Xi Jinping’s Triumph and the Fate of Taiwan

How Will Japan Prepare for a Taiwan Contingency?


Recent events have seen the Chinese Communist Party concentrate power in the hands of a single person—General Secretary Xi Jinping. Pointing to Mr. Xi’s “dream” of annexing Taiwan and his desire to leave his name in history, Kanehara Nobukatsu argues that the prospect of a Taiwan contingency is increasingly becoming a reality. The impact on Japan will largely depend on Japan’s preparations, requiring Tokyo to drastically strengthen its defense.

The Chinese Communist Party’s twentieth National Congress in October 2022 affirmed an unprecedented third term for Xi Jinping as CCP general secretary and China’s paramount leader. While expected, this nevertheless represented a break from the norm of collective leadership and term limits established by Deng Xiaoping to prevent the rise of personality cults. More surprising, however, was the line-up put forward by Xi for his third administration.

The heavyweights of the Communist Youth League affiliated with previous leader Hu Jintao, such as Li Keqiang, Wang Yang, and Hu Chunhua, were all removed from the Politburo Standing Committee—the CCP’s top decision-making body. When Hu Jintao himself was escorted dramatically out of the final session of the CCP Congress by younger officials, it symbolized the twilight of the Communist Youth League. On the other hand, Xi loyalists, such as Li Qiang (former Shanghai Communist Party committee secretary) and Cai Qi (former mayor of Beijing and Beijing Party secretary), were promoted to the Politburo Standing Committee. This was the result of a power struggle taking place behind the scenes without the input of the Chinese citizenry.

Looking at the third term line-up, it is clear that Xi has solidified his grasp on power by nominating aides on the basis of their loyalty to him. Like Xi, they also share strong ideological commitments and a belief in authoritarian power politics. We can call this the “Xi Jinping Brigade.”

Annexation of Taiwan as Xi’s dream

Xi Jinping is a leader with distinctive characteristics. Together with his father, Xi Zhongkun, a founding father of the CCP who later fell from grace, Xi was traumatized during the Cultural Revolution (1966–76). His family was separated, and Xi Jinping was “sent down” to the countryside. He missed out on educational opportunities and feared that he would be subject to torture and perhaps even killed. In order to survive, Xi hid his “claws” and ambitions and played the role of a good peasant who admired Mao Zedong. When his father was rehabilitated, Xi was also forgiven and able to return to Beijing.

Xi was later transferred to Fujian Province. There, Xi distanced himself from corrupt liquor-guzzling local officials. He wisely understood that bribery could be used against him in the future and, by fostering an image of integrity, he could instead use corruption as a weapon against others. Indeed, once elected CCP general secretary, Xi eliminated his opponents on the pretext of an anticorruption campaign. His faith in power politics, his willingness to only trust his own people, and his strong ideological leanings have been consistently reinforced throughout his remarkable life.

Ordinary leaders do not think of war. Wars happen when foolish leaders miscalculate that they can emerge victorious in short, sharp wars by applying overwhelming power at the right time.

A good example is the February 2022 invasion of Ukraine by Russian President Vladimir Putin. The negative impact of economic sanctions on business and people’s livelihood were temporarily set aside. In long-lasting dictatorships, no one can admonish leaders. That is why they make mistakes. We should fear dictatorships not because they are a superior form of administration, but because they result in mediocrity and stupidity coming to the fore.

That is why we should be concerned about Xi Jinping’s dream—the annexation of Taiwan. He has spoken of it many times. Deprived of educational opportunities, Xi does not understand love, God, freedom, democracy, or the rule of law. Xi Jinping’s world is one of Darwinian competition, survival of the fittest, class warfare, personality cults, and communist dictatorship. Xi’s vision is rooted in the nineteenth century world view dominated by power politics. The liberal international order that human society has forged throughout the twentieth century is, to Xi, merely a heretical religion that threatens Communist dictatorship. Xi’s ambitions are narrow—he basically wants to go down in history as having accomplished Mao Zedong’s unfinished business.

