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Commentary: Japan should start defense exchange with Taiwan

By former GSDF Maj. Gen. Watanabe Kinzo


Former GSDF Maj. Gen. Watanabe Kinzo served as the chief of security affairs, which is equivalent to defense attaché, at the Taipei Office, Japan-Taiwan Exchange Association, until May this year. He contributed to the Sankei Shimbun an article that introduces the current situation of military cooperation between the U.S. and Taiwan over possible contingencies in the Taiwan Strait and calls for Japan to start direct dialogue with Taiwan in the field of defense.


In March, Adm. Philip Davidson, then-Commander of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, mentioned the possibility of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan occurring “within six years.” The joint statement of the Japan-U.S. summit in April clearly stated the “importance of peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait,” which has led to growing debate on contingencies in the Taiwan Strait. While this is greatly welcomed, the admiral’s remarks are often interpreted politically and have not expanded into discussions solely from the military perspective.


Many people may think that China’s mighty military assets can easily cross the Taiwan Strait, but in reality, that would not be so easy. The Taiwan Strait is more than 200 kilometers across at its widest point, and the current is strong, making it difficult for large groups of naval vessels to operate in an orderly fashion. In addition, the strait’s shallow waters make it difficult for submarines to operate. In winter, strong winds and thick fog prevent aircraft from flying. With the exception of a few places, Taiwan offers no suitable sites for landing large forces. In short, Taiwan’s terrain and weather conditions make it extremely difficult for an invading force to land.


It is generally said that an attacker needs three times the strength of a defender. Considering the topographical features and weather conditions of the Taiwan Strait, China would need to double that number to invade Taiwan, but the PRC does not have the necessary forces to operate surface ships and fighter planes to that end. China has deployed a large number of surface-to-surface missiles, but Taiwan is believed to possess about 250 missiles that can hit the Chinese mainland, although this is not publicized, so China will face a considerable counterattack from Taiwan.


China can transport an estimated 15,000 ground troops. Considering, however, that about 90,000 Taiwan’s troops are preparing to defend the main island at only a few landing sites, a full-scale landing by China is regarded as almost impossible.


At present, the Chinese military is limited to military intimidation, an economic blockade, attacks by aircraft and missiles, occupation of Taiwan’s remote islands, and killing Taiwan’s key officials by special forces. However, as long as the Taiwanese authorities have the support of the Taiwanese people, the PRC will not be able to occupy Taiwan’s main island through these operations. Rather, it would give Taiwan an opportunity to declare independence, and China would be isolated from the international community, which would oppose China’s use of force.


Establishing a puppet government through so-called gray-zone operations similar to Russia’s annexation of the Crimean Peninsula would not be easy in Taiwan, where democracy has taken root.


Then what are Chinese leaders’ thoughts on an invasion of Taiwan?


Last May, when COVID-19 spread among the crews of U.S. naval vessels, including aircraft carriers operating in the Pacific Ocean, forcing them to stop at ports for long periods of time, there was widespread opinion in the Chinese media that this was an opportunity to invade Taiwan.


However, China’s Maj. Gen. Qiao Liang, known for his book “Unrestricted Warfare,” issued a statement saying, “The gap in military capability between China and the U.S. is clear and we must not act hastily.” The statement must have been authorized by the Chinese military and the Communist Party, which indicates the Chinese leadership is well aware of the military disparity between the U.S. and China.


It is possible in the future that a major domestic problem that rattles the Communist Party’s dictatorship could prompt the party to proceed with the invasion of Taiwan without a chance of success to turn the eyes of the Chinese people outward.


The framework for defense cooperation between the U.S. and Taiwan underwent major changes during the previous Trump administration. “The U.S. Strategic Framework for the Indo-Pacific,” a document prepared by the U.S. National Security Council (NSC) in Feb. 2018 and declassified in Jan. 2021, states that the U.S. will “defend the first-island-chain nations, including Taiwan.” In this way, the document specifies the defense of Taiwan, which the U.S. has not mentioned, even in the Taiwan Relations Act, since the termination of diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Taiwan in 1979.


Since 2018, the U.S. Marine Corps has visited Taiwan to train the Republic of China Marine Corps and the two forces have conducted joint training there. In 2020, a framework for coordinating the two forces at the operational level called the “U.S.-Taiwan joint assessment council” was established.


Although exchanges have been halted due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it is very likely that military cooperation between the U.S. and Taiwan will undergo a qualitative change after the pandemic.


On the other hand, mutual coordination between Japan and the U.S. regarding contingencies in the Taiwan Strait has not progressed, and there is no defense cooperation between Japan and Taiwan. An emergency in the Taiwan Strait could very well become a situation where there is an armed attack on Japan. The decision to start defense exchanges between Japan and Taiwan should be made as soon as possible, and direct dialogue should be promoted by setting up a system for the exchange of secret information and communication.

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