A couple of potential crises have been evolving in the Western Pacific region simultaneously since early 2018. These emerging jeopardies pose urgent threats to the South China Sea and Taiwan.
For a long time, rising tensions in the two regions were deemed separate and unrelated. But since late last year, they have suddenly come to be regarded as two of a kind.
As shown by the remarks of senior Chinese leaders, China’s long-term strategy lies in its ambition to drive United States forces from the Western Pacific. Indications are that Beijing is determined to be prepared for some level of armed confrontation with Washington in these two regions.
In the event of an armed clash between the U.S. and China in the not-so-distant future, can Japan be ready for the contingency?
South China Sea on the Brink of Armed Confrontation
There has already been a situation in the South China Sea that came close to becoming an armed conflict. On September 30, 2018, it was reported that a Chinese destroyer rapidly approached within 40 meters or so of the destroyer USS Decatur in what U.S. Navy officials called an “unsafe and unprofessional maneuver.” The U.S. warship was cruising in waters near the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea when the Chinese warship challenged it in an attempt to force the U.S. vessel from the area. The U.S. Trump administration followed up by flying a B52 bomber over the area. Then on October 4, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence blew the whistle, declaring the United States “will not be intimidated and we will not stand down” from sailing freely in the South China Sea.
In response, however, Rear Admiral Luo Yuan of the Chinese Navy, who was formerly deputy director of the People’s Liberation Army’s Academy of Military Science, was quoted as saying on December 20: “Sinking two U.S. aircraft carriers would cost a massive number of U.S. servicemen’s lives. Since such a big loss of human resources is what the United States fears the most, the sinking of two U.S. supercarriers would resolve the dispute surrounding the East and South China Seas.”
In January this year, U.S. Senator James Inhofe, who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee, said in comments before the committee, “It looks like China is preparing for World War III.”
Similarly, tensions have been on the rise in the Taiwan Strait. Such acts as a simple phone call between President Trump and Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen right after he assumed the U.S. presidency, and Trump’s encouragement of high-ranking U.S. officials’ visits to Taiwan, may have been a source of irritation to Chinese President Xi Jinping and other Chinese leaders.
China to Take Military Action at Some Future Date
Xi Jinping, at the Chinese Communist Party’s 19th Party Congress in October 2017, said emphatically, “We have the resolve, confidence, and ability to defeat separatist attempts for ‘Taiwan independence’ in any form.”
China and Taiwan emulated each other by conducting large-scale military exercises in the Taiwan Strait in 2018, showing off their force of arms, respectively.
On January 4 this year, President Xi prodded China’s top brass at a Chinese Military Commission meeting to step up their preparations for war, saying, “The entire armed forces should have a correct understanding of China’s security and development trends, enhance their awareness of danger, crisis and war, and make solid efforts on combat preparations.”
In another speech the same month to mark the 40th anniversary of the Chinese mainland’s 1979 “Message to Compatriots in Taiwan,” Xi declared, “China reserves the right to use force for unification of China and Taiwan,” adding, Taiwan “must and will be” united with China.
But later the same day, Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen flatly rejected Xi’s position, saying the island “would never accept reunification with China.”
China’s acts of intimidation in the South China Sea and Taiwan have been intensifying. It may be simply a show of bravado intended to deter the potential for armed conflicts between China and the United States. Nevertheless, 2019 marks the 100th year since the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. And the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party is coming up in 2021. Beijing may push to achieve China-Taiwan unification by these anniversaries as a matter of pride, even at the risk of some type of armed confrontation.
China also claims sovereignty over the Senkaku Islands in Okinawa Prefecture and has said the islands are one of Beijing’s “core interests.” We should therefore bear in mind the possibility of China taking military action over the Senkakus.
In January 2018, a Chinese submarine was spotted by a Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force patrol plane as it was traveling underwater in waters near the Senkaku Islands. The probability of China highly prioritizing invasion of the Senkakus may be small, since the United States has declared that, in the event of a contingency, Article 5 of the Japan-U.S. Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security covers the Senkaku Islands, called Diaoyu in Chinese. However, Japan must be vigilant, nonetheless.
Be Fully Prepared for Taiwan Straits Contingency
China’s strategy is to put the western half of the Pacific under its influence while pushing U.S. forces out of the region, including Japan, thus emasculating the Japan-U.S. alliance. Should China conquer Taiwan, Beijing could strengthen pressure to throw U.S. forces out of Japan. For the time being, though, the presence of U.S. forces in such countries as Japan and South Korea is advantageous to China in holding North Korea’s nuclear capabilities in check.
In the event U.S. forces pull out of South Korea in the future, China would be able to bring both North and South Koreas under its influence. If that happens, Beijing’s next step would likely be intensified pressure for the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Okinawa Prefecture.
In order to prevent such contingencies, Japan, in tandem with the United States and other countries with shared interests, must make every effort to thwart China’s ambition to attain supremacy in the Western Pacific.
It is imperative for Japan to maintain the Japan-U.S. alliance to balance China’s power projection in the region. This requires continued support for the U.S. Seventh Fleet at U.S. bases in Japan.
At the same time, in order to deter Chinese forces’ advance to the Pacific, no time should be wasted in building up defenses around the Nansei Islands, the arc-shaped archipelago between the southern tip of Kyushu and Taiwan.
In this connection, it is regrettable that the July 2016 decision of the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague has fallen into oblivion. The decision, which China refuses to recognize, concluded China has no legal basis to claim its sovereignty over the vast territories it has marked out in the South China Sea.
A problem of higher significance is how Japan should extend a helping hand to the United States and Taiwan if a contingency occurs in the Taiwan Strait. As stipulated by Article 6 of the Japan-U.S. security pact, Japan should throw support more proactively behind U.S. endeavors to deal with a Taiwan contingency, “for the purpose of contributing to the security of Japan and the maintenance of international peace and security in the far East.”
Furthermore, arrangements for the exchange of views on a variety of subjects of mutual concern and for “joint studies of the regional situation” must be put into force as early as possible by the Japan-Taiwan Exchange Association and the Taiwan-Japan Relations Association, both of which are in Taipei, for the sake of the safety of Japanese living in Taiwan.
(This article was first published in the March 21 “Seiron” column of The Sankei Shimbun. Click here to read the column in its original Japanese.)
Author: Masashi Nishihara
Dr. Masashi Nishihara is president of the Research Institute for Peace and Security. Until March 2006, he served as president of the National Defense Academy at Yokosuka for six years. A graduate of Kyoto University (BA), Nishihara is a holder of an M.A. and Ph.D. in political science from the University of Michigan.