens were willing to defend the island. However, the question is not if they will fight, but how prepared they are.

In Taiwan, all men are conscripted into the military, but the period of service has been shortened in recent decades, from the original two years to one year (as of 2008) and now—since 2018—to just four months.

Yet, with the Ukraine invasion and the Chinese military drills following Nancy Pelosi’s August visit to Taiwan, the reality of war is inching closer. Taiwanese Defense Minister Chiu Kuo-cheng said in late March that Taiwan is considering extending the compulsory military service.

If Taiwan is truly committed to defending itself against the People’s Liberation Army, discussions should not only consider duration, but must also reform the activities associated with conscription.

A shared pessimism, a fractured relationship

To learn more, I spoke to young Taiwanese men on their experiences in the military and the glaring problems in Taiwan’s defense. The interviewees included men who served the four months of military service, but also those who completed the 12-day replacement service—an alternative option for men who have physical or mental health issues, dependent families, and low-income households. Replacement soldier service is fairly common: in 2021, 17% of men from Kaohsiung City enlisted in the replacement service instead of the standing military reserve service.

Within this cohort, there is a shared sense of pessimism. “If we had to be on the frontlines, we definitely did not have enough preparation. People just didn’t take it seriously,” one said—a sentiment that all the men seemed to share about their compatriots.

Where did this “unseriousness” toward conscription arise and how does Taiwanese society reinforce it? There are some fixable but neglected problems reflected by my interviewees: broken practice equipment, 50-year-old guns, and prolonged periods of sitting around, doing nothing. Society as a whole also does not prioritize military readiness. One of the men reflected: “The way people talk about the military just doesn’t feel that serious. People liken it to summer camp, or something to do between summers in college. If you took it seriously, it’s almost funny.”

For young Taiwanese men in the military, there is a jarring cognitive dissonance between their political and military stance. The men in the military “are vocally against Beijing, Xi Jinping, and the People’s Liberation Army.” In 2020, the Pew Research Center observed that Taiwanese between ages 18-29 are less likely to support closer economic or political ties with China when compared to their older counterparts. However, anti-PRC sentiment does not motivate these men, and wider society, to make sacrifices to defend their republic, nor does it translate into increased alertness toward PRC threats or investment into defenses.

“[China’s invasion] is never a topic of discussion [in the military],” one interviewee said. Another lamented, “Of course, everyone knows that the threat from China has always existed, but they think that it’s only in the news. They don’t know that it’s coming.”

For one thing, the bias toward optimism clouds understanding of war. Taiwan clings to the hope that the PRC will not invade, or that even if it does, the United States would break its strategic ambiguity and come to Taiwan’s rescue. Based on a survey from Taiwanese Public Opinion Foundation, 51% of respondents disagreed with the statement “do you think China will invade Taiwan at any time?” while 39% of respondents agreed.

Secondly, we see the stigma against occupational soldiers in the popular idiom “a good man does not become a soldier, and a good piece of metal does not hit a nail.” This stigma is a byproduct of the third reason: the fractured relationship between the military and the Taiwanese public.

This dates all the way back to 1949, when the Kuomintang (KMT) fled to Taiwan from the Chinese mainland and began its military occupation as the de facto government of Taiwan. The subsequent 228 Incident and the martial law period, dubbed the White Terror, traumatized Taiwanese people as the KMT military imprisoned, tortured, and executed local elites, intelligentsia, and civilians.

Modern-day Taiwan looks very different from the repressive, authoritarian regime that ruled the archipelago until a few decades ago. Taiwan’s road to democracy and investment in transitional justice has reformed many once-authoritarian institutions, making Taiwan a leading democracy in Asia. However, political repression at the hands of the military still taints Taiwanese society’s view of the military generations later.

A military/civilian solution 

The invasion of Ukraine shocked Taiwan, and the world. Analysts, policymakers, and netizens often ask, “Is Taiwan next?” A more productive question would be: What can we do to make Taiwan prohibitively costly to invade?

Healing the fractured relationship between the military and the civilians is a harder task than any one policy can tackle. Taiwanese people should recognize and respect the military. More importantly, the military should earn its respect within Taiwanese society. There are two tangible ways the military and civilians can work together to achieve a defensive Taiwanese military for the Taiwanese people.

