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How Would Japan Respond to a Taiwan Contingency?

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How Would Japan Respond to a Taiwan Contingency?

National preparedness for a cross-strait emergency has been far behind what is necessary.

How Would Japan Respond to a Taiwan Contingency?
Credit: Wikimedia Commons/ Hunini

While China is increasing military pressure on Taiwan following the controversial visit by U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to Taipei, Japan is in a rush to prepare for a Taiwan contingency. Many experts disagree about how the Japanese government should respond, and what Japan’s Self-Defense Forces (SDF) can actually do in such a scenario. However, given the harsh reality of its security environment, it is becoming evident that Japan’s national preparedness for a Taiwan emergency has been far behind what is necessary.

It was a think tank’s war games simulation that highlighted how vulnerable Japan’s security framework for a Taiwan crisis is. This exercise, held in Tokyo on August 6 and 7 by the Japan Forum for Strategic Studies, involved lawmakers of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and former defense officials.

They examined several scenarios as to how the Japanese government should respond as the situation progressed from peacetime to a possible crisis in the region. The simulation was set in August 2027, which marks the centennial of the founding of the People’s Liberation Army. The exercise also assumed that both a Taiwan emergency and a contingency involving the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, which Japan administers but China claims, would happen at the same time, forcing the Japanese government to conduct a two-front operation.

The first challenge they confronted is how to recognize the situation. Should any cross-strait contingency occur, the Japanese government is supposed to assess the status quo immediately and place it within one of three categories: (1) a situation “that will have an important influence” on Japan’s peace and security, including situations that, if left without response, could lead to a direct armed attack on Japan; (2) a “survival-threatening situation,” where an armed attack against a foreign country that is in a close relationship with Japan occurs, which in turn poses a clear risk of threatening Japan’s survival; or (3) an “armed attack situation and anticipated armed attack situation,” where an armed attack against Japan has occurred or there is an imminent and clear danger such an attack.

The category, as determined by the government, is very important, because the government’s response by law differs depending on which situation is invoked.

For example, under Japan’s Civil Protection Act only in an “armed attack situation and anticipated armed attack situation” can the government demand that prefectural and municipal governments work out civil protection plans and allow the central government to use the SDF to evacuate citizens. In other words, even if a Taiwan contingency happens, Japan’s Civil Protection Act cannot be applied if the crisis is officially deemed an “important influence situation” or a “survival-threatening situation.”

During the table-top exercise, it was decided that the Taiwan emergency would be recognized as a “survival-threatening situation” that poses a clear threat to Japan’s survival, and that the Senkaku/Diaoyu contingency would be recognized as an “armed attack situation” in which Japan was attacked.

Japanese lawmakers and former senior officers of the SDF who attended the table-top exercise were faced with the question of how to safely evacuate about 100,000 Okinawans in the Sakishima Islands, located at the southernmost end of the Japanese archipelago, 1,500 Japanese stranded in Taiwan, and 110,000 Japanese remaining in China.

For one thing, as Morimoto Satoshi, a former Japanese defense minister, pointed out in an interview with The Diplomat earlier this year, there is the deficiency in the transport capabilities of the SDF, which again became evident during the simulation. Due to a lack of SDF capabilities and capacities, the participants found it difficult for the SDF to defend the inhabited Senkaku Islands and evacuate 100,000 citizens in the Sakishima Islands at the same time. The SDF has only about 10,000 members in total on Japan’s southwestern Nansei Island chain, which spans about 1,200 kilometers.

For another thing, participants hesitated to deem the Taiwan emergency and the Senkaku contingency a “survival-threatening situation” and an “armed attack situation,” respectively. By doing so, they were afraid of worsening relations with Beijing, which could negatively affect the safety and evacuation of Japanese citizens remaining in China. In the simulation, incredibly it took two whole months for the government to formally categorize the two contingencies. As a responsible state, Japan should protect its citizens from anywhere at any time, regardless of which category the contingency falls into.

The second biggest challenge Japan confronts in a Taiwan contingency is how far the SDF can support U.S. forces.

In the case of a “situation that will have an important influence” on Japan’s peace and security, the SDF is authorized to provide logistics support for the U.S. Armed Forces in rear areas.

In the case of an “armed attack situation and anticipated armed attack situation,” since this is a direct attack against Japan, Japan will no doubt fight in the support of the U.S. troops. There is also no obstruction to cooperation between the SDF and U.S. Forces in this case.

The tricky one is a “survival-threatening situation.” An important question arises when recognizing this situation, which is whether the U.S. military operations are for the defense of Japan or for the defense of Taiwan. According to Morimoto, under current Japanese laws, the government can acknowledge a survival-threatening situation only when the U.S. Forces are acting in defense of Japan, thus enabling the SDF to support U.S. troops. It’s unclear the SDF could legally support U.S. troops in defense of Taiwan in this situation, he said.

However, former Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo, who was assassinated in July, once said, “A Taiwan contingency is a contingency for Japan. In other words, it is also a contingency for the Japan-U.S. alliance. People in Beijing, particularly President Xi Jinping, should not misjudge that.”

Abe was right. As soon as U.S. forces act to defend Taiwan, China may launch missile attacks on the U.S. military bases in Japan. Therefore, it is expected that Japan would be directly and inseparably impacted by a Taiwan emergency almost immediately. This will lead to a survival-threatening situation and Japan’s full support of the activities of the U.S. military.

However, under Japanese law, this entire process is reactive. If the Japanese government judges that a Taiwan emergency is not an emergency in Japan, it will not be deemed a “survival-threatening situation” – and the SDF cannot assist the U.S. military in operations in defense of Taiwan.

In any case, one must remember if China were to invade Taiwan, Japan’s government would not have much time – certainly not two full months, as it took in the simulation – to make a decision, especially considering the emergency evacuation procedure for citizens. It is necessary for Tokyo to review domestic laws, such as the 2015 Japanese security legislation, which Abe and the LDP promoted and the Diet passed.