Talk about China’s predatory behavior has echoed insistently in the halls of the White House. The Communist Party under President Xi Jinping is more aggressive and coercive, yet has a veneer of approachability and humbleness. It is a foreign policy projection that is as intriguing as it is unstable and dangerous. Continuing racial targeting in Xinjiang and aggressive behaviors in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and the South China Sea, alongside impressive military advances and increased control of cyberspace, has made Washington officials contemplate expanding military relations with Japan to create a stronger presence in Asia. They should.
If America and China ever plunge into war, it will be over Taiwan. Robert D. Blackwill, a Council on Foreign Relations fellow for U.S. foreign policy, interprets the Taiwan problem as “the most dangerous flash point in the world.”
The Chinese government envisions Taiwan as part of its mainland province, though many in Taiwan feel as though they are a separate nation. For the past four decades, the United States has played a critical role in deterring China from using force against Taiwan through military and diplomatic finesse. Though 2015, 2018, and 2019 saw critical changes that challenged regional stability.
First, China sought to possess a stronger military to back its bolder foreign policy. This included establishing the Strategic Support Force in 2015 that managed the PLA’s cyberwarfare, space operations, and other high-tech missions. In March 1996, the US government responded to China firing missiles around Taiwan by staging the largest display of American force in Asia since the Vietnam War. While China lost an important opportunity to project its strength, it did gain vital knowledge: speed is everything. Funding advances in cyberspace enabled faster assaults, which during battle would include splintering data flow and other critical networks of communication.
Three years later, Beijing demanded that international companies remove Taiwan as an independent country on their websites. The threat of blocking those corporations from conducting lucrative business in China prompted high-profiled hotels, manufacturing agencies, and airlines, including Marriott and Aston Martin, to comply with the PRC’s regulations. This exacerbated a year of depleting economic growth in Taiwan and demonstrated China’s ability to single-handedly strongarm private actors into political compliance based on its utilization of social platforms and economic prowess alone.
Yet economic measures were not the only form of pressure. The following year, the PLA flew aircrafts around Taiwan near daily for months as part of a larger concerted effort to subjugate the island, prompting Taiwanese officials to respond by readying its naval and air patrols. A senior Taiwanese security official responsible for intelligence on China told Reuters that this had indicated a “clear shift” in Beijing’s posture. Ambitions that were once theorized and blueprinted became tangible plans for military action.
The risk of conflict ensuing in the region significantly heightened for the first time in decades.
Xi Jinping’s predecessors were content with keeping the status of Taiwan unresolved in order to focus on economic and military growth. Yet, Xi has pivoted towards a more aggressive stance, letting go of a long-time Chinese ideal of maintaining a low international profile and instead has begun to more overtly provoke its neighboring countries. Under his leadership, China has militarized the South China Sea, challenged Japanese claims to the Diaoyu/Senakaku islands while simultaneously improving China’s missile and radar systems in the region, and has engaged in border clashes with India.
America has reacted by intensifying its commitment to Taipei, with Pentagon spokesman John Kirby saying: “We have obligations to assist Taiwan with their self-defence and I think you’re going to see that continue.”
Late last month, the Taiwanese Defense Ministry reported fifteen Chinese aircraft had interfered in Taiwan’s air defense identification zone. This marked the twentieth intrusion in January alone and prompted the Biden administration to urge Beijing to stop pressuring Taiwan.
In a period of intensifying strategic competition, conflict whose nature is just below the threshold of major war has become known as the gray zone. The surge in saber-rattling suggests that Beijing will continue provoking Taipei using a gray zone strategy. While subversions of political systems and covert paramilitary operations have historic roots, China is using a new collection of tactics, notably in the cyber sector, that are challenging US and allied interests in novel ways.
Accordingly, Biden has reaffirmed China as one of his administration’s top priorities. With the PRC’s increasing hawkish behavior, President Biden should urge America’s Indo-Pacific allies to prepare for a contingency with China over Taiwan. Even if war is unlikely to ensue anytime soon, the rapidity of China’s economic growth, their military improvements, and command in cyberspace capabilities should mobilize America and its Asian partners to address and anticipate evermore aggressive threats posed by the PRC.
