A Chinese invasion of Taiwan: Why Japan should prepare for the worst by OUE Sadamasa

“API Geoeconomic Briefing” is a weekly analysis of significant geopolitical and geoeconomic developments in the post-pandemic world. The briefing is written by experts at Asia Pacific Initiative (API) and includes an assessment of burgeoning trends in international politics and economics and the possible impact on Japan’s national interests and strategic response. (Editor-in-chief: Dr. HOSOYA Yuichi, Research Director, API & Professor, Faculty of Law, Keio University)

This article was posted to the Japan Times on June 10, 2021:


API Geoeconomic Briefing

June 10, 2021

A Chinese invasion of Taiwan: Why Japan should prepare for the worst

OUE Sadamasa,
Senior Fellow, Asia Pacific Initiative (API),
Lieutenant General, Japan Air Self-Defense Force (Ret.)




Former U.S. Navy Adm. Timothy Keating said that when he visited China in 2007 as chief of U.S. Pacific Command, a senior Chinese naval officer proposed a deal to divide up the Pacific Ocean, giving the U.S. control of the eastern Pacific region while China would control the western Pacific.

Although Keating said the offer was perhaps tongue-in-cheek, it suggested the direction in which China was heading with its military strategy at the time.

If the same offer was made today by Chinese President Xi Jinping to U.S. President Joe Biden, it would be no laughing matter.

China clearly stated in its defense white paper released in 2019 that it would complete modernization of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) by 2035 and transform it into a “world-class” military by 2049. This indicated Beijing’s aim of developing a military that is equal to the forces of the U.S., which makes the possibility of the nation proposing a similar deal more realistic.

Taiwan is now at the center of this power struggle between the United States and China, becoming the most dangerous flashpoint in the world. A military conflict between the U.S. and China would have a severe impact on Japan’s security and trade.

A joint statement issued after a meeting between Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and Biden in April said: “We underscore the importance of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait and encourage the peaceful resolution of cross-Strait issues.”

The statement also said: “Japan resolved to bolster its own national defense capabilities to further strengthen the Alliance and regional security.”

Taiwan is a touchstone for China’s attempt to change the status quo by force and challenge democratic values, and in response the Suga administration must seriously work on strengthening the Japan-U.S. alliance and the Self-Defense Forces.

One PLA field manual states: “Only by militarily occupying The Island can we fundamentally conquer the ‘separatist’ force’s natural living space, and totally end the military standoff across the Strait.”

Xi has said that unifying Taiwan with China is “an inevitable requirement for the great rejuvenation of the Chinese people,” and has repeatedly stressed that resolving the issue can’t keep being passed to the next generation. He also has called on troops at every opportunity to “prepare for war.”

It is uncertain, even to Xi, when and how China might invade Taiwan. The only thing Japan can do is to estimate China’s intentions and capabilities as precisely as possible, come up with measures to delay Xi’s decision-making and implement these measures to cause him to hesitate.

To do so, it is necessary to consider what will happen if China attempts to militarily occupy Taiwan as stated in the field manual.

Based on what the U.S. calls China’s anti-access/area-denial (A2AD) strategy, the Chinese military is likely to block U.S. military access to areas east of the first island chain — which runs from the South China Sea up through the Japanese archipelago — and deny U.S. military activities in areas west of the first island chain, while conducting missile attacks and air strikes on military facilities in Taiwan.

There is a high possibility that China will try to isolate Taiwan by setting up a no-fly zone over Taiwan and imposing a blockade on the Taiwan Strait and the Bashi Channel, the latter of which runs between Taiwan and the Philippines.

The Air Self-Defense Force’s airborne warning and control system (AWACS) planes can detect hundreds of aircraft tracks within a radius of 400 kilometers, and military aircraft can operate across an extended airspace.

China is likely to conduct ballistic missile attacks and air strikes targeting the underground facilities of the Chiashan Air Force Base in Taiwan’s eastern Hualien county.

Inevitably, Chinese forces will operate in Japan’s airspace over the area covering Yonaguni Island and Ishigaki Island, located about 100 to 300 kilometers east of Taiwan, and air and sea traffic around the Nansei Islands will be cut off.

Missile attacks and air strikes against Taiwan could kill Taiwanese citizens and also Japanese and American residents in Taiwan, forcing Japan to conduct a variety of defense operations based on the Japan-U.S. alliance.


Possible U.S. reactions

A special report released by the Council on Foreign Relations in February, titled “The United States, China, and Taiwan: A Strategy to Prevent War,” says in the event of conflict the U.S. government would first freeze any assets China holds in the U.S.

To distinguish assets held by Taiwanese people from those owned by Chinese nationals and protect them, the U.S. government could recognize Taiwan’s democratic government.

The report also says that the U.S. would freeze business and other financial transactions with China if they become enemies, and that China would likely retaliate, affecting trillions of dollars of assets in the U.S. and around the world.

In such a case, Japan, as a U.S. ally, would also become subject to China’s retaliation, such as Japanese-owned assets in China being frozen, Japanese nationals in China being detained and trade and financial transactions with China being cut off.

The report urges the U.S. government not to attack mainland China so as to avoid a large-scale war between the two nations, and instead work together with Taiwan and Japan to prepare plans by packaging geoeconomic tools and military responses in order to deter China from invading Taiwan.

However, it is doubtful whether such a restrictive strategy would make China hesitant about moving ahead to unify with Taiwan, which is the country’s greatest national interest.

A policy analyst at U.S.-based think tank Rand Corp., who was involved in compiling a report titled “The U.S.-China Military Scorecard: Forces, Geography, and the Evolving Balance of Power, 1996-2017,” said that China should be taking such possibilities into account.

