It is hard to believe that the Japanese High Command is not saying to the Chinese High Command, secretly or otherwise, that if China attacks Taiwan, Japan will have to respond whatever the Americans or anybody else chooses to do.
Taiwan is absolutely essential to the defence and security of Japan. It is the key link in what has been called the First Island Chain running more or less parallel to the Asian mainland from Sakhalin in the north down through the pencil-like line of Japanese islands through the Ryukyu Archipelago to Taiwan through Batan and Babuyan to the Philippines and then down to Indonesia. This chain of islands prevents the Chinese from getting out of the Sea of Japan, the Yellow Sea, the East China Sea and the South China Sea into the North Pacific Ocean in any militarily significant numbers.
This essay appears in the April’s Quadrant.
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If China occupied Taiwan it would be able to amass significant and seriously threatening naval power both east and west of Japan. Being a long narrow line of islands, Japan lacks serious geographical strategic depth, and while it is reputedly the world’s third-largest economy, it must import all of its oil and most of its food, minerals and other essential goods. It would be very difficult, if not impossible, for Japan to mount a successful defence without massive support from the US and other allies.
These strategic realities have been occupying the minds of Japan’s best strategists for at least a hundred years, and of course they have been working diligently to maintain the chain. I first became aware of these matters when I visited Japan in the late 1960s and early 1970s and interviewed some of Japan’s major naval and other strategists.
One of the most important of these was Commander Hideo Sekino, who educated me thoroughly on Japanese naval strategic thought. He spoke not only of the First Island Chain and the strategy and tactics required to defend Japan itself, but also of the need for Japan to defend the Sea Lanes of Communications in conjunction with the US. I met him a number of times, hoping he would join the Pacific Institute of which I was Executive Secretary. The institute was warning at the time of the imminent rise of an aggressive and expansionist China and the need for Australia and its allies, especially the US and Japan, to protect the strategic waterways running through Indonesia and the South China Sea (see the 1970 Pacific Institute Resolution and its regional military co-operation section which I wrote with Australian Brigadier Ted Serong, the most insightful “general” of the Vietnam War).
Today, having witnessed over the last ten years China’s aggression in the South China Sea and having heard Xi Jinping’s stated ambitions of “world domination” within the next few decades, Japan, already with the world’s fourth-strongest military forces, has embarked on a massive military expansion—and being the world’s third-largest economy, it can afford to do so.
On October 20, 2020, the Japan Maritime Self-Defence Force (that is, Navy) launched its twenty-second submarine in a little over two years, this one the first of the new “Taigei” class. As of recently, the Japanese Navy, the third-largest navy in the world, also operated two multi-purpose operation destroyers (de facto aircraft carriers), four helicopter carriers (called helicopter destroyers), twenty-six destroyers, ten small destroyers (or frigates), six destroyers escorts (or corvettes), and thirty mine counter-measure ships among many other vessels.
Japan’s very impressive ships are equipped with the best weaponry the US can supply including the Aegis missile system. Japan also maintains a large naval air force, including over 200 aeroplanes and 145 helicopters. Most of these aircraft are used in anti-submarine warfare operations. The Air Force has the best fighter bomber and other aircraft and weaponry the US can supply. The Army is equally well equipped. And we know how well the Japanese can fight. One of Japan’s biggest problems is an ageing and declining population, making military recruitment difficult. But it has also become more open to more US forces being based in Japan within striking distance of Taiwan and to more visits from the nuclear-armed US Pacific fleet.
More importantly, the Japanese Navy recently held joint exercises over a number of days with the US navy, air force, army and marines in what were called “Maritime Landing Exercises”. This has led to speculation as to where Japan might be contemplating large-scale wartime joint maritime landing operations. Taiwan? Manchuria? Apart from the First Island Chain strategic factors bonding Japan to Taiwan, there is another factor, namely that Japan colonised Taiwan for fifty years between 1895 and 1945, thoroughly Japanising the island, just as America’s fifty years of colonisation Americanised the Philippines.
At first Japan’s colonisation was brutal, especially against the native Taiwanese, but it quickly began an island-wide program of infrastructural development and modernisation—roads, railways, ports, irrigation, hydro-electric power, sewerage, educational institutions, health facilities and so on. The Bank of Taiwan was established and Japanese companies like Mitsui and Mitsubishi were encouraged to invest.
By 1905, Taiwan was financially self-sufficient, had been weaned off subsidies from Tokyo and was generally considered the most developed region of East Asia after Japan. By 1925 food production had increased enormously, Taiwan becoming a major food basket for Japan’s industrial economy. By 1945 the average lifespan of the Taiwanese had reached sixty years and most infectious diseases had been almost eradicated. Militarily, it is recorded that 126,750 Taiwanese voluntarily joined the Japanese military forces during the Second World War and that a further 80,500 were conscripted. The Imperial Japanese Navy and Air Force both operated heavily out of Taiwan.
