Discourage China from Invading Taiwan

In early March 2021, Admiral Philip S. Davidson, then commander of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, sent shock waves in the U.S., Japan, and across the world by telling a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing that China could invade Taiwan in the next six years.

By Robert D. Eldridge

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In early March 2021, Admiral Philip S. Davidson, then commander of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, sent shock waves in the U.S., Japan, and across the world by telling a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing that China could invade Taiwan in the next six years. Later that month, his successor Admiral John C. Aquilino said at the Confirmation Hearing, “This problem is much closer to us than most think,” but avoided giving a detailed timing.

So we are left without the specific reason or background on why it is “within six years.” Yet, the point is that we are short of time. As I emphasize in this article, the U.S., Japan, and Taiwan, share the same destiny. It is a top-priority political issue for these three countries to be urgently prepared for a Taiwan Contingency.

This is not simply a vague diplomatic or security issue, but a pressing political one, because politicians and the government are the ones that create the environment where the Japan Self-Defense Forces (SDF) can fulfill its defense mission to the fullest.

But first, I would like to explain to the readers why it is “within six years.” I have served in the U.S. Department of Defense twice in the past. My first tenure was from August 2004 to August 2005, at Camp H. M. Smith in Hawaii where the Pacific Command (PACOM, renamed Indo-Pacific Command, USINDOPACOM in 2018) was stationed. I frequented the Command since I worked next door to it.

The following analysis is my own—it is not based on inside information or any secrets. The facts are public knowledge. Since I am no longer in the government, I cannot say with certainty, however, if my interpretation is correct but I believe the following to be a likely reason for Davidson’s view.

China is particularly focused on space warfare, strengthening its anti-satellite capabilities through years of R&D on missiles and lasers. It has launched the SC-19 direct-ascent missile and destroyed its own weather satellite, scattering a large amount of space debris. Subsequently, Beijing has conducted at least four similar tests since October 2015.

In relation to the space debris issue, China is developing robotic arms. These can be attached to China’s satellites and cause damage to other countries’ satellites, taking them down or off orbits. Recently, China has attached a giant robotic arm to its space station. The U.S. Space Force is concerned about its military applications.  

It is impossible to conduct modern warfare without satellites. GPS and most other communications rely on satellites. China’s aim is to immobilize the enemy’s military force by incapacitating their satellites and make them surrender early.

The U.S. has underestimated China over the years, even cooperating with its space industry. This has helped China make rapid advances in the space domain. The U.S. is now focusing on developing defensive systems to protect its satellites. However, this system is not scheduled to be deployed until 2026, or about five years from early 2021. Since COVID and issues with supply chains have gotten in the way, this system is likely behind schedule, perhaps deploying in 2027. Hence, six years.

With the ability to attack satellites which are essential for modern warfare, China could invade Taiwan any time before the above U.S. defensive systems are in place. That is why the U.S. commander stated pointedly, “within six years.” Many experts believe that after the Winter Olympics in Beijing in February and the Communist Party Congress in the fall of 2022. I, too, think it will be sooner rather than later, probably in the first half of that six-year timeframe.

China‘s Intent and Capability for Invasion

Of course, I am not saying we should give up defense at this stage. Beijing’s attack may not proceed according to their script. 

However, the important thing is to make continuous efforts to strengthen the defense capacity including the satellite defense system so that China’s invasion of Taiwan will fail, and use political, diplomatic, economic, and other powers to discourage China from invading Taiwan in the first place. It is not one or the other—both are critical and mutually related.

There are still those who say, “China has no intention of invading Taiwan from the start.” But that understanding is based on either outright lies or ignorance. The notion is outdated, to say the least.

Ever since the People’s Republic of China was founded in October 1949, it has been seeking to invade Taiwan, where the leader of the enemy forces, Chiang Kai-shek, had fled with his political party, Kuomintang (KMT). But China lacked the military capability to do so. Moreover, the U.S. Navy, with its overwhelming power, would not have allowed it.

China had the intention but was not capable. The same was true until twenty years ago. It was not an underestimation, but a fact. Now, China, has the capability.

