The Impacts of US-China Tensions on the International Order of Asia

Deterring a War in the Taiwan Strait: A Bigger Security Role for Japan is Key


A former foreign ministry official warns that Japan must assume a larger role in the Japan-US alliance to avert a cross-strait conflict that could engulf Japan’s outlying islands and threaten democracy in the region.

On April 16, 2021, Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide became the first foreign head of state to visit US President Joe Biden’s White House. The reason for Biden’s choice is no mystery. Quite simply, Japan is Washington’s most important ally in containing the threat from China, America’s foremost strategic competitor.

Of the common interests and concerns enumerated in the Japan-US Joint Leaders’ Statement issued on that occasion, what jumped out most conspicuously were the references to “peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait” and “peaceful resolution of cross-strait issues.” It was the first time in more than a half century that the leaders of the two countries had broached the topic of Taiwan in a joint statement.

How Taiwan Vanished from the Bilateral Security Agenda

The previous such reference occurred on November 21, 1969, when Prime Minister Satō Eisaku was in Washington to confer with President Richard Nixon. According to the joint statement issued on that occasion, Nixon spoke of America’s treaty obligations to the Republic of China, and Sato had responded that peace and security in the Taiwan area was extremely important for the security of Japan.

At the time, the United States regarded the ROC (now generally referred to as Taiwan) as the legitimate government of China and an ally in the Cold War. Tokyo naturally shared Washington’s concern over the fate of the island. Since the end of World War II, when Japan had relinquished its claim to Taiwan and Korea, it had relied on the US military to defend the region, including Taiwan and southern Korea, with the aid of its Japanese bases. This was the regional security framework built around the Japan-US alliance—the creation of Prime Minister Yoshida Shigeru, later modified by Prime Minister Kishi Nobusuke. In 1969, it was natural for Satō and Nixon to mention Taiwan, along with the Korean Peninsula, when discussing common security concerns. But that environment was about to change.

In March 1969, a band of People’s Liberation Army troops had ambushed Soviet border guards on Damansky Island (Ch: Zhenbao Island) in the Ussuri River, an area on the boundary of a vast swathe of territory in the Russian Far East north of the Amur River and east of the Ussuri that the Qing empire had ceded to Russia in the Treaty of Aigun (1858) and the Convention of Peking (1860) as a consequence of the Second Opium War. The border conflict was the climax of the Sino-Soviet split that began in the second half of the 1950s. Until then, Mao Zedong had looked up to the Soviet Union as its senior and mentor in political and doctrinal matters. But when Nikita Khrushchev began pursuing a policy of peaceful coexistence with the West following the death of Joseph Stalin, Beijing openly rebelled, and relations soured. Amid rising friction, longstanding border disputes heated up, culminating in the attack on Damansky Island.

Although Mao’s PLA enjoyed numerical superiority, the Soviet army was a powerful, modern force equipped with an advanced nuclear arsenal. Moreover, China was then a poor country mired in social and political turmoil. After the failure of the Great Leap Forward, in which some 20 million Chinese citizens were said to have starved to death, Mao was in the process of purging his political rivals through the Cultural Revolution. He was scarcely in a position to take on the Soviet Union. Fearful of a counteroffensive, Mao decided to throw his lot in with the Western bloc and forge a strategic partnership with the United States and Japan.

Over the next few years, Beijing succeeded in normalizing relations with both Washington and Tokyo, and Taipei lost its status as the legitimate government of China. Although the Chinese continued to maintain that Taiwan was a renegade province destined to be reunited with the mainland, they were far too preoccupied with the Soviet threat to contemplate any cross-strait military action. Taiwan thus ceased to figure as a security concern for the Japan-US alliance.

President Richard Nixon and Premier Zhou Enlai share a toast at the Great Hall of the People during the US leader’s historic visit to Beijing, February 25, 1972. © AFP/Jiji.
President Richard Nixon and Premier Zhou Enlai share a toast at the Great Hall of the People during the US leader’s historic visit to Beijing, February 25, 1972. © AFP/Jiji.

Li Teng-hui and the Taiwan Strait Crisis

The Taiwan issue resurfaced in the 1990s, as the nation was transitioning from martial law to full democracy under President Lee Teng-hui. As Lee—the first ROC president born in Taiwan—appealed to a new national identity by declaring “I am Taiwanese” in the run-up to Taiwan’s first direct presidential election (scheduled for 1996), China launched a series of missiles in the waters surrounding Taiwan, triggering the Third Taiwan Strait Crisis.

To understand China’s reaction requires some historical context.

The territorial outlines of modern China were broadly established during the Qing dynasty (1644–1912), which ruled a multi-ethnic federation encompassing Uighurs, Tibetans, and Mongols, as well as the ruling Manchus and the Han Chinese. A sense of Chinese national identity in the modern sense only began to emerge in the late nineteenth century, in the midst of the Qing dynasty’s long decline. Forging a unified nation-state from the diverse, far-flung components of the Qing empire was no easy task.

The Communist Party of China struggled mightily to establish “Communist Chinese” as a national identity. But communism, which rejects religion, advocates violent revolution, and upholds an authoritarian one-party system of government, can never serve as the unifying spiritual core of a nation. This is apparent from the fate of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, which both fragmented into their ethnic constituents as soon as totalitarian rule came to an end.

In the early 1990s, under Deng Xiaoping’s program of economic “reform and opening,” the party veered sharply away from the communist ideology of Marx, Lenin, and Mao. It became crucial then to mobilize patriotic sentiment so as to cement national unity and the legitimacy of the CPC. For the party’s leadership, hearing the inhabitants of Taiwan chanting, “I am Taiwanese,” must have stirred fears that separatism could spread to the Tibetans, Uighurs, and Mongols and cause the Chinese state to splinter.

