Chinese Views on Japan's Response in a Taiwan Strait Conflict
Whether Japan will intervene in a military contingency in the Taiwan Strait and how exactly it would do so is subject to debate among Western analysts. Experts such as Oriana Skylar Mastro and Doug Bandow have expressed doubts that Japan would play a robust role in a military defense of Taiwan. Ambiguity about the issue stems from constitutional constraints Japan could face in using its military to stage intervention and potential Japanese fears of Chinese strikes against military bases on its territory. Such debate however, is less acute in China, where a large number of academic, foreign policy, and military policy elites expect some form of Japanese military intervention in case of a Taiwan contingency. Their analysis reveals that numerous Chinese observers have explored specifics as to how Japan’s Self-Defense Force (SDF) would intervene militarily, and have, importantly, factored Japan into their deterrence calculus over Taiwan. An understanding of Chinese assessments as to whether, how and why Japan would intervene militarily is critical to understanding Chinese expectations for a military contingency in the Taiwan Strait as Beijing escalates its campaign of economic and military coercion against Taiwan.
Many Chinese scholars and policy elites expect Japan to intervene militarily in a cross-strait conflict- largely in a support role to the United States. People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Lieutenant General Wang Honggang (王洪光), former head of the now restructured Nanjing Military Region, has written that Chinese “military operations for reunification by force” have “always considered the intervention of US and Japanese forces.” Prominent military historian and former Deputy Director of the People’s Daily Commentary Department Lin Zhibo (林治波) has written that Japan “may follow the United States in intervening” in the Taiwan Strait if “China exercises force against Taiwan.” In Lin’s analysis, there are multiple “benefits” Japan can derive by continuing to intervene in both the “Taiwan issue” more broadly and a potential Taiwan Strait conflict. This includes improving ties with the US to bolster Japan’s own international status and safeguarding Japan’s maritime supply lanes.Wu Huaizhong (吴怀中), Deputy Director the Institute of Japan Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), has written that Japan is currently engaged in “incrementally deepening” and improving the “practicality and detail” of “intervention measures” for a potential Taiwan Strait conflict. Japan is “meaningfully making military preparations for intervention in the Taiwan Strait” and has “studied how to assist US forces to defend Taiwan” in case of a military contingency. Wu has also written that mainstream public opinion in Japan has trended towards “regarding military action against Taiwan as a threat against [Japan’s] own security,” which in turn provides the Japanese government sufficient support in the Japanese electorate to stage “some kind of low-level intervention” during a potential conflict. Chinese analysts do not expect Japanese attention towards Taiwan to de-escalate either in the context of Beijing’s attempts to drive a wedge between Tokyo and Washington. Xiu Chunping (修春萍), of the CASS Institute of Taiwan Studies, has written that Japanese politicians and academics have increasingly discussed the idea that “Taiwan is Japan’s lifeline,” and that Tokyo’s emphasis on “Taiwan strategy” will only grow and “reach another level.”
Chinese scholars have also noted that multiple Japanese politicians and policy elites have publicly stated intentions to defend Taiwan in some military capacity. Lin Xiaoguang (林晓光), a professor at the Institute of International Strategic Studies at the Central Party School, has noted how Japanese parliamentarians have previously stated that Japan could provide supplies, transportation, and medical services directly to the Taiwanese military, and have stated that if Japanese ships or personnel are attacked in the process that there would be war. Han Qianwei (韩前伟), a special researcher at the Japan Research Center at Tsinghua University, has observed that many “high-profile Japanese politicians” have discussed the Taiwan issue, and that broadly, they believe that “a war in the Taiwan Strait would threaten Japan’s existence and that Japan would ‘defend’ Taiwan.” Former Japanese Prime Minister Abe’s statement that a “Taiwan emergency is a Japan emergency” is one prominent example. University of International Relations Professor Meng Xiaoxu (孟晓旭) has written that the Suga administration had promoted the idea of “Taiwan-Diaoyu integration” (台钓一体论) to create “reason for Japan to intervene in the Taiwan Strait issue under the pretext of island disputes.” Magazines popular in military circles such as Naval Ships (现代舰船) have also translated articles by Japanese commentators on the subject, such as one titled, “Is the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force Capable of Intervening in the Taiwan Strait or North Korea?”