In Japan, there is a tendency to play down and belittle the capabilities of China and North Korea. This is very dangerous. Eighty years ago, the U.S. and Japan played down and belittled each other’s capabilities and ended up fighting for four years. This was because both sides had no idea of the other’s capabilities and intentions.

China’s intent is as strong as ever, and it also has the military power to do so. Meanwhile, U.S. power has become relatively weaker.

Ironically, the U.S. has been collaborating directly or indirectly with the Chinese military for many years. American and Japanese companies have provided China with highly advanced technologies (dual-use technologies) that can be used for both civilian and military purposes. We have created a Chinese military monster.

Still, there are those who deny China’s intentions toward Taiwan.

Since the mid-2010s, China has been capable of crossing the Taiwan Strait and landing in Taiwan in a day with tens of thousands of troops. That capability has risen over the past decade. Experts say China has at least 20,000 marines and 50,000 members of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) who are trained in amphibious operations.

In addition, China has 50 to 100 ships for amphibious operations, while commercial vessels can also be used under the Military-Civil Fusion (MCF) policy. According to reports, car ferries have joined in amphibious landing drills. When we include such vessels, China possesses several hundred to several thousand ships capable of Taiwan invasion. China can also use military and civilian aircraft to unload troops and operatives in Taiwan, according to observers.

The Taiwanese military that counters this is significantly behind in modernization, as the government does not spend enough budget on defense cost. Although the U.S. Taiwan Relations Act allows Taiwan to purchase weapons from the U.S., until recently, enough has not been procured in terms of performance and quantity, for fear of Chinese opposition.

Since Japan does not have a Taiwan Relations Act, it cannot even transfer weapons. So, Taiwan’s military is extremely isolated and weakened.

If Taiwan had maintained a small but mighty defense system like a porcupine, the PLA would lose in its invasion attempt. Yet, in a battle between China, which accomplished military buildup at breakneck speed, and Taiwan that has become relatively weak, the odds are uncertain.   

The U.S. military will try to support Taiwan’s forces when the PLA crosses the Taiwan Strait. But China will launch missiles, and undoubtedly conduct electronic and cyber warfare, so it is highly probable that the U.S. Navy cannot enter the strait area. 

We would like to think the timing of China’s invasion will be predicted through intelligence in advance, but that may not always be the case. China could suddenly attack under the guise of a “military drill” it often conducts around Taiwan. In 2020, China used that tactic in a territorial dispute with India, which has been going on for nearly 60 years. It suddenly crossed the Line of Actual Control (LAC) set in the 1962 Sino-Indian border dispute and attacked India.

There are also pro-mainland forces within Taiwan who want to cooperate and unify with China. For 70 years, China has been sending operatives to Taiwan, bribing politicians and government officials, and training spies. In the event of a contingency, these people in hiding—a fifth column—will cause havoc.

Another group that will take action is the overseas Chinese, with the obligation under the National Defense Mobilization Law. Although there are age restrictions, many of the 800,000 Chinese in Japan would be eligible. This vastly outnumbers Japan’s SDF personnel. In the countries and regions that are under China’s Belt and Road Initiative or are in a colonized state, the overseas Chinese will cause some kind of trouble to prevent the U.S. and its friends from concentrating on Taiwan’s defensive operations.

Some readers may think that invading Taiwan is irrational for China, with both skillful tactics and capabilities. Invading Taiwan seems irrational to us. But from China’s point of view, it is perfectly rational—because it could kill not only two, but three, four, and five birds with one stone.

First, the seizure of Taiwan means China has broken through the first island chain. Currently, Taiwan can restrain China’s actions to some extent, as it is positioned in the center of the first island chain, a bulwark against China. The U.S., Taiwan, Japan, the Philippines, and others are collaborating to monitor China so as not to give it a free hand. But if Taiwan is gone, China can do whatever it likes, and even the second (Guam, etc.) and third (Hawaii, etc.) island chains will be in danger.

