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SPF China Observer


No.50 2024/04/15

Japan-Taiwan Military Cooperation in a Taiwan Strait Crisis (Part3) -Direction of Japan-Taiwan Military Cooperation in a Taiwan Strait Crisis -

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

3. Direction of Japan-Taiwan Military Cooperation in a Taiwan Strait Crisis

Several questions emerge when reconsidering a Taiwan Strait crisis.

○ The Ball is in Japan’s Court – Response to a Potential Taiwan Strait Crisis

A Taiwan Strait crisis will be initiated by China, with the aim of “changing the status quo by force.” In this crisis, since the battlefield will extend to the East China Sea and waters and airspace around Taiwan, Japan will basically have to deal with this as its own contingency, invoking its right to individual self-defense. Although the extent of U.S. involvement in such a crisis is still uncertain, this will occur as the consummation of the U.S.-China rivalry. In this situation, Japan will have the obligation to provide direct or indirect military cooperation to its ally, the U.S., under the Guidelines for Japan-U.S. Defense Cooperation.

Similar to Russia’s intimidation of the neighboring countries during its invasion of Ukraine, when China launches a military invasion of Taiwan, it will sternly intimidate Japan by asserting that, “The unification of Taiwan is China’s internal affair. If Japan participates in any form of military intervention relating to Taiwan’s reunification by the U.S. and other countries, it will be regarded as a major threat to China’s security and become a target of attacks, including by nuclear weapons.” Japan’s explanation of its domestic policy, including the three non-nuclear principles, will be meaningless in the face of China’s nuclear threat. It will have to choose between two policy options: “be subservient to China or fight against China with the U.S.”

It is not realistic for Japan, a non-nuclear power that does not even have a full-scale military by international standards, to respond singlehandedly to the military threat from China, which possesses nuclear arms. The rational option will be to invoke the Japan-U.S. alliance to fight with its ally, the U.S., to safeguard its security. It goes without saying that the people’s support will be indispensable for this policy option since this will bring about a national crisis in which Japan may become a target of China’s nuclear attack.

The Japanese people – including, of course, the political leaders – have minimal basic knowledge of security. This lack of basic knowledge for them to think about a national crisis is because there has not been any need for them to seriously consider national security as a personal matter, and there have been no broad-ranging educational and research efforts. Relations between the political and military authorities, which constitute the core of strategies and tactics in a national crisis, have also been regarded as taboo. There has not been any real effort to face this issue squarely. The way Japan responded to the Great East Japan Earthquake and the Covid pandemic shows that Japan, as a nation and as a society, is extremely vulnerable in a national crisis. Governance regarding the structures, legal systems, and organizational culture for protecting the people during a national crisis is decisively insufficient. Even during the drafting of the three new strategic documents in 2022, there was hardly any extensive basic debate on security in the Diet and elsewhere, which was decisively lacking in Japan. As the premise for thinking about a national crisis, every Japanese citizen needs to know about the basic theories of national security, such as the concept of state, why is national defense necessary, and the fact that the defense of the country comes with risks.

One of the major lessons learned from Japan’s defeat in the Pacific War is that there was hardly any (open) discussion of major security issues by the administration, the military, the Diet, and the people in the 1930s, and these four sectors did not share a common understanding. Japan was dragged into starting the war by the opinion of certain hardliners despite the awareness that Japan would lose the war. The situation is almost the same at present; no national debate—i.e. discussion in the Diet or among the people—is taking place on the basic direction of Japan’s security (for example, how to deal with China’s nuclear threat in concrete terms).

Deliberations in the Diet so far on a Taiwan Strait crisis seem to have mostly consisted of theories of what should be—such as “if a Taiwan Strait crisis occurs, that will be the end of Japan, so the only important thing is to prevent such a crisis”—and abstract discussions. The U.S. may possibly not get deeply involved in this crisis. China will continue to exist after a Taiwan Strait crisis, and while the U.S.-China relationship may become hostile for a while, they will continue to maintain a certain level of state relationship. How should Japan, which is geopolitically close to China and bound to face China’s military threat directly, deal with such a situation? The political leaders have a serious responsibility to explain to the people why Japan must fight against China to win their understanding and support.

○ Demonstrate the Presence of a Strong U.S.-Japan Alliance to Prevent the PLA’s Overconfidence that It Can Defeat the U.S. Forces in a War

Due to constraints under the Japanese Constitution, the Self-Defense Forces (SDF) does not have a proper role in the state structure as a profession with national defense responsibilities. The political leaders, SDF commanders, and the people do not also share a common basic concept of the relation between politics and the military. Therefore, a strong relationship of trust has not developed between the political leaders and the commanders of the SDF, the only armed forces in Japan, rendering them unable to effectively engage in candid exchange of views in the process of policymaking for a national crisis. China knows fully well the relationship between the political and military authorities in Japan and the situation of the SDF that cannot function as a military force meeting international standards.