If the strategy proposed in the Council on Foreign Relations report does not work to deter China’s attempt to unify Taiwan, the economies of Japan and the U.S. will suffer a serious blow and their force postures in the region will be forced to largely recede, with the emergence of a hole — left by Taiwan — in the middle of the first island chain.

The regional order of the “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” will be lost, and we will see the worst situation of all with the Nansei Islands, not to mention the Senkaku Islands, being exposed to serious military threats from China.

What will follow will be China’s goal to divide the Pacific by 2049.

It is unthinkable that the U.S. would accept such a future, but in August the National Interest magazine published an article titled “Can America Successfully Repel a Chinese Invasion of Taiwan?” written by Daniel L. Davis, a retired lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army.

Davis said recent war games jointly conducted by the Pentagon and Rand have shown that China would be able to seize Taiwan in a matter of days or weeks, and even if the U.S. could eventually repulse China’s assault on Taiwan, such a victory would come at a staggeringly high price for the country.

The U.S. would then have to build a massive military presence on Taiwan and perpetually maintain such defenses and constantly be at risk of a fresh attack, Davis said.

“For American policy, it doesn’t make sense to risk military defeat or financial ruin when our interests are not directly threatened,” he concluded.

“The best way America can help Taiwan and dissuade China from using force is to encourage all the friendly countries of the Asia-Pacific region — not only Taiwan — to engage in a buildup of its own self-defense capabilities,” he said.


America’s national interest

However, if China militarily occupied Taiwan, its hegemony would subsequently spread over the western Pacific and the U.S. would lose its position of dominance.

Therefore, Davis is right in saying the U.S. should encourage its allies to build up self-defense capabilities, but he is wrong in concluding that U.S. interests would not be directly threatened.

What is of vital national interest to Washington is at risk, and the right path for the U.S. to take is to work with its allies to strengthen its deterrence.

The idea stated in the article that the U.S. should avoid taking risks against China is still not the mainstream opinion in the country, but voices calling for the need to review excessive military involvement overseas are increasing.

To cope with such growing isolationism as well as a number of domestic issues, the Biden administration has no choice but to step up multilateral cooperation and alliances.

This means Tokyo should urgently work on two issues to realize what Japan and the U.S. pledged in their joint statement.

First, in order to deter China’s military aggression based on miscalculation and overconfidence, Japan and the U.S. should share a detailed operation plan for possible contingency regarding Taiwan.

Adm. Philip Davidson, who led the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command until April, told a Senate committee hearing that China could try to take control of Taiwan “in the next six years,” and Adm. John Aquilino, who took over the post, said at another hearing, “My opinion is this problem is much closer to us than most think.”

They are raising the alarm in view of a number of milestones that could induce military actions by China, including the PLA’s 100th anniversary, which will come in 2027 during Xi’s third term if he stands again in 2022, as well as presidential elections in the U.S. and Taiwan slated for 2024.

Japan must create a comprehensive China strategy including economic security and complete its joint planning with the U.S. for contingencies in Taiwan before the next two-plus-two dialogue of foreign and defense ministers that they agreed to hold later this year.

On April 23, the Chinese navy commissioned three new warships; a Type 075 amphibious assault ship Hainan, the first ship of its class; the Type 055 large stealth guided missile destroyer Dalian; and the Type 094 nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine Changzheng-18.

Xi attended the commissioning ceremony along with Zhang Youxia and Xu Qiliang, vice chairmen of the Central Military Commission, showing off the nation’s boosted landing and naval warfare potential.

It will not be easy for Xi, who has been boosting public interest in military affairs and encouraging troops to prepare for war, to keep this military buildup unused.

To prevent China from making miscalculations and becoming overconfident, Japan and the U.S. should now show that they are ready to act together.

Secondly, Japan should create a plan to increase its defense spending to 2% of its gross domestic product — the level the U.S. asks its allies to allocate — and largely raise the defense budget for the next fiscal year along with the plan.

The military expenditure of the U.S. is equal to roughly 3.5% of its GDP. Taiwan increased its defense budget for 2020 by 5.2% from a year before to account for 2.3% of its GDP, in line with its plans announced in 2019 for incremental rises in military spending over the next 10 years.

But such moves pale in comparison to China’s plan to increase its defense spending by 6.8% in 2021.

Japan’s defense budget for fiscal 2021 is expected to be equivalent to 0.95% of GDP, a level that could raise questions about how committed the nation is to its pledge to bolster its national defense capabilities.


Worst-case scenario

It is truly necessary for Japan to allocate funds to strengthen defense capabilities around the Nansei Islands in line with the U.S.’ Strategic Competition Act of 2021 and expansion of spending known as the Pacific Deterrence Initiative.

The Biden administration has launched a global posture review of U.S. forces with the aim of increasing military presence in the western Pacific and restoring the military balance in a region where China is having an increasing advantage.

Tokyo, which is at the forefront of the power struggle in the region, should commit itself to boosting its fighting power backed by budgetary allocations to work in conjunction with Washington’s review of its military posture and creation of China strategies.

History is filled with acts of folly which no one could have ever imagined.

In order to avoid the worst-case scenario for all countries involved, Japan, the U.S. and Taiwan must clearly present their intentions and abilities to counter those of China. They should not feel afraid of facing backlash from China in the form of economic sanctions or information warfare.

The costs and risks accompanying such moves would obviously be smaller than dealing with the worst situation.

Now is the time for Japan to seriously put its pledge into action.


The views expressed in this API Geoeconomic Briefing do not necessarily reflect those of the API, the API Institute of Geoeconomic Studies or any other organizations to which the author belongs.