By former Japan Air Self-Defense Force Gen. Orita Kunio, visiting professor at the Toyo Gakuen University
The 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics will start on Feb. 4. The Olympics are called a “festival of peace,” but they have also been at the mercy of bloody international politics. In 1936, Adolf Hitler used the Berlin Olympics to boost national prestige. In 1964, China conducted its first nuclear test in the midst of the Tokyo Olympics. The 2008 Russian-Georgian war (South Ossetia conflict) began the day before the opening ceremony of the Beijing Summer Olympics. The annexation of the Crimean Peninsula in 2014 began four days after the closing ceremony of the Sochi Olympics.
Hard-line foreign policy is common among dictators
Based on the analogy of history, strict vigilance will be necessary after the Beijing Olympics. Since Chinese leader Xi Jinping is aiming for a third term in office, the success of the Beijing Olympics is a must for him. We should not take our eyes off China, especially, for the period from after the Beijing Olympics to the National Congress of the Communist Party of China (CCP) in fall. It is also worrisome that Russia has deployed more than 100,000 troops to the border with Ukraine and has even mobilized reservists. It would be a nightmare if an invasion of Ukraine were to coincide with a Taiwan crisis.
Although Xi’s continuation in office is said to be a certainty, dissatisfaction with his policies is smoldering due to the economic slowdown, the confrontation between the U.S. and China, and the tightening of economic and social controls.
A People’s Daily article published on Dec. 9, 2021, that brought to the surface the dissonance within the CCP became a hot topic. It is common for dictators to resort to hard-line measures to divert attention from their internal problems. What Japan should prepare for is a Taiwan contingency.
If war breaks out between China and Taiwan alone, an aerial and maritime blockade of the island would be possible as early as tomorrow. However, considering the U.S. military presence, it is difficult to say that annexation of Taiwan by force of arms would be possible this year. One possibility would be a “hybrid war” similar to the one that Russia conducted when it annexed the Crimean Peninsula.
A “hybrid war” is “warfare using overt and covert military, non-military, and civilian means employed under a highly integrated design,” according to NATO’s definition.
Four days after the closing ceremony of the Sochi Olympics [held on Feb. 23, 2014], the residents of the Crimean Peninsula suddenly found themselves in a situation where they were without TV, radio, the Internet and phone service. They had no idea what was going on.
Without much fighting, unidentified military members took over the parliament, administrative facilities, media, communication facilities, airports, etc., blocking all outside information. Traffic to and from the Ukrainian mainland was also cut off, and the Crimean Peninsula was isolated like a remote island.
Not only the military, but also agitators engaged in secret maneuvers
Next, residents and agitators, not soldiers, were engaged in secret maneuvers. Pro-Russian forces started agitating for the dissolution of the autonomous government and annexation to Russia. On March 16, a referendum was forced, and 90% of the residents were in favor of “independence and annexation by Russia.”
Although there was some fighting in eastern Ukraine, the Crimean Peninsula, with a population of about 2.5 million people and the area of 27,000 square kilometers, which is equivalent to 70% of Kyushu Island, was effectively annexed bloodlessly in just three weeks.
Taiwan is an island and vulnerable to isolation. Three undersea cables run aboveground at three points. If they were severed, 95% of the Internet would be unavailable to Taiwan’s people. In addition, if the satellite links are interfered with, Taiwan would be completely cut off in terms of information. Anxious residents would more likely be susceptible to pro-Chinese agitation and false rumors. If defeatism prevails among Taiwan’s people, a pro-China government could be established, and the annexation of Taiwan could be passed in a referendum.
This is a hypothetical hybrid war against Taiwan and, if realized, Japan and the U.S. would be helpless.
Twelve years ago, I was invited to a symposium hosted by Taiwan’s Minister of National Defense. I had a chance to talk with Taiwanese military officials. At that time, Taiwan was under the Ma Ying-jeou administration. I was surprised by what a Taiwanese senior official said. “The Taiwanese military has no chance to win a war against the People’s Liberation Army even if we resist.” The senior official went on to say, “If there is a full-scale armed invasion [by China], the sooner Taiwanese forces give in, the less damage Taiwan will suffer.” The senior official said this with a straight face.
More than ten years have passed since then. Having witnessed human rights violations in Tibet and the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, as well as the collapse of democracy in Hong Kong, I don’t want to think that there is such a senior official in the Taiwanese forces, led by the brave and sagacious Tsai Ing-wen administration.
Japan’s strong psychological support needed
Should an armed invasion of Taiwan arise, it would geopolitically put Japan’s Nansei Islands in the theater of war. Japan would not, however, become part of the battlefield in a hybrid war. For this reason, if Japan thinks it can remain indifferent in a hybrid war, that would be a great mistake.
If Taiwan falls into China’s hands and the PRC advances its navy and air force into Taiwan, Japan’s sea lanes would be easily seized. The sea lanes are a lifeline for Japan, a trading nation that depends on foreign countries for most of its energy. If Japan’s sea lanes are seized by China, Japan would come under the sway of the PRC.
Taiwan is now a bulwark of democracy. Japan, the U.S. and other democratic countries must work together to protect Taiwan. In 2019, the Japanese government rejected Taiwan’s request to exchange intelligence on the locations and activities of Chinese warplanes. It was a major blunder. Taiwan must not feel isolated. We must show that we are willing to fight together, reassure the Taiwanese military and people, and vigorously provide psychological support to prevent the spread of defeatism in Taiwan. That will serve as a deterrent in a hybrid war against Taiwan.
The key to crisis management is to prevent a crisis before it occurs. The best way to prevent a Taiwan contingency from happening is to assume a crisis situation as probable, not as unlikely, and prepare for it from all angles–diplomacy, military, intelligence, economy, psychology, etc.
As the saying goes, “He who prevents a crisis from happening will never be a hero, but we don’t need a hero.