How exactly does China expect Japan to intervene in a Taiwan Strait conflict? Understanding Chinese expectations of Tokyo’s response provides insight into whether Beijing has planned accordingly to account for Japanese military intervention, and whether the prospect of Tokyo intervening plays a role in deterring China from launching a contingency in the first place. Few Chinese observers assert that the SDF would directly commit ground and naval forces to engage the PLA in a Taiwan contingency. Rather, they note that Japan can play a robust support role in logistics and surveillance operations to bolster the US military’s defense of Taiwan during an attack. Hu Jiping (胡继平), a Japan expert and Vice-President of the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations (CICIR), has written that if there is a conflict between the US and China over Taiwan, “it goes without saying that Japan will directly intervene in the conflict” using the excuse that its “own survival is threatened.” It is a “virtual guarantee” that it will provide “US forces basing grounds and ammunition.” Scholars such as Liu Shilong (刘世龙), the Deputy Director of the CASS Institute of Japan Studies, have noted three steps the SDF would take in the event of a Taiwan military contingency. First, the SDF would use P-3C patrol aircraft to collect intelligence on the PLA’s military maneuvers. Second, the SDF would provide “rear area support” to the US military through helping transport supplies. Third, the SDF would provide assistance in ballistic missile defense to prevent strikes against US forward-deployed forces in Japan and the continental United States. Lin Zhibo has asserted that there may be two stages to Japanese intervention. First, Japan would provide rear area support in categories such as “logistics, search and rescue operations, ship inspections and financial assistance.” Second, as the conflict in the Taiwan Strait progresses, Japan could provide “weapons and equipment, technicians, and potentially covertly send a small amount of troops in support” of Taiwan.
Beyond rear area support, Chinese scholars have also written about how Japan can assist in areas such as missile defense. Lin Xiaoguang has written that Japan can enable the “United States to take several coercive measures” regarding Taiwan, including US forces “using Japan’s airports and harbors to develop a theater missile defense (TMD) system with the United States” and include Taiwan in the scope of such a TMD system. Chinese scholars have also noted how Japan can utilize installations on the Ryukyu Islands to directly strike Chinese bases on mainland China during a Taiwan Strait conflict. Renmin University Professor of International Relations Shi Yinhong (时殷弘) has written that the US-Japan alliance has already “elevated the status” of the Taiwan issue, and that “preparations for war with China on the Taiwan issue have become increasingly real and upgraded.” Shi notes the possibility that Japan would allow the US to set up “temporary bases” on 40 potential sites in the Ryukyu Islands during a Taiwan Strait conflict from which “US high-mobility rocket launcher systems can strike Chinese bases” while the SDF provides “logistical support in ammunition and fuel.” There also exist more outlandish assessments, such as by analysts at Asia Express, a video column on Guancha.cn, that have stated Japan could dispatch a Quick Reaction Force (QRF) of 4,000 troops to Taiwan in order to counter Chinese amphibious landings or use F-2 and F-35A fighter jets in addition to its submarines to strike Chinese maritime assets in the Taiwan Strait.
Chinese scholars assert across the board that any kind of Japanese military activity would not be an impediment to successful PLA military operations against Taiwan. First, Chinese scholars note that Japanese involvement is predicated on US commitments to Taiwan. Jin Canrong for example, wrote that “whether Japan adopts operations, and what operations they adopt, depends entirely on the United States and not itself.” Should the United States choose not to intervene in a Taiwan Strait conflict, observers such as Jin believe that Japan is largely powerless to prevent a successful Chinese takeover of Taiwan. Second, Chinese scholars have asserted that the PLA can effectively address an array of potential challenges posed by the SDF. The PLA Navy (PLA-N) for example, could deploy Type-052D Luyang III or Type-054C Luyang II-class guided missile destroyers as cover for amphibious landings on the Ryukyu Islands to seize Japanese or US missile installations. Zhou Ming (周明) and Li Wei (李巍), scholars at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, have written that even Soviet-era missiles in China’s arsenal would be effective against JMSDF warships that could be dispatched to the Taiwan Strait. Hua Dan (华丹), a lecturer at the PLA Engineering University, wrote that Chinese anti-ship missiles such as the DF-21D or YJ-series could be utilized by H-6 bombers to implode Japanese military operations in the East China Sea. Former Lieutenant General Wang Hongguang has stated that a Chinese aircraft carrier formation 300-500 miles east of Taiwan could serve as an effective deterrent to Japanese involvement, and that if the SDF “does anything rash” that DF-15 and DF-16 missiles from H-6 bombers would deliver the SDF a “free lunch.” Prominent military commentator Song Zhongping (宋忠平) has also stated the growing possibility that the US and Japan will use force to intervene in the Taiwan issue, and asserted that China has the full capabilities to attack military bases in Japan and the “entire first island chain” from “all directions” in case of Japanese intervention.
Chinese observers have also noted issues that could arise from Japanese military intervention beyond its implications for warfighting. For example, Yan Dexue (阎德学), the Deputy Director of the Institute of Cross-Strait Exchange and Regional Development at East China Normal University, has written that Japan’s “direct intervention in the Taiwan Strait'' could cause “demonstration effects” (示范效应) that encourage other US Indo-Pacific allies such as Australia to escalate their involvement in a Taiwan Strait military contingency.
