Why a Chinese Invasion of the Pratas Islands Is a Blind Spot in the Controversy over a Taiwan Contingency
The cover of The Economist (May 1 issue) caused a buzz as it depicted U.S. and Chinese military forces heading towards Taiwan on the center of a radar screen. Referring to Taiwan as “the most dangerous place on earth,” the article revealed that Admiral Phil Davidson, who headed the Indo-Pacific Command, testified at the U.S. Congress before retiring this March that “China could invade Taiwan within the next six years.” The article also reported on a growing concern among the U.S. military that it may no longer be able to deter China from seizing Taiwan by force.
The Japan-U.S. Foreign and Defense Ministerial Meeting (“2+2”) held this April emphasized the importance of “peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait.” A U.S.-Japan Joint Leaders’ Statement issued in April referred to “Taiwan” for the first time in 52 years since 1969. The distance between Taiwan and Yonagun Island (Okinawa Prefecture) is just 110 km (68 miles). In the event of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan, China is likely to conduct missile attacks on U.S. bases in Japan, including the Kadena Air Base (Okinawa Prefecture), to prevent U.S. military intervention. Thus a Taiwanese contingency could become a Japanese contingency. Plus, it might lead to a Chinese occupation of the Senkaku Islands as Beijing claims that the islands belong to Taiwan and not Okinawa.
The Year 2027 Marks a Milestone
The big factor behind this growing concern in Tokyo and Washington about the situation in Taiwan is the buildup of Chinese military power over the past 25 years. When Taiwan held its first democratic presidential election in 1996, China conducted missile exercises in the waters near Taiwan, resulting in the Taiwan Strait Crisis. When the U.S. dispatched two aircraft carriers to the region, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), which was no match to the U.S. military, had no choice but to suspend the exercises. With the humiliating experience, Beijing strived to gain the power to prevent the U.S. military from intervening if China invades Taiwan.
The ballistic missiles and cruise missiles currently possessed by the PLA can accurately destroy the U.S. military bases not only in Japan but also in Guam. Besides, these ballistic missiles are said to be able to attack U.S. aircraft carriers flying over the ocean. China has also begun deploying hypersonic glide weapons, which are extremely difficult for Japan and the U.S. to intercept with their missile defense systems. In addition, China is considered capable of paralyzing the U.S. military base functions with cyberattacks and electromagnetic waves.
Even the experts are divided on whether China, now capable of blocking U.S. military intervention would seek to seize Taiwan by force. Those who expect China will try to unify Taiwan see that the dynamics within the Chinese Communist Party will force President Xi Jinping to make the move, even by force. Xi is committed to “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese people” by mid-21st century, and has proclaimed that the unification of Taiwan is its essential element.
Beijing will host the winter Olympics in February next year, and Xi is expected to begin his third term at the Chinese Communist Party Congress in autumn. He may aim to unify Taiwan by 2027, the 100th anniversary of PLA founding, to further strengthen his power base and to lead into his fourth term. Admiral Davidson’s statement reflects this view.
Possibility of a Limited Invasion
Meanwhile, most experts still view that China’s goal is to bring Taiwan to its knees without a fight. From this perspective, an armed invasion of Taiwan would be too costly for China, and it would erode the power of Xi in the event of invasion failure. Thus, Beijing continues to force Taipei to accept the “one country, two systems” by the threat of military force.
However, given the fact that the “one country, two systems” is being undermined in Hong Kong, Taipei would find it harder and harder to accept this. It is also an objective reality that the military balance between the U.S. and China has become more and more in China’s favor. This has drawn attention to the idea that China may take some military actions against Taiwan under the threshold of a full-fledged invasion.
The annual report by the U.S. Department of Defense concludes that China’s full-scale landing operation against Taiwan would be difficult, but it also points out the possibility that China would intimidate Taiwan through a maritime blockade, missile strikes and cyberattacks, along with limited use of force against the islands of the Pratas, the Taiping, the Quemoy, and the Matsu. In particular, experts on Taiwan have begun pointing out the possibility of a limited military invasion of the Pratas Islands that lacks sufficient military posture.
