The U.S. Military Could Not Handle a Taiwan Crisis by Itself

Seiji Fuji

The Taiwan situation has changed greatly over the past 52 years

 On June 9, the Morning Edition of The Sankei Shimbun newspaper ran an article on the top of its front page entitled, “American Military Concerned About Defending Taiwan: Military Power Balance Has Reversed Over the Past Half Century, China Confident it Can Recover Taiwan by Force.” It read:

As a Chinese invasion of Taiwan seems increasingly possible, there is growing concern among United States Armed Forces leaders and American experts that the American military would not be able to handle a crisis in Taiwan on its own. This sense of danger is why the U.S.-Japan Joint Leaders’ Statement of April clearly referred to Taiwan for the first time in the 52 years since 1969. China is gaining the predominant position in the military balance compared to 1969, and the U.S. is stepping up its support of the democratized Taiwan. Japan is also being asked to take an active role.
Multiple leaders in the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command predicted in March that China will invade Taiwan. Based on this, specialists in various countries have released analyses about the possibility of an emergency in Taiwan. Among these, the piece by Stanford University researcher Oriana Skylar Mastro in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs, an American magazine, has drawn particular attention. She writes, “[Chinese President] Xi [Jinping] is surrounded by military advisers who tell him with confidence that China can now regain Taiwan by force at an acceptable cost.” This piece sounds a warning that Chinese leaders may overestimate China’s abilities and decide to invade Taiwan.
Amidst this growing tension about the Taiwan issue, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and American President Joe Biden emphasized the importance of peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait when they met in April. Their Joint Leaders’ Statement clearly mentioned Taiwan for the first time since November 1969, when then-Prime Minister Eisaku Sato and President Richard Nixon released a Joint Statement upon their meeting in Washington, D.C.
The 1969 Joint Statement included the “Taiwan clause” in which “The Prime Minister said that the maintenance of peace and security in the Taiwan area was also a most important factor for the security of Japan.” However, the situation in Taiwan today is greatly different compared to that time.
Back then, the U.S. had concluded the Mutual Defense Treaty between the United States of America and the Republic of China with Taiwan, with which it had diplomatic relations. The U.S. Armed Forces were stationed in Taiwan, and U.S. Seventh Fleet (Yokosuka City, Kanagawa Prefecture) vessels regularly passed through the Taiwan Strait.
Under the dictatorial system led by the Chiang Kai-shek administration, Taiwan had a seat at the United Nations under the name of “China.” It was dedicated to its “Retaking the Mainland” plan – of regaining mainland China through force. At that time, Taiwan’s military force numbered nearly 600,000 soldiers, more than three times today’s number of about 175,000. China waged a military conflict with the Soviet Union over Damansky (Zhenbao) Island in March 1969. Faced with this threat to the north, China could not afford to invade Taiwan.
The Sato administration was asking for the U.S. to return Okinawa to Japan. The use of the American base in Okinawa, which was under American military control, was not subject to prior discussion according to Article VI of the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty. The American side asked for free use even after the reversion of Okinawa. The Japanese side included the Taiwan clause in the Joint Statement in order to negotiate the return of Okinawa, and because it needed to indicate its stance that it would allow use of the base in the event of a Taiwan crisis.
China is steadily obstructing approaches by the U.S. Navy

Today democracy has been established in Taiwan, and direct presidential elections have taken place since 1996. The Tsai Ing-wen government (Democratic Progressive Party) does not recognize China’s “one China” principle, including the concept that Taiwan is part of China. The Biden administration is increasing its participation and sees Taiwan as a partner that shares common values with the U.S.
Looking at the military balance between China and Taiwan, China is superior by far. For example, according to China’s defense budget for this fiscal year, even the publicly released number is 16 times larger than Taiwan’s budget. The Taiwanese Ministry of National Defense’s analysis states that China has the capability to invade Taiwanese offshore islands. The situation is the same in terms of the U.S. and China. The American RAND Corporation put out a report in September 2015 calculating that China would have the predominant position in the event of a Taiwan crisis, even if the U.S. Armed Forces intervened.
Since the U.S. cut off official relations with Taiwan in 1979, it has sold weapons to Taiwan according to its Taiwan Relations Act (a domestic law). At the same time, the U.S. has implemented an ambiguous strategy that does not clarify whether the U.S. would use military intervention in the event of a Taiwan emergency. However, some American researchers are recently saying that the U.S. should restrain China by clearly stating that it would utilize military intervention to oppose an armed Chinese invasion of Taiwan.
Japan is being asked to play a different role. Meikai University Professor Tetsuo Kotani, who is well versed in national security issues, said it could be supposed that a Chinese invasion of Taiwan would include an attack on the American military base in Okinawa. He stated, “A Taiwan crisis should be considered in terms of Japanese-American cooperation that would occur in the event of a crisis in Japan according to Article V of the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty.” He recommended formulating a Japanese-American joint operation plan for a Taiwan crisis, and suggested that “we must consider Japanese-Taiwanese defense cooperation as well.”