A Taiwan Emergency Makes Japan a “Front-Line State”

Some in the US government have begun to express concern that Xi Jinping’s timetable for advancing on Taiwan has accelerated. Japan has only just awakened from its peaceful 75-year slumber, and the United States is too preoccupied with Putin’s war in Ukraine to adequately commit to the Indo-Pacific front. The long-term outlook for China itself is not as bright as it was before. An already declining birthrate has accelerated, and Beijing must also deal with an ailing real estate industry, the negative economic impact of the COVID-19 lockdowns, and American restrictions on exports of high-tech products to China. Xi Jinping has little time left to take full advantage of the current situation. If he serves two more terms, he will be in office for another 10 years, putting him in his late seventies. Xi Jinping may well be thinking, “If not now, when?” The prospect of a Taiwan contingency is becoming increasingly real.

China’s attempt to take over Taiwan will begin with gray zone attacks. China will attempt to cut off Taiwan’s electricity and undermine its telecommunications systems by severing undersea cables and conducting cyberattacks. It will also attempt to assassinate Taiwan’s president and other key leadership figures. This will allow a puppet government to take over amid the chaos—one that will then request Beijing’s support. This is in line with the Communist tradition of exporting revolutionary operations that undermine internal political stability to justify external intervention. Once these initial objectives have been achieved, Beijing would launch a full-scale invasion. Japan would immediately become a front-line state in this war.

With the current strength of the Chinese military, perhaps around 20,000 troops would take part in amphibious operations to subdue Taiwan. If about half of the invading force is neutralized in the Taiwan Strait, the remaining 10,000 troops will reach Taiwanese soil. The decisive factor for victory will be will whether Taiwan and its international supporters can cut off Chinese supply lines and deal with the invaders. If the United States intervenes, China will lose, but the question is how much damage Japan and Taiwan as front-line states will suffer in the meantime. The extent of the damage Japan suffers ultimately depends on how prepared for this contingency Japan is.

Defense Expenditures and “Equitable Sharing”

Recently, work has proceeded at a rapid pace toward reformulating the National Security Strategy, the National Defense Program Guidelines, and the Medium-Term Defense Plan. Reports indicate that defense expenditures will be increased, ammunition will be replenished, and Japan will develop its counterattack capabilities. A joint command post will also be established. There are many points of contention, but a few deserve greater attention.

The first is a prospective increase in defense spending. During his tenure, former Prime Minister Abe Shinzō doubled consumption tax revenues. The consumption tax rate initially rose from 5% to 8% and then to 10%. This will eventually increase revenue by about ¥10 trillion each year. Contacts at the Ministry of Finance regard Abe as a prime minister who cared about balancing the budget. Including supplementary budgets, the second Abe administration also raised annual defense spending by about ¥1 trillion over the eight years it was in power.

A further 1% increase in the consumption tax rate would raise revenues by about ¥2 trillion. If alleviating the massive debt piling up on the shoulders of future generations is a priority, a consumption tax hike is a good option for funding further defense spending. Increasing defense spending should also be discussed when taking into account Japan’s wider budget and spending priorities. Japan’s defense budget falls far behind those of the United States (¥80 trillion) and China (¥25 trillion). It also falls short of NATO’s 2% of GDP commitment and South Korea’s actual spending of 2.7% of GDP. For Japan, the US-Japan alliance is sufficient to deter China, and there is no need to match the powerful American and Chinese militaries in terms of spending or hardware. Nevertheless, as an ally, Japan must shoulder an equitable share of the burden. The United States considers a defense budget of 2% of GDP, or ¥10 trillion, to be fair.

The geopolitical environment in the Cold War, when the 1% of GDP defense spending cap was envisioned, is no longer relevant, and Japan’s defense strategy from that period is now outdated. The strategy was for the Ground and Air Self-Defense Forces to hold out long enough against Soviet forces in Hokkaidō to allow the United States to come to the rescue. The Maritime Self-Defense Force would assist US Army and Marine forces’ landing operations to come to Japan’s defense and also support the operations of the US Navy’s 7th Fleet. It was an irresponsible defense posture that left most of the fighting up to the United States.