In relation to this, the loss of Taiwan would isolate Japan—the second bird—by affecting the resources necessary for Japan’s economy. For example, nearly 90% of oil comes from the Middle East and passes through the waters near Taiwan. With the loss of Taiwan, China could easily cut off the sea lanes and gain control in the region.

The “third bird” China gains in its Taiwan takeover is the plummeting confidence towards the U.S. When the world sees that, “In the end, the U.S. failed to protect its quasi-ally, Taiwan,” the U.S. will suffer a fatal blow on its authority, following its defeat in and pullout from Afghanistan. This situation will shock Japan and other countries in the Indo-Pacific region, leading them to review their relations with the U.S. and lean towards China.

The “fourth bird” is that the resource-rich Philippines, with many islands, is likely to swing in favor of China. At any rate, the Philippine government and politicians will have no choice but be subservient to China, however they hate it.

In terms of resources, the “fifth bird” is that Taiwan is the producer of cutting-edge semiconductors, and China will gain hold of its technology and facilities, while also gaining well-educated Taiwanese, whom it calls separatists. It will arrest or kill off the troublemakers and force compliance.

Although the above are not all the “birds,” they are the most desired results for China. Of course, there will be international condemnation, but when China is serious, it does not care about criticism. It is already carrying out terrible policies in places like Hong Kong, Tibet, and Uyghur. We should not expect Beijing to be concerned about international opinion based on our own democratic standards. We must show that we are more serious than China in protecting Taiwan.

We should immediately get rid of the old notion that China does not have the capability, intent, nor a rational reason to invade Taiwan.

For Stronger Deterrence

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At the same time, enhanced deterrence is necessary before a contingency occurs. This is required not only among Japan, the U.S., and Taiwan, but also among Japan, the Japan-U.S. Alliance, and the quasi-allies. This also applies to the Quad (Japan-U.S.-Australia-India consultations), which will be discussed later, as well as the U.K., France, and Germany.

Deterrence is not an abstract concept. It is a source of reassurance to a certain degree for the country’s nations and a motive for the opponent to reconsider seriously its actions. The content requires constant updates. This includes legal systems, experience, intent, trust, political power, crisis management, and defensive capability of equipment.

Even the necessary basic collaboration between Taiwan and Japan-U.S. is missing for a Taiwan Contingency. So unfortunately, a major deficiency in deterrence exists. Japan is mostly responsible for this, because it does not recognize Taiwan as a nation, nor has a Taiwan Relations Act. The United States unfortunately does not recognize Taiwan, but at least it has the TRA.

Under these unfavorable conditions, it is basically too late to decide on operations and coordination after a Taiwan Contingency begins. Though not impossible, it is dangerous.

The ones suffering major damage will be the Taiwan military, U.S. military, and SDF personnel. Considerable amount of blood will be shed. To minimize the damage, politicians need to work hard now and allow the necessary coordination to take place.

Only politicians, the Diet members, have the authority to make laws. Under civilian control, the SDF has a difficult time even communicating their requests to politicians. Lawmakers should take the initiative to prepare the necessary legislation on security, especially a Taiwan Contingency, and respond promptly. Politicians who cannot do so should not be chosen in the first place.

Although the schedule has not been set as of this writing, the House of Representatives election will be held in the fall of 2021. I think we should send questionnaires to all candidates before the election and ask, “Do you support Taiwan or not?” I urge Japanese voters to never let those who answer “No” get elected, because they need to understand that Japan cannot be protected without supporting Taiwan. It would be inappropriate if those unwilling to support Taiwan had a seat in Japan’s Diet as that meant they did not care about Japan’s own defense.

Fortunately, there are some politicians who understand a Taiwan Contingency is Japan’s contingency.

One such politician is Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Taro Aso. In a speech in Tokyo in early July, Aso was greeted with applause by saying that if China invaded Taiwan, it would be recognized as a “survival-threatening situation” under the security bills passed in September 2015 and in effect since March 2016 and would be subject to a limited exercise of the right of collective self-defense.

A “survival-threatening situation” means a situation in which a clear danger threatening the existence of Japan and people’s rights to life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness are entirely overthrown, when an armed attack occurs against a country with a close relationship with Japan.