 The article included an illustration showing how the U.S. Armed Forces protected the area east of the dividing line in the Strait of Taiwan in 1969. However, the situation has changed today, and China is deploying weapons to prevent American aircraft carriers from approaching the “first island chain” that starts in Kyushu and runs east of Taiwan to the Philippines and Borneo. Moreover, China’s aim is to obstruct the U.S. Navy from intruding into the “second island chain” area (from the Izu Islands to the Ogasawara Islands, Guam, Saipan, and Papua New Guinea) to prevent it from providing reinforcements to Taiwan in the event of an emergency. To realize this, China has focused in particular on expanding its naval power since the Third Taiwan Strait Crisis in 1995. For instance, China had a dummy company in Macau purchase an unfinished Soviet aircraft carrier from Ukraine on the pretense of making it into a “floating casino.” China continually remodeled the carrier, completed it, and brought it into commission as the Liaoning, its first aircraft carrier, in 2012. Its first domestically produced carrier, the Shandong, came into service in 2019, and it has been reported that China is constructing another one today. These “achievements” are likely the reason for the viewpoint, as mentioned in the article, that sees the Chinese side as superior.

Japan would certainly be drawn into a Taiwan crisis

 The Asahi Shimbun began publishing a series of articles, “Major Powers in Conflict Over the Taiwan Strait,” on June 6. The first article was “Four Scenarios for a Sino-American Crisis.” It read:

● Full-scale invasion of Taiwan
Xi attended the commissioning ceremony for China’s first amphibious assault ship this April. It appears that this ship will play a central role in landing operations, and many believe it is a preparatory step towards an invasion of Taiwan.
China allowed two American carriers to be dispatched to the strait during the Taiwan Strait Crisis from 1995 to 1996. Having learned from that experience, in recent years China is rapidly enhancing its missile capabilities to prevent the U.S. Armed Forces from approaching this area. In addition to short-range missiles that can strike the Taiwan Strait, it has medium-range ballistic missiles to prevent intervention by the American military (including the U.S. Forces Japan) and Japan Self-Defense Forces (JSDF). These include the precision-guided DF-21, nicknamed the “carrier-killer.”
● Invasion of Taiwan’s offshore islands
It would be difficult for China to handle a conflict on three sides: invading Taiwan while also dealing with the U.S. Armed Forces and JSDF. Some have pointed out the possibility of China choosing a sea blockade to put economic pressure on Taiwan, or an invasion of the offshore islands that are effectively under Taiwanese control (such as the Pratas and Kinmen Islands), as a means to avoid American intervention. Japanese and American experts frequently discuss ways for coping with this scenario.
● Hybrid warfare
Experts point out the possibility of hybrid warfare combining cyber and information warfare.
During the Ukrainian crisis (including the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014), a cyberattack on important infrastructure hindered Ukraine’s ability to fight. Fake news was also spread to cause social turmoil, and pro-Russian forces were used to accomplish the operation with a minimal level of military strength.
Former National Security Secretariat Deputy Director General Nobukatsu Kanehara said, “China might emulate Russia by using cyber warfare to paralyze key facilities, cutting undersea cables, and crippling communications networks. China may induce the pro-Chinese faction in Taiwan while also sending in special forces to quickly settle this issue before American intervention.”
● Accidental clash
Top Ministry of Defense leaders have pointed out, “The most likely scenario is that an accidental event or clash might occur without either side intending an armed conflict, leading to full-fledged strife. The likelihood of this is growing.”
For instance, a U.S. Navy cruiser was gathering intelligence about the Chinese carrier Liaoning in the South China Sea in 2013. China warned the ship to leave the area, then a Chinese navy vessel quickly approached the American cruiser and blocked its route. With the two ships on the brink of a collision, the U.S. Navy avoided the Chinese ship, thereby preventing a crash.
In 2001, there was also an incident in which a U.S. Navy reconnaissance plane and a Chinese fighter aircraft collided in mid-air above the South China Sea.