There is a deep-rooted thinking among the Japanese political leaders and people that prioritizes security from the SDF rather than security by the SDF.[2] For this reason, the focus of policy has been to routinely impose legal and customary constraints on the SDF’s activities. Furthermore, with the U.S.’s protection under the Japan-U.S. alliance after World War II, Japan has had the good fortune of not experiencing any national crisis that required large-scale SDF operations. The Japanese political leaders have not had to think seriously about the relationship between politics and the military to ensure that the SDF acts appropriately and explain this to the people to win their understanding.

The SDF’s role during the Cold War era was to project a certain degree of presence in cooperation with the U.S. forces to contain the military threat from the hypothetical adversary, the Soviet Union. Although asymmetrical, the Japan-U.S. alliance functioned effectively, particularly in terms of cooperation in personnel and supplies. At the same time, the stable strategic environment provided by the bilateral alliance during the Cold War era prevented any serious sense of threat among the people, so there was no in-depth national debate on the significance of the SDF. Furthermore, under the U.S.-Soviet system of nuclear deterrence, it was unrealistic to envision a contingency where Japan would actually be embroiled in a war. Therefore, reviewing issues relating to invoking the right of self-defense in a contingency was a low policy priority.

Provisions on joint Japan-U.S. response to a contingency in Japan were first concretized (formalized) under the 1978 Guidelines for Japan-U.S. Defense Cooperation. However, a contingency in the Far East was not included out of domestic political considerations in Japan. After the end of the Cold War, through the “redefinition of the Japan-U.S. alliance” in 1996, the role of the Japan-U.S. alliance was changed radically from an alliance against a specific hypothetical adversary to an alliance for the maintenance of order and stability in Asia-Pacific. Although the revision of the Guidelines for Japan-U.S. Defense Cooperation in 1997 opened the way to providing logistic support to U.S. forces in response to a Far East contingency, this failed to lay down rules premised on the exercise of the right to collective self-defense. The revision of the Guidelines in 2015 provided for response to contingencies in the East China Sea, South China Sea, and the Korean Peninsula, as well as full-fledged joint efforts to tackle issues in new areas, such as cyberspace and the outer space, and in terms of defense equipment and technical cooperation.

The reinterpretation of the right to collective self-defense and the enactment of related laws in 2014-15 was a reform mainly meant to rectify the deficiencies in joint operations under the bilateral alliance. With this reform, the legal basis for joint operations by the SDF and the U.S. forces in a contingency was finally put in place, and the paradigm of the hitherto asymmetrical Japan-U.S. military cooperation is changing rapidly. China has watched these changes impassively and has often voiced its displeasure.

While reforms for the effective functioning of the Japan-U.S. alliance have been implemented through the reinterpretation of the right to collective self-defense and the legislation of related laws, Japan has only achieved incomplete reforms to enable it to use its defense capabilities properly, since a review of the standards for invoking the right of self-defense in a contingency, which requires constitutional revisions, has not taken place. In order to project the presence of a strong Japan-U.S. alliance, the two countries need to draw up plans for joint operations and conduct exercises and training. Above all, fundamental legal reforms that entail constitutional revisions are needed to transform the SDF into a full-scale military force by international standards in order for Japan to use its defense capabilities properly. This is precisely what China is most wary of and also the most effective means of deterrence and response that Japan can hope to achieve.

○ How Not to Fight a Short-Term War with China but Engage in a Protracted War

With Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the international community faced the reality of a nuclear power starting a war that clearly violates international law. In Ukraine, the majority of the people support the war against major power Russia to safeguard the country’s sovereignty, and the Ukrainian forces are fighting courageously. After the end of six years of U.S. military occupation in 1951 and the signing of the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty, Japan has entrusted its security to the U.S. and built a free, prosperous, and secure country for more than 70 years. However, the historical experience of Europe and America clearly shows that no matter how close an alliance relationship is, if a country is unable to make appropriate self-reliant efforts with the understanding and support of its people in a national crisis, its national policy will fail. In a national crisis, it is important for the people to be prepared to fight for independence (sovereignty) and peace, i.e. to win their understanding and support for the self-reliant efforts.

If a Taiwan Strait crisis actually occurs, the people’s preparedness to fight is crucial. According to a recent opinion poll conducted by Gallup International, in answer to the question “if your country (Japan) is embroiled in a war, will you fight for your country (Japan)?” only 13.2% of Japanese respondents answered in the affirmative, a very low percentage compared to other countries, where a majority of the people answered “yes.” This survey result has remained unchanged at the 10% level since 2000. The figure for Germany, which suffered a crushing defeat in World War II like Japan but now has a heightened sense of nationhood as the leader of EU, was 44.8% in 2020, and this has increased further after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

For sure, members of the SDF will be the ones to take up arms to fight in a contingency in Japan, and there are only a handful of Japanese who have the training and experience of the SDF who are able to fight in the battlefield. In the opinion poll, the respondents were only asked about preparedness to fight for the country (Japan), so most people do not necessarily have to take up arms, and they are only asked if they are willing to offer as much cooperation and support as possible, including moral support. It is clear that because of Japan’s bitter experience with the defeat in the Pacific War, a majority of Japanese do not want to have anything to do with war and are not keen to become soldiers or send others to the battlefield. It is also a fact that SDF officers have low social status, and many people are critical of the SDF’s work. Furthermore, public and higher education in Japan still takes place in an educational and research environment that distances itself from the military and is very far from contributing to forming a sense of nationhood.