For contextual purposes, it is necessary to establish why Chinese observers believe that Tokyo would militarily intervene in a Taiwan Strait conflict. Broadly, they note that a successful Chinese occupation of Taiwan would enable Beijing control of integral sea lanes Japan needs to maintain critical import flows that allow for the continued function of its economy. Ian Easton’s extensive review of PLA open-source, military textbooks, such as the Course Book on the Taiwan Strait’s Military Geography, has found that PLA military strategists have documented that 90% of Japan’s oil imports, 99% of its mineral resource supply, and 100% of its nuclear fuel supply goes through the Taiwan Strait. 80% of Japan’s container ships also transit through the Taiwan Strait. These waters, consequently, “directly affect Japan’s life or death, its survival or demise (1).” Other internal textbooks such as the Japanese Air Self Defense Force published by the PLA Air Force Command College in 2013 noted that if China seizes control of the waters in the Taiwan Strait, Japanese “maritime lines of communication will fall completely within the striking ranges of China’s fighters and bombers,” and that through the utilization of blockades, China will be able to exert control over Japanese imports. The textbook stated that “after imports have been reduced by 50%, even if Tokyo uses rationing, Japan’s national economy and war-making potential will collapse entirely” and that a “famine within the Japanese islands” would ensue (2). Lu Pizhao (陆丕昭), of the Nanjing Army Command College, has written that Taiwan is the “Gibraltar of the East” and that by seizing Taiwan, “all exit and entry routes [into Japan] would be completely suffocated by China.”
Such views are corroborated in the analysis of several Chinese foreign policy elites and academics. Director of the Institute of Northeast Asian Studies at the Heilongjiang Academy of Social Sciences Da Zhigang (笪志刚) has stated that the Japanese are considering “self-interests” when they emphasize Taiwan’s security, given “Taiwan’s military value” and the value of its sea lanes. Da noted that “Japan’s energy imports from the Middle East and the bulk of its commodity goods will pass through the Malacca Strait and Taiwan Strait,” rendering them Tokyo’s “maritime lifelines” (海上生命线). Da has written that “if China completely re-takes Taiwan” that Japan will therefore “greatly exaggerate the threat” in responding. Jin Canrong (金灿荣), the Associate Dean of Renmin University’s School of International Studies, has written that Japan’s ability to become self-sustaining in resources is “extremely limited” and that it has high dependence on foreign trade. Jin noted that if cross-strait unification occurs, the “Taiwan Strait would become internal Chinese waters,” akin to Beijing “strangling the throat of Japan’s external trade.” Xiu Bin (修斌), a Japan expert at the Ocean University of China, has written that Japan’s lack of resources and reliance on foreign energy sources have already played a role in the JMSDF bolstering its power projection capabilities to secure sea lines of communications that are otherwise vulnerable.
Ultimately, many Chinese academics and foreign policy elites expect Japan to play some military support role in a cross-strait conflict, mostly in rear area support, intelligence-gathering operations, and ballistic missile defense. Evidence from PLA textbooks and relevant analysis demonstrate that Chinese observers have undergone significant effort to study Japan as a stakeholder in the Taiwan Strait conflict, the means through which Tokyo could intervene militarily, and how the PLA should counter potential Japanese intervention. It is important to note that the open-sources explored in this article are not official sources, nor are they authored by current military leaders. They do however, at minimum, represent a large consensus among Chinese military planners, prominent experts at state-affiliated think-tanks, and academics with policy influence that Japan would intervene militarily in a conflict in the Taiwan Strait. Hence, it would be a mistake to believe that China does not expect intervention from US allies in a Taiwan Strait conflict or to assume that potential Japanese intervention does not matter or factor into Beijing’s deterrence calculus over Taiwan.
Bai Guangwei (ed.), Course Book on the Taiwan Strait’s Military Geography [台海军事地理教程] (Beijing: Academy of Military Sciences Press, 2013), 56-58 from Ian Easton, The Chinese Invasion Threat: Taiwan’s Defense and American Strategy in Asia (Arlington, VA: Project2049 Institute, 2017), 27-28.
Yang Pushuang (ed.), The Japanese Air Self Defense Force [日本航空自卫军] (Beijing: Air Force Command College, 2013) 190-191 from Ian Easton, The Chinese Invasion Threat: Taiwan’s Defense and American Strategy in Asia (Arlington, VA: Project2049 Institute, 2017), 27-28.
Daniel Fu is an Analyst at the Center for Advanced China Research (CACR). He has previously worked at the German Marshall Fund (GMF), BowerGroupAsia, American Enterprise Institute (AEI), and Project2049 Institute. His research interests are in international relations theory, East Asian security and Chinese foreign policy. Daniel received his M.A. in Political Science from Columbia University and is a graduate of Boston College.