Not only should citizen soldiers have a longer and more intense conscription service, Taiwanese culture should shift to recognize the threat of invasion. Critics should not interpret efforts to change the duration and quality of Taiwan’s military as an attempt to transform the liberal democratic country into a military regime. Instead, it is a way to signal to Beijing that the risks of invading Taiwan will outweigh the gains. Taiwanese men should walk away from their service feeling more confident in their country’s defense system after going through the rigorous boot camp.

Even more importantly, Taiwanese civilians should feel like their military will protect them. Besides improving conscription services, the Taiwanese military should also consider establishing short-term, low-commitment courses for civilians. A growing number of private companies have already taken the initiative in teaching civilians the basics of surviving war and weapon use. The military can use this opportunity to build a stronger bond with the public and also lead and supervise disseminated information for a territorial defense force, much like Ukraine’s “weekend warriors” prior to the 2022 invasion.

Taiwan’s future is not set. However, China’s military capacities are growing, making Taiwan’s need for deterrence ever-pressing and imperative. Taiwan must develop and fortify its defense units, starting from civilians and conscription soldiers. This means more than buying new weapons, building asymmetric capabilities, or lengthening the period of conscription. Taiwan needs a whole-of-society approach to preparedness, and must internalize Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s speech a day before Russia’s invasion: “When you attack us, you will see our faces, not our backs.”

Claire Tiunn (Chang) ([email protected]) is a research intern at Pacific Forum and a politics and Russian and Eastern European studies double major at Pomona College.

PacNet commentaries and responses represent the views of the respective authors. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed and encouraged.


PacNet #62 – Myanmar’s emerging national identity could change everything

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The Myanmar military is, paradoxically, achieving one of its longest-standing objectives: a tangible national identity. The success of this goal, however, will require the failure of the regime’s more pressing objective: remain in power.

To maintain control, the Myanmar military has demonstrated a willingness to inflict brutality. Many observers assess the regime’s increasing use of air strikes and explicit targeting of civilians as desperation due to depleted and demoralized ground forces. However, these actions also follow the military’s long-standing “four cuts” doctrine: cut off access to food, money, potential recruits, and information within areas opposing central government rule.

Critically, the four cuts doctrine is now directly applied against the majority ethnic Bamar population areas previously relied upon for recruitment and material support which, more than desperation, may signal the Myanmar military’s quasi-religious belief in its own centrality. Even if the regime is desperate, Commander-In-Chief Min Aung Hlaing and his coalition are likely willing to sacrifice everything to maintain privilege and power.

The resulting civil war has mobilized citizens across class, ethnic, religious, and geographic divides toward the common goal of ending the regime. The current opposition to the military is the strongest unifying force in Myanmar’s recent history.

A broader opposition

The Civil Disobedience Movement, which started as a general strike against the coup, drew workers across the country and from diverse sectors of the economy. Even when met with lethal force, peaceful opposition has far outlived comparable past attempts. Simultaneously, violent opposition has expanded beyond the long-established claims of Myanmar’s powerful ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) and into traditional military strongholds.

Majority ethnic Bamar areas, notably Magway and Sagaing, are now sites of intense combat against loosely organized, often poorly equipped People’s Defense Forces (PDF), as well as the regime’s indiscriminate raids, killings, and the burnings of civilian homes.

Yet the Myanmar military’s operational and strategic challenges have only intensified. Last month saw the effective end of a tenuous ceasefire with the Arakan Army, the powerful EAO seeking autonomous rule in Rakhine State. The Myanmar military also, after months of clashes, struggles to make operational gains against the Karen National Union—which has resisted central government rule since 1948—in Karen State.

The growing cooperation of some EAOs with the National Unity Government (NUG)— primarily members of the prior civilian government—and NUG-backed PDFs signals potential for much greater operational capacity on the part of the opposition.

Most tellingly, the Myanmar military appears to be losing people faster than it can replace them. The military’s response, no matter how brutal, is likely insufficient to reestablish previous military dominance.

However, the alternative to a central government victory against the opposition is not necessarily one where a popular, or less brutal, regime comes to power. The Myanmar military is in the process of becoming one among many armed factions grappling for territory and resources.

Nevertheless, the continued survival of opposition across Myanmar’s ethnic and geographic boundaries represents the clearest opportunity yet for the emergence of a shared national identity. This identity, should it survive, may prove a critical unifying force giving the nation and its people a more stable and prosperous future.

For most of Myanmar’s turbulent post-colonial history, its ethnic minorities have suffered the brunt of successive military regime attempts at consolidating power. This has often been easy to dismiss for those in the Bamar-dominated heartland now suffering what those in Myanmar’s ethnic states have for decades experienced. These minorities remain suspicious of how the NUG-led opposition might act in power. Growing cooperation suggests this suspicion is gradually relieving, but much mistrust remains.

