Tension across the Taiwan Strait is higher now than it has ever been since 1996 during the Third Taiwan Strait Crisis. According to Taiwan’s Defense Ministry, more than 940 People’s Liberation Army (PLA) aircraft intruded into Taiwan's air defense identification zone (ADIZ) in 2021, which is nearly three times that of 2020.
In response to Beijing’s increasingly aggressive actions since 2016, despite Taipei’s consistent commitment to maintain the “status quo” under the leadership of President Tsai Ing-wen, Washington and Tokyo have been signaling greater support for Taipei and warning Beijing from taking steps to unilaterally change the “status quo” — especially by the use of force.
The likelihood of a full-scale Chinese military invasion of Taiwan may be low in the near term. However, as China’s behaviors become more assertive and sometimes reckless, the possibility of a limited conflict, either directly provoked by or from an unexpected escalation stemming from an accident, appears more likely as the militaries come in frequent contact with one another in an ever more fraught political environment.
To be sure, the long-term military threats to Taiwan and the region are increasing. But the more immediate threats are actions taken by China that fall into the realm of “gray zone” coercion through:
- hybrid and political warfare aimed at subversion,
- both high and low intensity activities that utilize military and civilian assets to shape the political calculus, and
- psychological warfare.
Given its hybrid nature and scale, responses to such “gray zone” coercion require an integrated approach that blends political-military components and with allies and partners.
Among US allies and partners, Tokyo has taken the furthest steps in responding to the growing crisis. But still more needs to be done.
On the political signaling front, Tokyo has made important progress. Japanese leaders have been publicly voicing their concerns about “peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait.”
In early December, former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe declared that “A Taiwan emergency is a Japanese emergency, and therefore an emergency for the Japan-U.S. alliance. People in Beijing, President Xi Jinping in particular, should never have a misunderstanding in recognizing this.”
While such public statements expressing top-level Japanese political judgment are vital for signaling and mark a significant departure from past practices, concrete actions are needed. These acts, while notable, have been more ad hoc. There should be greater coordination between the two sides.
A Call for Direct Talks
Indeed, the time is now for direct high-level security talks between Taiwan and Japan.
Calls for direct security dialogue between the two sides are not new. In 2019, President Tsai Ing-wen stated that “Taiwan and Japan are confronted with the same threats in the East Asian region.” And, as such, “It is vital that talks be raised to the level of security cooperation.
What could such a high-level security dialogue address?
Begin with traditional military issues such as maritime domain awareness, and the vital importance of real-time information sharing about the movements of the PLA in the East China Sea. The Taiwanese president also highlighted the need to “have an exchange of opinions about new kinds of threats ー besides traditional military affairs ー such as cyberwarfare.”
Although working level contacts between the defense establishments of Taiwan and Japan have been going on for some time, these processes are inadequate. The type of planning needed requires senior-level decision makers to lead, especially in bureaucracy-dominated policy processes like those of Japan. Without that leadership, the defense establishments will be unable to address the fluid and ever-changing nature of the hybrid and political warfare threats, much less deny, repel, or deter a Chinese invasion of Taiwan.
New processes and the preparations take time to materialize, and the possibility of limited conflict grows greater by the day.
Closing the Gap
Currently, there are obvious limits to enhancing security cooperation between Taipei and Tokyo. As journalist Yoichi Kato observed, “In the Ministry of Defense in Tokyo there is no section or even a single official who is formally tasked with managing the relationship with Taiwan. The official communication channel is close to nonexistent.”
If former Prime Minister Abe is genuinely serious about his concerns, then the two security establishments should immediately take steps to address this critical communication gap. There must be direct high-level security dialogues between Taipei and Tokyo.
In this context, it is worth noting that Japan’s former defense attaché to Taiwan, Kinzo Watanabe (渡邊金三), after recently stepping down from his post, lamented: “[t]he defense cooperation relationship between Japan and Taiwan does not exist yet.”