In any case, the United States responded to China’s “missile tests” by dispatching aircraft carrier battle groups to the area. China, which was still a third-rate power at the time, was obliged to swallow its pride and back down.

A Toxic Climate of Chauvinism

Today, China’s economy is the second-largest in the world and is on track to overtake America’s by 2030. While China still spends far less than the United States on defense, the gap is closing, and even now China’s defense budget equals that of all the other Group of Seven nations (Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, and Japan) combined. The balance of military power in the East Asian region is steadily shifting toward China.

What makes China’s growing economic and military power particularly dangerous to the region is the mood of fanatical patriotism that the government and the party have nurtured since the 1990s. To take the place of communism, which had lost its cohesive power to give legitimacy to the dictatorship of the Communist Party of China (CPC), Deng Xiaoping put forward in its stead a legend of nation buiding of the communist China.  in which the CCP played the role of founder and defender. According to this narrative, the party had single-handedly ousted the imperialist Western and Japanese powers, which had overrun China for 150 years, and founded the People’s Republic of China, forcing Chiang Kai-shek and his Kuomintang (Nationalist Party) to flee to Taiwan. Under the CPC’s leadership, China had risen, prosperous and triumphant. The image of China’s rise from the ignominy of its long subjugation at the hands of foreign powers is central to the nationalist ideology inculcated into the Chinese people from early childhood.

Now that China is an economic and military titan, that state-sponsored patriotism has turned toxic. The people have come to believe that it is China’s natural right to recover the territory the Qing empire ceded to imperialist powers and regain the influence it once wielded over its tributary states throughout the region. Above all, it is China’s inalienable right to reclaim Taiwan—seized by Japan in 1895, after the first Sino-Japanese War, and then by the Kuomintang after the defeat and flight of the arch-enemy Chiang Kai-shek. Reunification is also vital to reaffirm the legitimacy of the CPC’s one-party rule.

Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen is hoping to preserve the status quo through her policy of balanced diplomacy, but that is unlikely to satisfy China. President Xi Jinping, who is determined to build a legacy rivaling that of Mao Zedong, has both the will and the means to subjugate Taiwan. It is only a question of timing. This is the daunting strategic reality that confers such significance on the reference to “peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait” in the April 16 Japan-US joint statement.

What a Taiwan Contingency Would Mean for Japan

A security crisis for Taiwan would be a security crisis for Japan. There can be no room for bickering over whether such a contingency would threaten Japan’s existence or merely the peace and security of the region. In fact, the threat to Japan is more direct and immediate than that posed by war on the Korean Peninsula. Taiwan, after all, is a scant 100 kilometers from Yonaguni Island, part of Okinawa Prefecture. If war were to break out across the Taiwan Strait, China would immediately sever all of Taiwan’s submarine communication cables and impose a naval blockade. It would then establish a vast exclusion zone around the island and use its military might to deny entry to commercial vessels and airliners as well as warships and military aircraft. Japan’s outlying islands—Yonaguni, Iriomote, Miyako, and Ishigaki, as well as the Senkakus—would likely fall within this zone and be engulfed in the conflict.

Moreover, in the event of a cross-strait offensive, China would doubtless move to seize the Senkaku Islands, which it claims are part of Taiwan. Japan’s southernmost Sakishima islands could be targets of amphibious attack by PLA and could even end up under occupation by Chinese troops, if China succeeded in establishing air and maritime superiority in their vicinity.  Japan’s defense forces are determined to cope with anythreat to Okinawa, as evidenced by the opening of new bases on Yonaguni, Miyako,, Ishigaki and Amami islands in the past few years.

Japan’s Indispensable Role

This is the daunting strategic reality behind recent moves to bolster regional security cooperation. Washington has signed on to Japan’s initiative for a “free and open Indo-Pacific,” and diplomatic activity has moved into high gear, as seen in the successive meetings of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) and the Japan-US Security Consultative Committee (2+2), as well as the April 16 Japan-US summit. This is a good start in terms of bolstering the Japan-US alliance. The challenge now consists in translating ideas into a concrete strategy.

The United States, for all its military strength, is hobbled internally by deep political divisions. There is no equivalent to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to mount a concerted defense against Chinese expansion in Northeast Asia, and the leftist government of South Korean President Moon Jae-in is unlikely to rush to Taiwan’s aid, although he said recently to President Biden that peace and stability of Taiwan Strait is important. Australia is far away, in the Southern Hemisphere. The redoubtable First United States Army and I Marine Expeditionary Force are on the other side of the Pacific. Moreover, China remains intent on implementing an anti-access area denial (A2/AD) system that would keep all US forces outside the “first island chain” (including Taiwan, Okinawa, and the Philippines).  There are reports of it deploying hyper-sonic intermediate-range anti-ship  missiles as part of this strategy. A contingency in the Taiwan Strait could well break out if the Chinese military became confident of its ability to subdue Taiwan quickly, before US forces could come to its assistance.

Japan is America’s only reliable security partner in Northeast Asia. Together, these two allies must assume the leading role in creating a deterrent sufficient to protect the region from a cross-strait conflict. This places a heavy responsibility on Japan, but we must shoulder it—not just to defend Taiwan but also to defend our own territory.

(Originally published in Japanese. Banner photo: Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide, left, and US President Joe Biden at the White House on April 16, 2021. © AFP/Jiji.)

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