The damage caused by the double disasters of COVID-19 and the 2021 coup left millions in poverty, and rampant economic mismanagement in the wake of the coup has destroyed the financial system, making access to critical commodities, including medicines, scarce. Yet, perhaps because they have little left to lose, the opposition continues.

Regional realism

It’s easy to assume the current opposition won’t succeed, especially considering the stances of regional powers such as China, India, and Thailand, which continue to either enable or outright support the military regime. That should come as no surprise: those who continue to support the regime look first to their own interests, backing the side perceived as most likely to win.

But it’s more complicated than it seems.

As the largest country in mainland Southeast Asia, with 45% of its population under 25 and expansive natural resources including hydroelectric potential and fossil fuel reserves, Myanmar could become a major regional power, potentially threatening Thailand’s central economic position in mainland Southeast Asia. Thailand continues to endure ongoing political turmoil that appears to share much in common with Min Aung Hlaing’s regime in terms of maintaining power at the expense of political and economic transformation. Keeping Myanmar undeveloped and a source of cheap labor and commodities is therefore a tolerable status quo.

A more unified Myanmar may also prove less amenable to the economic and security interests of India and China when these do not align with the popular will.

The expansive sanctions and efforts at humanitarian aid delivery by the United States and others notwithstanding, international efforts stop short of official recognizing the NUG. Doing so would surely pose significant diplomatic risk, ending whatever engagement is possible with the current regime and upsetting key partners—especially Thailand.

The national identity taking shape in opposition to the regime demands consideration through both realist and idealistic lenses. From a humanitarian perspective, the growing toll of nearly 30,000 homes burned, thousands of civilians killed, and hundreds of thousands displaced is unconscionable. The crisis drains the credibility of ASEAN, while transnational threats of narcotics and arms trafficking are sure to intensify and undermine regional security.

A “wait and see” approach will keep Myanmar’s future opaque. The damage from this civil war will not be reversed anytime soon, yet the opportunity for outside powers to support a national identity, which could lead to stability and prosperity, is unprecedented. Doing so will require backing the opposition against the current regime in recognition of a better future. Growing unity suggests that this is not only possible, but increasingly expected.

Wayland Blue ([email protected]) is a graduate student in the School of Global Policy and Strategy at UC San Diego focusing on development and security issues in Southeast Asia. He previously worked as the director of research and evaluation for Shade Tree Foundation, a Thailand-based NGO delivering aid and education to Myanmar migrant and refugee families.

An earlier version of this article appeared in Southeast Asia Globe.

PacNet commentaries and responses represent the views of the respective authors. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed and encouraged.

Photo: Protest against military coup (9 Feb 2021, Hpa-An, Kayin State, Myanmar) by Ninjastrikers

Issues & Insights Vol. 22, SR7 – Abe Shinzo: In Memoriam

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Rob York

A Sharp-Elbowed Politician, an Irreplaceable International Statesman  

A famous, albeit fictional, statesman once said “A good act does not wash out the bad, nor a bad act the good.”

As Japan’s longest-serving prime minister, Abe Shinzo left a legacy. Fair-minded individuals would be able to find grounds for criticism in that record: Abe climbed to leadership of the Liberal Democratic Party by stoking doubts about his country’s record in World War II, provoking outrage from neighboring countries. He relished sparring with his rivals in Japan’s other political parties and in the press; his country’s press freedom ranking consequently declined under his leadership. His efforts at addressing his country’s stagnant economy and moribund birthrate saw, interpreted charitably, only modest successes.

But Abe Shinzo should be remembered for much more than that. Much as Winston Churchill should be remembered, both for his foresight regarding the rise of the Nazi threat and his record as ruthless defender of Britain’s colonial interests, proponents of the “free and open Indo-Pacific” vision that Abe championed should remember his record as a partisan, but also as an international institution builder in an age where both “freedom” and “openness” are under attack in the Indo-Pacific. In doing so, he revived Japan as an international player and helped set the stage for multilateral cooperation to preserve existing rules and norms, such as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (the “Quad”) and the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership.

Such efforts make him one of the most influential statesmen of this era.