Whether the people are prepared to fight in a national crisis and whether they have great trust in the SDF as armed forces directly affects the success and failure of all SDF operations. Generally speaking, the level of the people’s trust in the armed forces can be heightened by its performance, or actual military operations; professionalism, or military expertise shown by heroes in the battlefield; and persuasion, which is synonymous with accountability. The most important factor here is military victory in actual battle. In the first place, most Japanese people who have a very flimsy sense of nationhood are resigned to helplessness that nothing could be done if a national crisis occurs. What is notable in the above opinion poll on preparedness to fight is that unlike people of other countries, a majority of Japanese respondents answered, “I don’t know.” It is conceivable that if the SDF resists and confronts an overwhelming force tenaciously, this will bring about a dramatic change in the people’s national consciousness, fortifying their will to fight and enhancing their trust in the SDF.

The result of the early phase of the SDF’s battle is very important for sustained response to a Taiwan Strait crisis. Witnessing the SDF’s heroism in battle may deepen the people’s consciousness of a national crisis for the first time and cause them to be prepared to fight. (As stated earlier, while being fully aware that the SDF lacks the basis and support to fight as a military force by international standards,) it must not lose one-sidedly in a battle visible to the people, must prevent China from winning in the short term, and must make its presence felt by counterattacking to a certain extent. In the foreseeable future, although Japan’s ally, the U.S., will become a “not so strong power” that is no longer almighty, it will still have fully sufficient power to fight with Japan. However, the U.S. will only intervene in international conflicts and dispatch its forces premised on the pursuit of its own national interest. The key to winning a protracted war is for Japan to be prepared to fight and make its own self-reliant efforts first in order to ensure that the Japan-U.S. alliance will function effectively and the U.S. will get involved in a Taiwan Strait crisis.

○ Is Japan-Taiwan Military Cooperation Realistic?

The SDF needs to produce maximum military results in its operations for the Japan-U.S. alliance to function effectively in peacetime, in gray zone situations, and in contingencies. That Japan brings the SDF’s defense capabilities into full play properly when necessary is the U.S.’s topmost expectation in Japan as an ally, and this is the basis of the U.S.’s profound trust in Japan. Issues relating to the full functioning of the bilateral alliance in a Taiwan Strait crisis are as discussed above. The point is to clearly recognize this crisis not as China’s internal affair but as a confrontation between China and Japan, the U.S., and its partners.

For now, since Japan does not have official diplomatic relations with Taiwan, the party in this crisis, and the actions of the SDF as armed forces are subject to strict internal constraints, it is unlikely for Japan to provide active military cooperation other than humanitarian aid. However, if a Taiwan Strait crisis does occur, Taiwan will probably appeal to the world to rescue Taiwan, a democratic state. From the geopolitical point of view, it is inevitable that Japan will be embroiled in this crisis. It will find itself in a position identical to the European countries (NATO) in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. It is a matter of course that Taiwan is expected to seek Japan’s military cooperation through all available channels.

Faced with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, NATO as a whole criticized Russia’s attempt to “change the status quo by force” as a blatant violation of international law and demanded an immediate end to the hostilities. It has been providing material and moral support to Ukraine through direct supply of weapons and ammunitions and other means. Theoretically, once a Taiwan Strait crisis comes to pass, Japan will become an affected country and will be required to provide military support way above NATO’s support for Ukraine by providing weapons, ammunitions, surveillance data, and so forth. It will be necessary to sign an acquisition and cross servicing agreement (ACSA) for a contingency quickly. Needless to say, since this will mean the opening of hostilities with a nuclear power, Japan will rely strongly on the U.S.’s extended nuclear deterrence, while it will also be necessary for it to consider counterattacks with long-range missiles on the source of attacks on the Chinese mainland if mainland Japan is attacked directly.

In concrete terms, after weathering cyberattacks and saturation missile attacks from China in the early stage of the war, offensive operations by ground, naval, and air forces based on Japan-U.S. joint operation plans to repel the cross-Strait operation by China’s ground forces to occupy Taiwan will be the main thrust. Using force to secure naval and air supremacy in the East China Sea will be the focus of self-reliant efforts. At the same time, sustained efforts must also be made for military cooperation, such as by providing logistic support for the U.S. forces’ actions and direct protection of U.S. military bases.

In this situation, military information sharing between Japan and Taiwan will be very effective in light of the advantage enjoyed by the U.S., Japan, and Taiwan in terms of information. While setting up a hotline at the political level is important, in the event of actual conflict, it will be necessary to build lines of communication between the SDF joint command and the ROC Armed Forces General Staff Headquarters for information sharing at an early date. The first step in military cooperation with Taiwan is to put in place the means and rules for information sharing. It must be understood that when a Taiwan Strait crisis occurs, unrealistic Japan-Taiwan military cooperation will become inherently realistic.

2 Ryoichi Oriki, Former Top SDF Officer on Responsibility to Defend the Country, (in Japanese) PHP Institute, Inc., 2015, pp. 163-164

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