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Seiron column: “Taiwan contingency” is contingency for Japan

By Nobukatsu Kanehara, former Assistant Chief Cabinet Secretary and Doshisha University Visiting Professor


Japan-U.S. joint statement mentions Taiwan for the first time in 50 years


On April 16, 2021, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga became the first leader U.S. President Joe Biden welcomed to the White House. The Japan-U.S. joint statement included the phrases “peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait” and “peaceful resolution of cross-Strait issues” for the first time in half a century.


On Nov. 21, 1969, then-Prime Minister Eisaku Sato visited Washington, D.C. The Japan-U.S. joint statement after that summit stated that the peace and security of the Taiwan area was a most important factor in the security of Japan. The Republic of China (Taiwan) was an ally of the U.S. at that time. After World War II, Japan turned over to the U.S. the defense of the southern portion of the Korean peninsula and Taiwan, which were split off from the Japanese empire. This prevented the neighboring areas from becoming a power vacuum. This was the regional security concept created by former Prime Minister Shigeru Yoshida and revised by former Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi. Sato’s reference to Taiwan was made as a matter of course.


The U.S. and Japan normalized relations with China in the 1970s and Taiwan disappeared from the radar for the Japan-U.S. alliance. China had just had a military confrontation with the Soviet Union on Damansky Island on the Ussuri River. China turned to the West and became a strategic partner of Japan and the U.S. The Soviet Union was a bigger threat than the Taiwan issue for China at that time.


Taiwan became an issue once again in the 1990s when Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui moved to democratize Taiwan and entered the first presidential election by popular vote, saying, “I am Taiwanese.” Beijing reacted sharply to Taiwan’s budding new identity. China fired numerous missiles into the waters around Taiwan in the name of military exercises. The U.S. responded by deploying aircraft carrier groups to the region. China was still weak and so had to back down, suffering great humiliation at the same time.


A harsh strategic reality


Twenty years has passed since then. China’s economy is now three-quarters that of the U.S. China’s economy will outgrow the U.S. economy by 2030. China’s military expenditures are still a quarter of that of the U.S., but it will soon reach U.S. levels through double-digit growth.


Taiwan is the island to which Chiang Kai-shek, the bitter enemy of the [Chinese Communist Party] in the Chinese civil war, escaped, and an island taken by Japan after the Sino-Japanese War. For the Chinese Communist Party, which positions the recovery of territory held under the Great Qing Empire at the center of its nationalism, Taiwan is an island which must be taken back even by force if necessary. Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen aims to maintain the status quo with balanced diplomacy, but China will be merciless. Under the Chinese Communist Party’s autocratic rule, China will not respect the Taiwanese people’s free will. Chinese leader Xi Jinping, who desires to leave a legacy on a par with that of Mao Zedong, has the intent and capability to invade Taiwan. The only question is timing.


This harsh strategic reality is why Suga and President Biden’s joint statement touches on peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait.


A Taiwan contingency is a contingency for Japan. Taiwan is located only 100 kilometers from Yonaguni Island. On sunny days, the large island of Taiwan can be seen from Yonaguni just over the horizon. War zones are large in modern warfare, as fighter jets fly at several thousand kilometers per hour. The Sakishima Islands will certainly be in the war zone. In a Taiwan contingency, China will move to take the Senkakus, which it claims are part of Taiwan. The beautiful Sakishimas may be neutralized. A military occupation by Chinese forces is a possibility if Japan loses its air and naval advantage. The Ground Self-Defense Forces (GSDF) has established bases on Yonaguni, Miyako, and Ishigaki islands in recent years because of its determination never to allow war on Okinawa again.


Amid the harsh strategic reality of the Reiwa era, Japan and the U.S. have shared the concept of a free and open Indo-Pacific. A series of important meetings have been held: a Quad meeting (online), a Japan-U.S. bilateral “2+2” meeting, and the Japan-U.S. summit meeting. Diplomacy with an eye to fortify the Japan-U.S. alliance has gotten off to a good start. This is the outcome of efforts by Japanese and U.S. diplomats.


Construct a security policy suited to the Reiwa era


These efforts will need to be fleshed out going forward. Can the U.S., which suffers from internal divisions, actually deter China, which is an equal to the U.S.? Northeast Asia is not part of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). The leftist Moon administration of South Korea will turn its back on Taiwan. Australia is in the southern hemisphere. Both the First U.S. Army and the I Marines Expeditionary Unit are 10,000 kilometers away in the Pacific Ocean. China is intent on the Anti Access/Area Denial (A2AD) concept to never allow the U.S. military inside the First Island Chain. China has introduced mid-range hypersonic anti-ship missiles. There are many causes for concern.


Japan, an ally of the U.S., is the only country on which the U.S. can rely. The Japan-U.S. alliance must build up impenetrable deterrence capabilities to stop a Taiwan contingency in Northeast Asia. A Taiwan contingency may occur if the Chinese military is overconfident that Taiwan will fall into its hands in a short time before the U.S. military comes to Taiwan’s aid. Japan has a big responsibility. It is not only responsible for Taiwan’s defense; it is responsible for Japan’s defense, starting with the Sakishimas.


Security policies different from those of the Heisei era are needed now. Such policies include enhancing defense capabilities with an eye on the Nansei Islands, radically expanding the defense budget, and planning an economic security policy based on an inseparable economic relationship with China. There are many things to be done. Japan is at the starting line with not much time left.

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