By Ohashi Takushi and Tanaka Yasuto
As tensions heighten in the Taiwan Strait, preparing for the evacuation of Japanese nationals residing in Taiwan has become an urgent task. Although the Japanese government has conducted a number of internal simulation exercises for Noncombatant Evacuation Operations (NEOs) from the Korean Peninsula over the years, NEO from Taiwan would be different as it would be based on different conditions and present different challenges.
According to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 24,552 Japanese were residing in Taiwan as of Oct. 1, 2020. This is about 16,000 fewer than the number of Japanese living in South Korea (40,500 people).
Taiwan is only 110 kilometers east of Yonaguni Island (Yonaguni-cho, Okinawa Prefecture) and the Sakishima Islands, of which Yonaguni is a part. In the event of a Taiwan contingency, the Sakishima Islands might be drawn into an armed conflict, and the government might decide to dispatch the Self-Defense Forces (SDF) to protect the approximately 100,000 Japanese residents on the Sakishima Islands by evacuating them to the Okinawa mainland or Kyushu.
Conducting NEO from both Taiwan and the Sakishima Islands simultaneously would be a two-pronged operation for the SDF and could far exceed the scale of a NEO in the Korean Peninsula.
Article 84 of the Self-Defense Forces Act sets forth procedures for protecting Japanese nationals overseas and allows SDF operations on the premise that the country where the evacuees reside gives its consent. Taiwan is friendly toward Japan and is unlikely to block the SDF’s rescue operations, but there are still other challenges.
Many Japanese in Taiwan live near Taipei’s Songshan Airport, which serves both military and private aircraft. As the airport possesses only one runway, it would be unlikely that the SDF would have easy access to it during a contingency. The use of the airport would be even more difficult considering that the airport is near Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense and the Presidential Office, which would be the command center.
The SDF might be able to use Taoyuan International Airport, which is northwest of Taipei. In that case, however, logistical issues would arise, including the matter of assembling and transporting the Japanese residents. The Port of Taipei and the Port of Keelung in the northern region are options for evacuation by sea. The Port of Keelung, however, is used by both the military and private sector companies so access might be restricted.
At any rate, the northern area of Taiwan would be the strategic focus of the island nation’s defense, and whether the SDF would be allowed to operate freely in that area during a contingency remains uncertain.
Currently, Tokyo and Taipei don’t share diplomatic relations: there is no exchange between the two countries’ defense authorities to coordinate logistics and operations beforehand.
NEO should be done before any real fighting begins. Once a conflict starts, Japanese residents would likely have to take shelter and wait to be rescued.
The Chinese government has claimed Taiwan is an “indivisible part of China’s territory” and the Japanese government has maintained that it respects the “one-China” principle. If Japan dispatches the SDF without China’s consent, this might offer the Chinese government an excuse to claim that “Japan’s conduct has escalated the conflict.”