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Politics & Security

Japan can Only Succeed in Self-Defense if it’s Prepared to Help Defend Taiwan

Ex-JFSDF fleet commander Yoji Koda examines the issue of China’s possible use of military means in an attempt to force unification with Taiwan, and the risks if Japan is unprepared.

Yoji Koda

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Chinese missile frigate Yuncheng launches an anti-ship missile during a military exercise in the waters near China's Hainan Island naval base and the disputed Paracel Islands. (Zha Chunming/Xinhua via AP, File)

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It would seem that Japanese people are not very good at thinking about crises.

Although there have been discussions recently in Japan about Chinese military aggression and a possible emergency situation in Taiwan, many experts play down the threat, stating: “Yes, it could happen in theory, but it is least likely in the real-world.”

I can understand when people say, “I don’t want an emergency to arise.” However, if you settle for an overly optimistic stance and refuse to think about potential emergencies, then security is not covered.

China sees Taiwan as an integral part of its territory and has referred to it as a core interest. In other words, the Chinese Communist Party is determined to put Taiwan under its rule by whatever means necessary.

For purposes of comparison, let’s look at what has been happening in Hong Kong – a region that China considers to be part of its inherent territory.

Although it’s difficult to make a full one-on-one comparison as Hong Kong was returned to China by the United Kingdom in 1997 and has long held a different status, nevertheless China has ignored stern criticism from the global community. It has cracked down in Hong Kong, making it “more Chinese,” inserting a strong People’s Liberation Army (PLA) presence as a backup force there.

Regarding Taiwan, China is trying to make it more pro-Chinese, luring it with economic benefits. But beyond that, I can see China pushing for military unification there. And of course, if the PLA moves into Taiwan, it will be easy for them to crack down against any resisting factions who are against unification.

In the military world, one can predict any number of possible scenarios, even thought it is not definite that China will pursue the military unification route. Nevertheless, there is no excuse for completely closing one’s eyes as to what might happen. We should not forget that China’s use of force in a Taiwan invasion is one of the more convincing options in some circumstances from a military perspective.

RELATED: China Expands Missile Arsenal as Japan, U.S. Stand Ready to Defend Taiwan

Chinese maritime militia at Whitsun Reef, Photo by Philippine Coast Guard/National Task Force-West Philippine Sea/ via REUTERS
Chinese maritime militia in waters of the Senkaku Islands, autumn 2020

China’s Lawless Expansionism

What is important is that we assess calmly and without prejudice what kind of nation China is right now, and prepare ourselves for every scenario.

When the Xi Jinping administration was inaugurated, China was merely looking to expand its power within the confines of existing international rules and norms. However, over the past 10 years, it has changed drastically, reinforcing its military power, becoming stronger economically, and vying to become a hegemony that can challenge the United States.

As symbolized by its man-made islands in the South China Sea, it has become difficult to stop China’s hegemonistic activity solely through diplomacy. The country does not adhere to existing international norms, instead making its own rules and trying to impose those as the new international standard. Firmer deterrence, e.g., diplomacy backed up by military capability, is needed to stop this kind of aggression.

At the very least, we must face up to reality.

Armed Chinese coast guard vessels parade through the waters around Okinawa and its Senkaku Islands .

The U.S. and Japan

It goes without saying that the only power capable of preventing an emergency in Taiwan, such as a Chinese attempt at unification by military force, is the U.S. But as one of its allies, Japan can also play an important role.

This role is not simply to hold discussions on such topics as “Japan must strengthen its defense capability in order to defend Taiwan.” Of course, such discussions are important and necessary, but there are more pressing matters to act upon. And they concern the problem that, if an emergency were to arise, Japan – which serves as the U.S. military’s vanguard base – would be totally unprepared.

It is fair to say that if the PLA were to land in Taiwan, or even if it looks obvious that it is about to do so, the PLA would need to employ an extremely large number of units for the invasion. The U.S. would then need to deploy a considerably larger number of troops to Japan and its surrounding waters in response. Yet, such a scenario is probably beyond the imagination of most Japanese people.

RELATED: [Bookmark] With Okinawa’s Anti-U.S. Base Stand, How Can Japan Defend the Senkakus?

If we were to make predictions based on the 1990-91 Gulf War, the U.S. Navy would probably deploy five or six aircraft carrier units, called carrier strike groups, to the region. The U.S. Air Force would send about 800 combat planes plus a large number of support aircraft, and III MEF (Marine Expeditionary Force) in Okinawa and I MEF in California would also be deployed. 