Since Abe’s shocking assassination on July 8, the Pacific Forum has sought to ensure that the fullness of this legacy is remembered, and as such used our PacNet series to explain his impact from a variety of perspectives. In doing so, we reached out to many old friends whose names are familiar to the Pacific Forum’s long-time readers. In PacNet #37, Brad Glosserman, Pacific Forum’s senior advisor and my co-editor at Comparative Connections, identifies the specific attributes of Abe’s—specifically his strongly held opinions and behind-the-scenes advocacy—that made it possible for him to be this institutional builder and to restore Japan’s role on the foreign policy stage. In PacNet #36 Stephen Nagy of the International Christian University in Tokyo provides a comprehensive overview of Abe the diplomat, including his successful managing of relations with the PRC, which were actually at a low point before his lengthy stint as PM. In PacNet #39 Kei Koga of Nanyang Technological University demonstrates how under Abe, Japan countered the PRC’s growing influence in Southeast Asian countries through sustained engagement, winning their trust despite their unwillingness to match his hawkishness toward Beijing. Furthermore, in PacNet #43 Jagannath Panda of ISDP, Sweden explains how Abe’s dealings with India paved the way for the latter’s increased engagement with the outside world, including through the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue. In PacNet #40, I note that Abe’s tireless engagement with American presidents across changes in parties has made good relations with Tokyo that rarest of things in US politics: an area of bipartisan agreement that looks unlikely to change, regardless of the outcome of the 2024 election.

The Pacific Forum also reached beyond its regular contributors’ list to acquire new perspectives. Shihoko Goto of the Wilson Center details Abe’s prescient vision for the defense of Taiwan, something the US would gradually awaken to. Jada Frasier—an MA student in Asian Studies at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service that we believe policy professionals will be hearing from more and more in the future—explains how despite causing tensions in the Japan-South Korea relationship, Abe also deserves credit for increasing the two East Asian democracies’ opportunities for security cooperation through his emphasis on minilateral groupings.

Now that Japan has laid the former prime minister to rest last week, those who remember the darker side of his leadership will find grounds to do so, and some of those criticisms will be warranted. Abe, however, left a legacy far beyond those unpleasantries, especially if, as was the case with Churchill, his country and the international community rise to the challenge they presently face.

Table of Contents

PacNet 35, 07/11/2022. Abe Shinzo and the Japan-South Korea relationship: Near- and long-term legacies by Jada Fraser

PacNet 36, 07/14/2022. Post-Abe Indo-Pacific regional dynamics: A legacy beyond the man by Stephen Nagy

PacNet 37, 07/15/2022. Abe’s death creates a void in Japan by Brad Glosserman

PacNet 39, 07/22/2022. Abe Shinzo’s legacy in Southeast Asia by Kei Koga

PacNet 40, 07/25/2022. Abe Shinzo: How to handle an unpredictable America by Rob York

PacNet 43, 08/05/2022. Post-Abe India-Japan ties: Does Kishida have what it takes? by Jagannath Panda

PacNet 45, 08/10/2022.  The prescience of Abe’s vision for Taiwan by Shihoko Goto


Photo: State Funeral of Shinzo Abe by the Prime Minister’s Office of Japan

Issues & Insights Vol. 22, WP6 — Chinese Cyber Nationalism During the Pandemic: A Discourse Analysis of Zhihu

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Executive Summary

The COVID-19 global pandemic has elicited a rise in cyber nationalism in China, as the world’s most populous nation outperformed the “scientifically” advanced western nations in the handling of the crisis. Chinese netizens on social messaging platform Zhihu cite upsurging cases of COVID-19 and death tolls in western countries as evidence of China’s zero-COVID strategy success, and have generated a new trend of Chinese cyber nationalism. Within this new trend, positive perceptions of western countries and their ideologies declined greatly. As previous studies have predicted, Chinese netizens are becoming more and more disappointed in western countries and “have no choice but to side with China.” This has also prompted China to be more confident in challenging the global narrative and seeking to guide the international order on COVID-related issues amid the China-US rivalry and thus facilitating a strong emotion of “China against the West.” However, this strong surge of emotion does not accurately translate into support of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s zero-COVID-19 policy.

About the Author

Talkeetna Saiget  a MAIA (Master’s in Asian International Affairs) graduate at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa, focusing on China. She received a B.A. in Japanese studies at Tsinghua University in Beijing, China. During her years at Tsinghua University, she was nominated as an exchange student to Kyoto University where she got her JLPT N1 certificate. She became increasingly interested in international relations after working at the Republic of Sierra Leone embassy in Beijing. Her research interests include China-US relations, US-Japan relations, Japan-China relations, Japanese history, and Chinese history.