The Pratas Islands, located in the South China Sea, are controlled by Taiwan but have not been inhabited by civilians. The PLA has intensified activities at the Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) in Southeast of Taiwan beyond the median line of the Taiwan Straits, and some analysts believe that these are rehearsals for invading the islands. For this reason, Taiwan has stationed small-scale marines in the islands since the summer of 2020.
Armed Attack Situation
If China invades the Pratas Islands, Xi can demonstrate his determination to unify Taiwan both at home and abroad without taking the risky gamble to invade Taiwan mainland. China can also gain an additional military base in the South China Sea. Above all, Beijing can test if the U.S. in willing to defend Taiwan. The focus will become whether the U.S. President can decide to intervene and whether the U.S. Congress will show support to protect a small island the U.S. people have never heard of, with no civilians.
The left-wing of the U.S. Democratic party, which has a negative attitude toward foreign intervention, is influential in the Biden administration, and it cannot be denied that the administration would hesitate to intervene. However, if the U.S. decides not to intervene, allies such as Japan and the Philippines, which have territorial disputes with China, would lose trust in the U.S. On the other hand, if the U.S. military intervenes in a Chinese invasion of the Pratas Islands, the possibility of a limited conflict between the U.S. and China escalating into an all-out war cannot be ruled out.
Upon mentioning Taiwan’s security at the Japan-U.S. Summit Meeting, both governments will be expected to take concrete measures in the future. The first step will be to formulate a joint operational plan that envisions the Taiwan contingency. If a Chinese invasion of Taiwan leads to an attack on Japanese territories, the primary role of Japan would be to defend the Southwest Islands, which is critical for U.S. operations, and provide support to U.S. armed forces, rather than being directly involved in defending Taiwan, while conducting a noncombatant evacuation operation out of Taiwan. Even if a Chinese invasion of remote islands such as the Pratas Islands does not directly lead to an attack on Japan’s territory, Japan and the U.S. still need to send a signal to China that even a limited invasion would not be acceptable by preparing joint responses.
Necessity for Building up Missile Capabilities
Along with the formulation of the joint operational plans, there occurs a need for Japan and the U.S. to build up their missile capabilities to offset China’s overwhelming missile capabilities.
The missile defense system of Japan and the U.S. can’t hold up against a saturation missile attack (an attack that exceeds defensive capabilities) by China. Therefore, Japan must consider not only reinforcing the “stand-off missiles” (long-range missiles that can be launched from outside the opponent’s defensive range) that Japan is introducing for the defense of its remote islands but also possessing the ability to attack mainland China. Furthermore, the deployment of U.S. medium-range missiles within Japanese territory including Okinawa must also be considered.
The deployment of U.S. missiles in Okinawa, where opposition to the U.S. military bases continues to mount over the relocation of U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, can be a complicated political issue, but this cannot be avoided to restore the military balance with China. In addition, it will be impossible to deter China without increasing Japan’s defense spending, which effectively accounts for less than 1% of its GDP.
A Nihon Keizai Shimbun poll conducted immediately after the Japan-U.S. summit meeting showed that 74% of respondents were in “favor” of Japan’s involvement in the security of the Taiwan Strait, while 13% were “opposed.” However, has the seriousness of the situation surrounding Taiwan been fully understood in Japan? The Japanese business community, for example, is said to be critical of the Suga administration vexing China on the Taiwan issue. Even with the strong criticism from the international community, China is still undermining the one country, two systems in Hong Kong in the face of Taipei. Without sharing this sense of the crisis felt by Taiwan, Japan cannot contribute to Taiwan’s security.
The situation in Taiwan is a crucial issue that directly affects Japan’s security. There is no need for Japan to consider China as an enemy, but Japan must prove to China through words as well as deeds that the use of force cannot be allowed to alter the status quo. Amidst the balance between the U.S. and China changing drastically, the Japan-U.S. alliance is experiencing its most difficult challenge in the past 70 years. To maintain the security in Northeast Asia, Japan must make a grave decision involving the public and private sectors to build a realistic relationship with China.
(Professor, Faculty of Language & Culture of Meikai University, Senior Fellow at the Japan Institute of International Affairs)