I highly appreciate Aso’s statement. I believe that this recognition is a just one. From both geopolitical and economic security perspectives, what he said is sound reasoning.

Vice Defense Minister Yasuhide Nakayama is also highly aware that Taiwan should be protected. In late June, a week before Deputy Prime Minister Aso’s statement, Nakayama attracted world attention when he said at the Washington D.C. think tank Hudson Institute’s online symposium, “We are not [just] friends of Taiwan, we are brothers.” He meant Taiwan’s security is not somebody else’s problem, and Taiwan should be protected like a family.

This comes from the firm belief of the Nakayama family, inherited from his father, former member of the House of Representatives Masaaki Nakayama, who opposed the Japan-China Peace and Friendship Treaty in the Diet for many years and strongly supported Taiwan.

Member of the House of Councilors and former Deputy Foreign Minister Masahisa Sato also has continued to stress the importance of defending Taiwan. In early June, Sato, who chairs the Committee on Foreign Affairs of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), proposed that the Japan-US defense cooperation guidelines should include assumptions about Taiwan and the South China Sea in the event of a Chinese contingency.

While there are many pro-Taiwan politicians, including former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his brother, Minister of Defense Nobuo Kishi, there are also many pro-China politicians and businessmen, represented by LDP Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai. I hope they will consider the national interest beyond their personal greed or corporate interests.

Japan’s Next Move

Responding to a Taiwan Contingency after it has occurred is too late. Japan must start preparations now. Instead of mere military responses, it should take comprehensive actions from various aspects—economic, diplomatic, political, and legal. The following ten items are just some examples:

  1. Economic decoupling from China is essential. The Japanese economy could be held hostage by an embargo against Japan in a contingency. In addition, close trade with China means all Japanese companies doing business in China are directly or indirectly supporting the strengthening of the Communist Party and the PLA that are trying to wage a nuclear war against Japan.

  2. While developing the Quad, strengthen cooperation with other countries and regional organizations. Achieve concrete results at the September summit meeting.

  3. Prompt enactment of a Japanese version of the Taiwan Relations Act (basic act). Creating a legal basis will enable various forms of cooperation.

  4. Promptly create assumptions for Taiwan contingencies, etc., in the Japan-U.S. defense cooperation guidelines.

  5. Conduct joint drills, exercises, and patrols throughout the Nansei Islands and around Taiwan. Establish a joint headquarters to coordinate plans, operations, and training.

  6. Include Taiwanese troops in Japan’s disaster drills.

  7. Deployment of the US-2 flying boat, which has various missions such as search and rescue, reconnaissance, and transportation, to Shimoji Island and pro-Japan/US/Taiwan Pacific island countries, such as Palau.

  8. Divert the cost of stationing U.S. forces in Japan to the SDF. A strong SDF is good for the U.S. military.

  9. Deploy the Maritime SDF to Ishigaki Island. Until it can be done, the navies of Japan, the U.S., and the Quad countries will cover the island.

  10. Utilize Shimojishima Airport to respond to both air and sea invasions of the Senkakus and its contingencies. Review the 50-year-old “Yara Memorandum” and “Nishime Confirmation Letter,” which prohibit military use of the airport.

Robert D. Eldridge
Born in 1968 in New Jersey, U.S. Moved to Japan in 1990. President of the Eldridge Thinktank. Previous positions include tenured associate professor at Osaka University and Deputy Assistant Chief of Staff of U.S. Marine Corps Bases Japan. Earned Ph.D. in political science. Senior research fellow at Japan Forum for Strategic Studies. Author of many books, including “The Origins of the Bilateral Okinawa Problem” (available in English and Japanese), and “On Okinawa,” “Operation Tomodachi,” and “Population Decline and SDF” (all in Japanese). Among his many awards is the 2016 Third Japan Study Encouragement Award from Japan Institute for National Fundamentals (JINF) for his work titled “The Origins of U.S. Policy in the East China Sea Islands Dispute Okinawa’s Reversion and the Senkaku Islands.”

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