Taking measures to signal military preparedness and rallying crucial allies, such as India and Australia, is a necessary deterrent against advancing aggression towards Taiwan. This flashpoint is perilous. Without sufficient deterrence, China will dramatically increase its advances towards Taiwan over the next decade, which Ian Easton, Senior Director at the Project 2049, claims could lead to “an all-out invasion and a superpower war.”
A preferred Chinese strategy would involve cyberattacks against financial infrastructure and US ballistic missile-detecting radars. Vital maritime supply lines would also be intersected. The actual invasion would include PLA warships and submarines traversing across the Taiwan strait, enabling some tens of thousands of soldiers to capture strategic points that would be valuable for staging a larger attack. Taiwan, armed with thousands of surface-to-air missiles and anti-aircraft guns, in turn would inflict tremendous damage on the Chinese before any vessel would reach the island. The “next five to ten years,” Easton states, “are going to be dangerous ones.”
The alliance between America and Japan has been dubbed “the most important bilateral relationship in the world, bar none” by former US Senator Mike Mansfield. The relationship between the United States and Japan is crucial in deterring the possibility of Chinese military action against Taiwan, which in turn would place US forces in Japan at risk, and likely Japan itself.
At the heart of an effective US-Japanese deterrence force are robust warfighting capabilities. Jeffrey W. Hornung at RAND makes a compelling argument that this can be achieved in three ways: establishing legal authorization for the use of force, defining Japan’s supporting role for US operations in Taiwan via a joint-operational plan, and ensuring that Japan’s current munition and fuel stocks can sustain a campaign against the People’s Liberation Army.
Japan’s Self-Defense Forces (SDF) can assist the United States in critical areas, but is restricted in terms of its capabilities and legal authorization. Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution renounces the threat or use of force to settle international disputes and prohibits the maintenance of armed services. Pacifists have claimed that the SDF itself is unconstitutional under these guidelines, but the government views the SDF as legitimate so long as it is used for defensive purposes─hence the use of “Self-Defense” in its name.
Former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe set in motion historic shifts by increasing defense spending after years of decline and reinterpreting the constitution to allow Japanese troops to fight overseas for the first time since 1945. This year, Japan’s government approved the ninth straight annual increase in defense spending and is buying American stealth fighters, interceptor missiles, and other equipment to counter military build-ups in its region.
Although these changes may not appear drastic, they signal that Japan is beginning to react to a shifting geopolitical landscape that is increasingly being reshaped by a revisionist China and nuclear-armed North Korea. It is expected that Japan’s intensifying security environment will continue to energize reevaluations of Article 9 so that Japan can have more flexibility in its response to an evolving and increasingly uncertain battlefield.
For the time being, Article 9 remains in place. This prevents Japan from possessing weapons that could provide critical assistance in regional contingencies, such as ICBMs and long-range bombers. Despite doctrinal disagreements over what resources Japan could use in a military escalation with China, Article 72 grants the prime minister authority over decisions relating to the SDF, which means Yoshihide Suga’s interpretations of adversarial aggression influences what resources the SDF could mobilize in conflict.
However, the SDF has never been involved in combat, which means Suga would need to define what circumstances would warrant the SDF to exercise force. Even better, Suga should define what circumstances generated by the PLA specifically would permit Japan to use SDF capabilities. The United States in turn would need to outline what support it would request from Japan in order for Suga to prepare for legal authorization. The stakes of this are considerable: defining joint-plans will frame how the United States and Japan approach China using allies and partners and it will decide what wartime policies will be developed.
Japan’s constitutional restrictions on its deployment of its armed forces raises questions of how the SDF’s capabilities would be used to support American efforts in a contingency involving Taiwan.
