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SPF China Observer

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SPF China Observer


No.48 2024/04/09

Japan-Taiwan Military Cooperation in a Taiwan Strait Crisis (Part1) -Background of Taiwan Strait Crisis (Underlying Causes) -

Masayuki Hironaka (Former Senior Fellow, Center for a New American Security (CNAS))

1. Background of Taiwan Strait Crisis (Underlying Causes)

China shares a national border with 14 countries. It is a vast country enclosed by a long coastline with the world’s largest population. It takes great pride in its long history and unique culture, and its bitter experience of being semi-colonized in the 19th century has given rise to the Chinese people’s strong will and nationalism to bolster its national power. The U.S. regards China as a “country aiming to change the status quo by force.” It believes that China is using its economic growth and rising military power for territorial expansion and extension of its influence in Asia. The legitimacy of the policies of the Communist Party of China (CPC) is to be proven by sustained remarkable economic growth and the realization of one China by reunifying Taiwan, which has been an issue since the founding of the People’s Republic of China. Therefore, the reunification of Taiwan is a core interest for the CPC and the most important remaining issue in validating the legitimacy of the CPC regime.

Considering the historical fact that China has engaged in armed invasion and resorted to violence several times in the 70 years since the CPC came to power, it is indeed a country seeking to change the status quo by force. In the current fiscal year, China has earmarked a defense budget of 34.8 trillion yen, ranking second in the world. Its defense spending has been growing steadily every year, and it has strengthened and modernized its nuclear capability, as well as significantly reinforced its long-range offensive capability. In 1996, during the so-called Third Taiwan Strait Crisis, China launched missiles and conducted large-scale military exercises to apply tremendous military pressure on Taiwan. During this crisis, the U.S. dispatched two carrier strike groups to the Taiwan Strait, thus demonstrating its impregnable naval and air supremacy over the Taiwan Strait. The CPC leaders and commanders of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) were overwhelmed by the U.S.’s powerful military presence. Realizing that military power that can beat the U.S. forces is absolutely necessary for the reunification of Taiwan, China started to rapidly strengthen its military power under the strategic goal of anti-access/area denial (A2/AD).

The purpose of the A2/AD strategy favored by China is to prevent and reject the involvement of third countries, particularly the U.S., until it makes the occupation of Taiwan – which it considers to be a core interest – a fait accompli. Specifically, its goal is to deny access to the operational areas in waters around Taiwan, the East China Sea, and the South China Sea. The envisioned means for achieving this is not to confront the superior naval and air capabilities of the U.S. and its allies head-on, but to adopt an asymmetric approach. This asymmetric approach consists of winning the cyber and space war and fighting the war by using its overwhelming number of missiles effectively. First, it will disrupt the command and control (C2) and information, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) functions of the U.S. and its allies in cyberspace and the outer space. Next, it will prevent the access of U.S. naval and air forces to the operational areas through attacks with mid-range and cruise missiles, an area where the PLA has a decisive advantage. As a result, it can achieve supremacy and deny territorial access inside the First Island Chain. Finally, it is expected to launch a cross-Strait invasion by its ground troops to occupy Taiwan.

The latest opinion poll in Taiwan, where China intends to achieve peaceful or armed reunification, shows that while the Taiwanese do not want war with China, 84% of the people hope to become independent from China. Although the Taiwan armed forces have some 140,000 ground troops (with around 1.66 million reservists in case of a contingency), a naval force consisting of about 390 ships, and an air force with some 500 relatively modernized aircraft, China’s military power is absolutely superior to Taiwan’s in terms of the military balance between China and Taiwan.[1]

  1. While China has overwhelming advantage in terms of ground forces, it has limited capability to land and invade Taiwan at present. However, China has been building large landing craft and steadily upgrading its landing invasion capability in recent years.
  2. China enjoys an absolute quantitative advantage in naval and air capabilities, and it has been rapidly modernizing its naval and air forces in recent years to enhance quality, where Taiwan has had an edge over China so far.
  3. With regard to offensive missile capability, while Taiwan has been reinforcing its ballistic missile defense capability, e.g., PAC-3, China has an overwhelming number of short- and mid-range ballistic missiles that can reach Taiwan, which has no effective means to counteract them.

The U.S. is the only country in the world with the will and means to get involved in all conflicts. It regards China, the protagonist in the Taiwan Strait crisis, as the number one threat in its foreign policy strategy. Experts in the security policy community came up with the concept of hundred-year war (marathon) between the U.S. and China during the last days of the Obama administration. China is called a “pacing threat” in English, in analogy with a marathon in which the U.S. is running with a comfortable lead until midway in the race but suddenly finds China closing in eerily behind it and watching avidly for a chance to put on a spurt toward the homestretch.

According to the CIA’s annual report, if the U.S. does nothing about this situation, it will be overtaken by China as the number one economic power (GDP) in the world in 2035, and China will also overtake its military power in the 2040s. Subsequently, China will enter a period of maturation, in which its national power will decline. While the U.S. will rebound as the number one power by 2050, the question of what to do in the 15 years from 2035 to 2050 is widely regarded as an issue of great concern in the U.S. security policy community which espouses realism.

The U.S. strategy toward China is based on the realist thinking that if the U.S. uses its full power to confront China at present, China will suffer relatively greater damages, even though the U.S. will also be somewhat hurt, thus delaying China’s overtaking of the U.S., and if everything goes well, China may not even be able to overtake the U.S. This strategy is a war to achieve hegemonism in advanced technology, and it is a bi-partisan and all-America endeavor involving all government departments. The U.S. national security policy community’s greatest interest is developing a concrete strategy toward China and upgrading the U.S. forces’ response capability. The current Democratic administration will also have to work on this.

Furthermore, a report published by security researchers in December 2022, Danger Zone: Coming Conflict with China, recommends that, The U.S. must prepare for a sprint competition with China because the U.S.-China relationship is not a marathon but a sprint, and the economic downturn in China will rattle the CPC, resulting in a possible Taiwan Strait crisis toward the end of the 2020s. Such a crisis will occur when China has a strong motive to use force not only against Taiwan but neighboring countries as well, in order to punish Japan, India, and the Philippines or to subjugate democratic Taiwan even at the risk of going to war against the U.S. There is a greater possibility for a Taiwan Strait crisis to occur as a result of a calculated policy decision by the CPC than as a result of an accidental flareup between the U.S. and China. As a matter of fact, a considerable number of experts in the security policy community maintain that to prepare for such a crisis, the top priority for now is for the U.S. forces to strengthen its quick reaction capability.

1 Ministry of Defense, Defense of Japan 2023, Nikkei Printing Inc., July 2023, pp. 94
Hal Brands, Michael Beckley, DANGER ZONE: The Coming Conflict with China, W W Norton & Co Inc., August 2022.

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