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Truth and Falsehood behind Okinawa Bases (Part IV): Air Force, Navy responsible for dealing with cross-strait crisis, not Marines

  • 2016-02-09 15:00:00
  • , Ryukyu Shimpo
  • Translation

(Ryukyu Shimpo: February 7, 2016 – p. 9)


 In March 1996, China launched missiles and conducted full-scale military exercises on its land across the Taiwan Strait to intimidate Taiwan, which had been scheduled to hold its first presidential election. In the run-up to the race, Lee Teng-hui, a symbolic figure of Taiwan’s independence, had been drumming up support. On March 9, then U.S. Defense Secretary William J. Perry dispatched the USS Independence to waters near Taiwan. On March 11, the USS Nimitz was sent from the Persian Gulf to form a carrier strike group against China. Cross-strait tensions escalated all of a sudden.


 China’s missile launches in the waters near Taiwan were aimed at putting pressure on Taiwan, but at the same time the actions were perceived as a message that China is ready to attack and remove U.S. military vessels once they cross the straits. The U.S. reciprocated with the message that it “would not give in” to China by mobilizing a carrier strike group, but in actuality the U.S. fleet stayed in the waters away from where China launched missiles.


 The U.S. forces also dispatched a submarine. The tensions between China and the U.S. received prominent media coverage across the world, but no amphibious assault ship carrying a “rapid response unit” of Marines was sent to the waters near Taiwan. The U.S. mainly deployed air and naval forces to deal with the crisis.


 Some say that the U.S. Marines should be stationed in Kyushu rather than in Okinawa to deal with contingencies in the Korean Peninsula due to geographical proximity. This often meets opposition based on the argument that Okinawa is closer to the Taiwan Strait. The central government has also identified the Korean Peninsula and Taiwan Strait as “potential conflict zones.”


 The central government has long stressed in its discussions with the prefectural office over the relocation of U.S. Marines Corps Air Station Futenma that the Marines need to stay in Okinawa due to the prefecture’s geographical proximity to Taiwan. It has argued: “A delay in responding to an emergency for a day or even several hours could be costly from the perspective of military operations. A swift response would not be possible if the Futenma facility were moved outside the prefecture.”


 But security experts have pointed out that the U.S. Marines have seldom played a role as ground units during a cross-strait crisis.


 Jeffrey Hornung, a security expert on the Japan-U.S. relationship and a former associate professor with the Asia Pacific Center for Security Studies, points out: “First of all, the Navy and Air Force would be responsible for handling a cross-strait crisis. If they were involved, the U.S. Seventh Fleet (based in Yokosuka) and the Fifth Air Force (command headquarters in Yokota) would take command. There is a big question mark about what role the Marines could play in the event of contingencies in Taiwan or the Korean Peninsula.”


 Is it likely for a scenario to occur in which the Chinese military invades Taiwan and instigates a ground battle?


 Shunji Taoka, a military commentator, said that an opinion poll the Taiwanese government conducted in November shows 88.5% of people surveyed favor the status quo and only 4.6% want Taiwan’s independence. He also pointed out that President-elect Tsai Ing-wen has pledged to maintain the status quo. “A situation in which China invaded Taiwan is inconceivable,” he said.


 Nonetheless, what if China were to attack Taiwan?


 At present, the Chinese military would not be able to send more than two divisions (20,000 to 30,000 personnel) across the Taiwan Strait. The Taiwanese army is made up of 200,000 soldiers and has more than 1,000 combat vehicles. The 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit, a combat unit in the U.S. Marines in Okinawa, has about 2,000 troops, which is only one-hundredth of the Taiwanese army.


 “It would be impossible for the Chinese military to defeat the Taiwanese army on the ground,” said Taoka. “Even if the U.S. forces were involved, they would be only able to send aircraft carriers to the waters near Taiwan, and the Marines would have no role to play.” (Slightly abridged)

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