In a time of crisis, Suga will need to ensure that Japan and America can align their political and operational timelines. Japan would need to guarantee that the legal frameworks are in place to use the right resources and services against a China that is more aggressive, dominant in cyberspace, and has a tighter grip of the seas. For example, diversifying and enhancing the defense of Japanese airfields would increase the survivability of Japan’s forces while enabling America to have more options for accessing Tokyo’s bases. This matters not only in terms of strategic posturing and wartime planning, but it is expected to require that China expend munition resources and exert more effort trying to locate alternative air bases.
Meanwhile, America could assist the SDF by improving their capabilities in case of a regional contingency, such as enhancing electronic attacks and unmanned assets. Japanese leaders should also consider hosting US systems or, at the very least, strategizing how the United States might deploy those systems to Japan in rapid speed if conflict erupts.
While America and Japan revised defensive guidelines that define their joint military roles and ambitions, the actual alliance remains structurally-unchanged. This is a problem. A rapidly-evolving battle space necessitates closer allied cooperation that should mirror the type of military structures seen in the US-NATO, US-ROK, and US-Australian alliances. Each of these relations arguably benefit from high levels of institutionalization that link political and military structures which allows for better cross-national discussion and coordination.
With restrictions in place, critics argue that Japan should not engage in military preparations to confront the PRC: regardless of what Tokyo plans, their defense forces’ restrictions makes it an easy target for an expansive Chinese military.
A Beijing triumph is not a guarantee and should not restrict Japan from taking measures to enhance its readiness for an entanglement that might emerge in a decade?two decades? More and more Japanese citizens realize their neighborhood is becoming increasingly dangerous, which is breaking up the decades long tradition of pacifism in the country. Japan can take the right measures to create and increase offensive and defensive capabilities while the time permits, including forging stronger alliances and enhancing warfighting capabilities.
Japan might take inspiration from China in terms of creating global and regional alliances to address America in critical areas such as global economic governance. Tokyo should look towards its neighbors to forge cohesive measures to address the PRC─many of which would be receptive to aligning with America as an offshore balancer. Japan has the United States, India, Australia, and, importantly, Taiwan to work alongside with.
A possible challenge would be instigating a regional arms race with Beijing. Even if Japan were to have a more forward posture, such as introducing ships dedicated to missile defense or purchasing offensive capabilities, China’s response would not significantly differ from their current plans, which are to expand their military potentialities in air, water, and now cyberspace domains alongside establishing greater regional alliances. As of last week, the PRC is trying to increase defensive partnership with its Southeast Asian neighbors by starting joint exercises between the Chinese and Singapore navies. Japan must be cautious, but it cannot be passive as China makes critical moves that will ultimately shape the geopolitics of the region. Suga needs to take strategic measures to firm up a balancing coalition.
The utility of security alliances to manage regional military dilemmas, while imperfect, presents a better alternative than the current, more volatile situation, which sees two major countries in a weakened position against the PRC: one confined to act defensively, while the other is militarily underprepared. Forming partnerships and continuing to reassess Japan’s force capabilities will be critical in forging a robust plan to deter a contingency with China.
Hornung summed up the need for broader strategic initiatives nicely when he said: “the longer these efforts are put off, the steeper the challenges could become for future administrations.”
America and Japan should be prepared for increased Chinese aggressions in Taiwan. While the expectations of war occurring anytime soon are low, the PRC has demonstrated their abilities to make significant growth in record time. Efforts should be taken to enhance the US-Japanese warfighting capability in preparation for growing Chinese hostilities in Taiwan. Though limitations persist, reevaluations of Japan’s constitution has allowed for new opportunities to cooperate with the United States in important contingency planning areas.
While the Biden administration will find difficulty in addressing this issue in a timely fashion, the President and his advisers must initiate critical attention to its Indo-Pacific allies, particularly Japan, to ensure that they have the capabilities to fight a regional contingency.
This post was originally published on Oxford Political Review under the title, “America and Japan Should Prepare for a Contingency with China over Taiwan.”