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Expert on China's PLA Says It's Mulling First Strike on Bases in Japan

In an interview, Dr Toshi Yoshihara, an expert in deciphering the strategy of China's PLA, reviews the options, risks and deterrence China is likely to face.



China's PLA
PLA soldiers taking part in war drills (© Xinhua via Kyodo)

Without a doubt, China remains the top issue on the national political stage in Washington DC, the political center in the United States. Government officials, members of Congress and think tank experts are mostly talking about China, China's PLA, China and more China. The next hottest topics seem to be former president Donald Trump and Ukraine — in that order. 

The most disturbing aspect of this tense debate is the realization of the possibility of an actual military conflict between the US and China. It can be said that the policy of deterrence, in other words increasing preparedness for conflict in order to avoid it, is a fundamental US national security strategy. As a result, debate is increasingly taking the form of "if the US and China go to war…."

That is all the more reason to pay attention to the analysis of Dr Toshi Yoshihara, a Japanese-American expert in deciphering the strategy of the People's Liberation Army. This Chinese military strategy will undoubtedly impact Japan's destiny.

Customers in Beijing dine near a giant screen broadcasting news footage of an aircraft taking off from China's Shandong aircraft carrier while taking part in a combat readiness patrol and "Joint Sword" exercises around Taiwan. The exercises were conducted by the Eastern Theatre Command of China's People's Liberation Army (PLA). April 10, 2023. (© REUTERS/Tingshu Wang)

Researching China's PLA

For many years, Yoshihara was a professor of strategy at the US Naval War College. He is now a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA), a major think tank in the nation's capital. 

Having grown up in Taiwan, Yoshihara is fluent in Chinese. He is known for his research method of pouring over the latest available internal documents of the Chinese military and evaluating that information, together with intelligence from the Defense Intelligence Agency and other US intelligence agencies.

Dr Yoshihara has written on the topic of "A First Strike by the PLA and US Bases in Japan." It forms the last chapter of his recent book, The Road to Pearl Harbor: Great Power War in Asia and the Pacific. The book is coauthored with John H Maurer and Erik Goldsteina (Naval Institute Press, October 2022). 

In his chapter, he argues that the Chinese military has long had a strategic mindset that emphasizes surprise and preemptive strikes against powerful enemies. Yoshihara points out that this is applicable even assuming that a Taiwan contingency leads to an all-out war with the US. 

Scenarios Under Consideration

First, one scenario being considered by the PLA calls for surprise or preemptive attacks on key US military installations in Japan. These include the port of Yokosuka and installations in Okinawa

In his report, Yoshihara quotes from numerous research papers written by researchers at the Chinese Academy of Military Sciences and the PLA National Defense University, as well as active-duty People's Liberation Army (PLA) personnel. This option Yoshihara highlights may be shocking to Japan. But the Chinese side might well consider it as a desperate policy necessary for the survival of the nation.

China's PLA
Book Cover (Courtesy of Naval Institute Press)

Key Points

Yoshihara makes the following key points in his report. 

First, the China side assumes that an attack on Taiwan would lead to all-out war with the US. At the same time, Chinese war planners believe the overwhelmingly superior US military has the capacity to launch large-scale strategic attacks on China's major "megalopolises." Those are Beijing/Tianjin, Shanghai/ Nanjing and Guangzhou/Shenzhen. Such an attack could destroy the base of China's comprehensive military strength.

Second, the Chinese military has developed plans to launch surprise and preemptive strikes on forward-deployed bases for US forces within Japan. They would do this in order to prevent or reduce any strategic attack by American forces. 

Those sites also include US military bases at Yokosuka and in Okinawa. In fact, China has declared that it has six different modes of attacks and preemptive attacks at its command. They include "sneak attacks," "rapid raids" and "sabotage raids."

Next, for attacks on United States' bases in Japan, the PLA would rely primarily on certain weapons systems. These are the DF21C medium-range ballistic missile system (1,500 km range), CJ10 ground-launched cruise missiles (same range) and DF26 intermediate-range ballistic missiles (4,000 km range).

Assessing the Risk

I had the opportunity to meet with Dr Yoshihara and ask him directly about the dangers present today. He told me that although the Chinese are certainly contemplating such a preemptive strike, they also must consider the enormous cost they would have to pay if they do carry out such an attack. 

That cost would come in the form of a full-scale counterattack. And it would be delivered not only by the US and Japan, but also by almost the entire world. 

At the same time, I was impressed by how Yoshihara forcefully made the point that Japan's possession of a missile counterstrike capability would provide deterrence in relation to China.


(Read the report in Japanese.)

Author: Yoshihisa Komori
Find other observations and opinion in English by the author and longtime Washington-based Sankei Shimbun correspondent on JAPAN Forward.

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