In an op-ed for The Sankei Shimbun published in August 2021, Watanabe opined: “The issue of defense exchanges between Japan and Taiwan should be decided as soon as possible; it should also be a direct dialogue on the "exchange of confidential information, the maintenance of communication status.”
In addition to setting up direct defense exchanges, the Self-Defense Forces (SDF) should also send an active-duty military officer to serve as the country’s defense attaché for facilitation.
The post as head of the security department of the Japan-Taiwan Exchange Association, which serves as a de facto Embassy in Taiwan, was first established in 2003. The practice since has been to send a retired military officer, usually at the rank of a major-general, to serve as the unofficial military liaison officer in Taipei.
The first to take the post was Yoichi Nagano. The most recent attaché was Watanabe, who retired from the military in 2016 and served in that position until May 2021.
There is no time to waste. The backdrop is now one of a significant increase in Chinese military exercises and growing incursions by the PLA — which Taiwan’s Defense Ministry warned could be used as cover for a future invasion.
Taipei and Tokyo should also immediately establish a hotline for the two militaries to communicate directly with one another. At the very least they must have the capacity to communicate the rapidly increasing number of sorties from the PLA Air Force that fly over areas of the East China Sea, to help enhance domain awareness when Taiwanese and Japanese fighters scramble in response to these incursions.
The JSDF’s military communications operators in Okinawa cannot communicate directly with Taiwanese authorities. It wouldn’t be hard to imagine an accident involving JSDF, Taiwan Air Force, and the PLA Air Force that could very easily spiral out of control.
The role of the United States remains pivotal. In the absence of a Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) in Japan, observers argue that the role of the US-Japan security alliance must serve as the foundation for enhancing Japan-Taiwan security cooperation.
As Kato observed: “The need for this trilateral framework stems from Japan’s limits, having only ‘working relations on a non-governmental basis’ with Taiwan, a consequence of switching its diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing five decades ago, when the expectation for the relationship with China was much more optimistic.”
Well-informed US analysts pushing for more ambitious goals for Taiwan- Japan defense cooperation have recognized the starting point. Such as? It would include cooperation among the amphibious forces, or joint training (on US bases), missile defense activities, North Korea sanctions enforcement operations, or even joint escort missions.
Col. (ret.) Grant Newsham, a retired U.S. Marine officer and Senior Fellow with the Center for Security Policy, argued for defense talks between Taiwan and Japan. He stated at the time that the two sides should “[s]tart by exchanging liaison officers.”
It remains to be seen whether all the actions Newsham recommended could be reasonably adopted by the Japanese side, but the first step of direct exchanges remains the most critical.
As Beijing ratchets up its pressure campaign against Taiwan, Washington’s approach has undergone a noticeable shift. In a recent Congressional testimony, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Indo-Pacific Affairs Ely Ratner described Taiwan as an “anchor” in the US network of allies and partners in the Indo-Pacific. This approach conceptually embeds Taiwan in a broader Asia strategy as opposed to limiting it as a subset of its China policy.
This is remarkable not because it indicates a fundamental change in US policy, but it does reflect a change in its conceptual approach to Taiwan that began under the Trump administration and has continued under the Biden administration.
Furthermore, it signals a clear recognition by the United States of the grave consequences if Taiwan were to become annihilated by China through use of military force. The consequences, which could be far -ranging, could unhinge the US alliance network that has kept peace and stability in the Western Pacific.
This is also why it is essential for US allies and partners to have effective mechanisms to consult and coordinate with Taiwan. This may be related to why a tabletop exercise that included teams of former government and military officials from the United States, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan recommended: “Expand Japan’s and South Korea’s mechanisms to consult and coordinate with Taiwan so they resemble the robust connection between the United States and Taiwan.”
To its credit, Japan has been talking the talk, now it’s time for Tokyo to walk the walk as well. It’s high-time for direct high-level security dialogue between Tokyo and Taipei.
Author: Russell Hsiao
Russell Hsiao is the executive director of the Global Taiwan Institute in Washington, DC, senior fellow at The Jamestown Foundation, and an adjunct fellow at the Honolulu-based Pacific Forum. The views expressed in this op-ed are his own.