 Of course, Japan would not be unaffected by an emergency in Taiwan according to any of these scenarios. Depending on what the American military does, an invasion of offshore islands or hybrid warfare could lead to a “serious situation” that has an important influence to Japan’s peace and security. And if the U.S. and China accidently ended up in a military conflict, the JSDF could exercise the right to collective defense and use military force if the situation was deemed a circumstance that threatens Japan’s survival. According to the article’s analysis, if China waged a full-on invasion and struck American bases in Japan first, the government might declare an “armed attack situation” and the JSDF could directly retaliate against China. The Sankei Shimbun and The Asahi Shimbun both conclude that a joint Japanese-American operational plan will be necessary in the future for this reason as well.

Japan must use its deep-sea submarines to oppose the fast-growing Chinese navy

 China’s aspirations are not limited to unifying Taiwan. China has engaged in power struggles with all of its nearby land neighbors from the establishment of the People’s Republic of China until it became the economic superpower of today. China signed an agreement in 2005 to settle the border conflict with Russia, which posed the biggest threat. Since then, the ocean has become the target of China’s territorial aspirations. A well-known episode is that, when Commander Timothy J. Keating of the U.S. Pacific Command was visiting China in 2007, Chinese navy leaders proposed to him that the U.S. and China divide and rule the Pacific Ocean. They suggested that China should be in charge of the area to the west of Hawaii and the U.S. responsible for the area east of it. During his trip to China in 2015, Secretary of State John Kerry was told by Xi that the vast Pacific Ocean has enough space for both countries. If China’s ambitions are ever realized, Japan would be drawn into and have to survive as a part of China’s sphere of influence.
 The U.S. has been the leader of the world since the end of the Cold War. One source of its power is the strength of its navy, including its carrier strike groups and nuclear submarines. China is trying to oppose the U.S. in this realm in its bid for marine hegemony. Besides the Liaoning, Shandong, and the carrier it is currently building, some information says China will start construction on an additional carrier this year. It is also focusing efforts on building submarines. The U.S. Department of Defense says that China will have from 65 to 70 submarines in the near future. However, the JSDF can stand against China’s naval power thanks to Japan’s deep-sea submarines and torpedoes, which boast the highest level of performance in the world. It is said that the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force’s (JMSDF) state-of-the-art Soryu-class submarines can submerge down to more than 900 meters, although course the details have not been publicly released. This exceeds the 600-meter depth rating of the previous generation of Kuroshio-class submarines. Soryu-class submarines are equipped with Type 89 torpedoes that can be used for attacks from 900 meters down. No other countries have submarines that can be operated at and launch torpedoes from those depths. The JMSDF also launched the Kumano, a Mogami-class frigate of the new Frigate Multi-Purpose/Mine (FFM) type, in November 2020. Mogami-class frigates are capable of mine warfare, featuring the latest technologies for enhanced minesweeping capabilities. They can also be used to lay mines. The latest mines are extremely powerful weapons that can analyze the acoustic signatures of ships and automatically explode when an enemy ship approaches. The JMSDF plans to build 22 Mogami-class ships. Japan must use its deep-sea submarines, deep-sea torpedoes, and destroyers with mine warfare capabilities to strengthen our defense structure.
 Japan should regard protecting Taiwan as an issue of the same importance as defending our own country. Besides Taiwan and the U.S., I think we must also strengthen our cooperation with Asian and European countries and make sure we do not neglect to increase our own military force as well. I keenly hope many Japanese people will understand the actual situation in East Asia so Japan does not end up under Chinese control.

June 22 (Tuesday), 6:00 p.m.