In the event of a Taiwan contingency, even ¥10 trillion a year would not be enough to minimize the damage to Japan if the country were to fight on its own. In particular, the SDF’s shortage of ammunition is so severe that Japan could not sustain a commitment to warfighting in a Taiwan emergency. The budget needs to be doubled and underspending on logistics needs to be corrected as soon as possible.

The Need for Counterattack Capabilities

A second important need is a Japanese counterattack capability. Japan lost the ability to think strategically during the long Cold War as it committed to a posture based on exclusively defensive posture. There was no national debate on how the nation should defend itself, and even specifically from whom it was defending itself. Fast forward to today, and China is equipped with enough nuclear and nonnuclear medium- and short-range missiles to destroy Japan. The INF Treaty has also been abrogated and Russia has now begun to arm itself with previously banned medium-range missiles.

On top of that, Japan is now in the process of dealing with a nuclear-armed North Korea that possesses medium-range ballistic missiles capable of reaching its territory. Furthermore, North Korea—using Russian missile technology—has started to field missiles with irregular trajectories or that can be launched at lofted angles that Japan’s current missile defenses cannot deal with. Both South Korea and Taiwan also retain intermediate-range ballistic and cruise missiles. In Northeast Asia, only Japan does not possess any kind of medium-range missiles.

The Abe administration took the step of introducing air-to-surface missiles (JASSM) with a range of 1,000 kilometers. The government, however, still foolishly clung to the position that it would not use them to attack enemy territory. Even elementary school pupils understand the absurdity of waiting until a barrage of missiles is killing citizens or the enemy has landed on Japanese soil before launching a counterattack. This is not deterrence. Pacifism that does not allow for the protection of people is not true pacifism. Unless you are willing to say, “if you shoot, we will shoot back,” you will not deter, and you will not be able to protect your own people. Japan must acquire a counterattack capability that can reach enemy bases. It also needs to introduce other intermediate-range missiles, specifically the Tomahawk and the extension of the Type 12 missile. This should be implemented as soon as possible.

The Defects of Current Cyber Legislation

A third area of importance is improving cyber defense capabilities. During peacetime, the SDF is limited by the Unauthorized Computer Access Act, which makes it illegal to record electromagnetic communications. This basically makes it impossible for SDF cyber units to operate to the fullest extent during peacetime. It is not unreasonable to say that this is the most defective legislation in Japan’s postwar period.

Cyber defense is fundamentally about active defense. Attribution measures and hack-back operations are the mainstays of cyber defense. This should be the responsibility of the military, which is involved in signal intelligence collection and analysis daily. It is necessary to give the SDF authority to undertake such operations by revising the Unauthorized Computer Access Act and other legislation.

Cyber defense is not only about protecting SDF assets; its aim is to defend civilian infrastructure and the whole of government. The Japanese government currently does not have such a command post for this purpose. A Cyber Security Bureau should therefore be created in the Cabinet Secretariat.

A 10,000-strong Cyber Intelligence Center should also be established. This would serve as the cyber unit for the SDF. In Japan, there is a strong argument that such organizations would violate the confidentiality of communications guaranteed by the Constitution. This is, however, an outdated argument. Secrecy of communications will be protected. Cyber defense is about protecting the safety and security of communications in cyberspace.

Finally, the hardening of bases is an urgent priority. In the 75 years since the end of WWII, the SDF has always been eager to update its equipment. Little thought was, however, directed towards what would happen if the SDF was to be involved in actual fighting battle. As demonstrated by one scene from the movie Top Gun: Maverick, airfields can be destroyed by missiles. Runways can be repaired in such cases, but every expensive fighter plane lined up under the blue sky would be destroyed.

Like the Japanese carrier-based aircraft of the Midway campaign in the Pacific War, they would be eliminated before they had the chance to take to the air in huge numbers. There is a major need to protect operational aircraft on the ground. In addition, bases with command and communications functions must also be placed underground.

(Originally published in Japanese. Banner photo: Defense Minister Hamada Yasukazu Talks at the GSDF Yonaguni Island camp in Okinawa Prefecture on September 21, 2022. © Kyōdō.)

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