There are several key strategic islands controlled by China that would be targets for U.S. Marine Corps (USMC) operations, including China’s artificial islands in the South China Sea and a robust naval base complex on one big island.  

Japan would be asked to provide, stock and distribute all kinds of logistical and rear area support for the U.S. troops. The U.S. military would initially cover items such as food, fuel, and ammunition. However, if the deployment were to become prolonged, Japan would need to step in and supply these war-consumption items on an unprecedented scale.

This would be a very challenging task. A significant amount of food would need to be prepared, as would huge amounts of fuel and ammunition together with other consumables. Serious and detailed discussions with senior counterparts in the U.S. would need to be held in advance in order to meet such demands.

U.S. combat ships would mainly be deployed at sea, which is not an issue in terms of operational area. However, Japan’s Self-Defense Force bases would not have enough space for 800 U.S. planes, meaning commercial airfields would have to be employed.

If you bear in mind that the basing of V-22 Osprey aircraft is enough to trigger protests in Japan, it will be difficult to convince the public of the need to accommodate 800-plus U.S. Air Force planes. My current question is: are there any politicians or bureaucrats in present-day Japan who are giving serious thought to this issue?

April 2018, Xi Jinping reviewed PLA Navy fleet in the South China Sea, would not “renounce the use of force” to reunify Taiwan ” (Li Gang/Xinhua via AP, File)

Unprepared for a Taiwan Emergency 

When it comes to precombat military confrontation or war, preparation is often a decisive factor. In the case of the Gulf War, the U.S. succeeded mainly because of careful and ample logistic preparations at bases in neighboring countries in the area. 

As for defending Taiwan, it is vital that the logistical support mentioned above is prepared in advance.

Regarding tactical positions in East Asia, South Korea and the Philippines are also options. But when you consider Japan’s proximity to Taiwan, close U.S.-Japan relationship, and political stability, Japan is the obvious and only choice.

Therefore, Japan is very much involved in protecting the freedom of people in Taiwan. Japan should not take a passive stance and just step up reluctantly, especially because the U.S. tells it to. As an independent nation, Japan needs to be more proactive.

Moreover, Japan’s role is not just to provide logistical and rear support. The JSDF has treaty responsibilities to protect the U.S. military from any Chinese attacks in Japan and near the archipelago.

I don’t have enough space in the column to discuss whether an emergency in Taiwan is enough for Japan to exercise its right of collective self-defense. However, the act of defending bases with U.S. troops as well as Japan’s surrounding waters is the same as defending Japanese territory and its people. In other words, an emergency in Taiwan is also an emergency for Japan.

RELATED: In Our Region: A Taiwan Contingency is a Japan Contingency

By saying this, I can already hear critical voices saying, “why are you putting Japan forward for war?” But if U.S. troops can be deployed to Japan and operate in this region smoothly, China might think twice about military aggression. So, in other words, it is not an exaggeration to say that Japan is very much involved in the attempt to deter China.

Yet, at the moment, Japan is completely unprepared. Exercising the right of collective self-defense may have become possible in Japan, thanks to new security legislation in 2015, but preparation for a potential crisis out of or near-by areas of Japan is lacking. COVID-19 and the vote on who should succeed Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga are factors, but politicians and bureaucrats cannot afford to ignore this issue.

I want people to think. Look at what has happened recently in Afghanistan. The Japanese government sent out the JSDF to help 500 Japanese people and their associates evacuate from Afghanistan, but in the end, they only rescued 15 people because they arrived a day late.

Responding to a crisis a day late equates to full failure. If a similar mistake is made in the event of a Taiwan emergency, the consequences could be devastating.

We may not know when China will take the next step toward forced unification with Taiwan. However, time is not on our side. Preparations must be made sooner rather than later.

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(Read the Sankei Shimbun column in Japanese at this link.)

Author: Yoji Koda

The author is a former JMSDF Fleet commander. He has also served on the National Security Secretariat Advisory Board. His publications include Sansei hantai wo iu mae no shudanteki jieiken nyumon (Gentosha, 2014).

Yoji Koda is a former JMSDF Fleet commander. Born in 1949, he joined the JMSDF after graduating from the National Defense Academy. He was promoted to Vice Admiral in 2003, and subsequently became Commander of JMSDF Fleet before retiring. He has also been a member of the National Security Secretariat Advisory Board. Publications include "Sansei hantai wo iu mae no shudanteki jieiken nyumon" (Gentosha, 2014).