Today, Taiwan is a robust, prosperous advanced industrialised nation of 24 million people. Its GNP per capita is many times that of China. Anyone familiar with North-East Asia knows that Taiwan is unique, that the capital Taipei, for example, is very different from Hong Kong or any of the cities along China’s coastline. There is a totally different atmosphere, a different temperament and different lifestyles. The people give off an aura of confidence in being both free and disciplined—and being survivors. They know they are a success. They also know other countries look to them. Right from the start of the development of ASEAN, Taiwan was an ex-officio member of that regional collaboration.
In fact, without the support of Taiwan, and indirectly Japan, ASEAN might not have succeeded after its establishment in August 1967. And without the success of ASEAN, APEC might not have happened. Taiwan generals and senior politicians have been coursing through ASEAN countries (and vice versa) meeting their leaders for many years despite the absence of official diplomatic relations.
Like Japan, Taiwan is rapidly expanding and modernising its military forces in the wake of China’s aggressive actions in the South China Sea, its global warrior diplomacy and its more direct and outrageous provocations such as flight incursions and amphibious landing exercises. At least until recently, Taiwan had, according to globalfirepower.com, approximately 1,882,000 military personnel including 165,000 active personnel, 2.5 million reservists including 1,655,000 active reservists, 744 aircraft, 117 naval vessels, including submarines, destroyers, frigates and anti-ship missile boats, and 1180 combat tanks. Taiwan ranks twenty-sixth in terms of overall military strength out of 139 countries.
To give some idea of its modernisation, it has added in the last two years four Hai Lung (Collins class) submarines to its previous two. It has just signed an agreement with the US for sixty-six more F-16 aircraft to add to its current total of 142 and also plans to purchase the F-35 stealth fighter. The army has also grown. It is adding 108 Abrams to its 1200 other tanks and modern weapons to support them and is adding 250 new US Stinger missiles to its older stock of 2223 Stinger surface-to-air missiles. It is purchasing new US artillery, Apache helicopters and other weaponry. Overall, the military budget in 2020 increased 10 per cent following a 5 per cent increase in 2019, bringing it to 2 per cent of GNP.
Back in the early 1970s, I was told by Taiwan naval chiefs that an attempted seaborne invasion across the Taiwan Strait would require greater preparation, military and civil co-ordination, planning, ingenuity and daring than the Normandy landings in the Second World War. Consequently, they doubted it would ever happen. I recently read an article in the Australian press where an analyst suggested that without US involvement, China could take Taiwan any time. He must have glanced at a map, thought it just a half a thumbnail from China to Taiwan and that China’s navy and air force could at any time in any old month and in any weather, hop, skip and jump across the treacherous stormy strait (about two or three times the width of the English Channel) and without serious opposition take over. Nothing could be further from the truth.
A 2018 study, based on extended research and field work, concluded that there was a real possibility that Taiwan could fight off a Chinese attack, even without the direct involvement of the US military. This study was “grounded in statistics, training manuals and planning documents from the People’s Liberation Army itself, and informed by simulations and studies conducted by both the US Defense Department and the Taiwanese Ministry of National Defense”, and it concluded that “a cross-strait war looks far less like an inevitable victory for China that it does a staggeringly risky gamble”.
This invasion would be the largest amphibious operation in human history. The studies show that tens of thousands of vessels would have to be assembled—mostly commandeered from the Chinese merchant marine—to carry more than a million troops across the strait. They would be backed or preceded by waves of missiles and rockets launched from the mainland, the Chinese Air Force and the Navy.
However, their greatest problem, among many others right from the start, would be the lack of the element of surprise. Taiwan, America and Japan would know of the preparations at least two months or even a year before the invasion was launched and would have a good idea of its details as a result of intelligence gathering, including their aerial and spatial reconnaissance of the mainland.
Taiwan has been preparing for this day for decades. It has or will have fortified its coasts with thousands of underground tunnels, anti-ship missiles, sea and land mines and other weapons, and laid strong inland defences of many creative kinds including the deployment of highly trained guerrilla warfare units. In short, the 2018 study concludes that Taiwan on its own could possibly hold out China. It does not go on to say so directly, but it implies that with Japanese and US support on the sea, in the air and on the ground, China could not take Taiwan.
It seems the PLA believes the same. At the moment, Xi Jinping and other authorities in Beijing sound as if they believe Taiwan would be a walkover. What must be considered here is that Xi might launch an invasion, find he was losing and opt to go nuclear—or he might do so from the start if he came to believe the PLA assessment. In that case, China could end up taking as much damage, especially to its cities along the coast, as Taiwan and Japan—and at the end of hostilities Taiwan would still not have been occupied.
Talking of assessments, in all the analysis of the Taiwan issue I have read from commentators of all kinds over the last ten or twenty years in Australia and America, the Taiwan issue has been presented as a conflict between China and the US over the future of Taiwan, with the US hoping its allies Japan and Australia would join in. In many studies, papers and articles, Japan hardly gets a mention. I have even read articles by writers touted as Asian experts and strategists who gave the impression that they did not know that Japan had colonised Taiwan for fifty years. (All they had to do was search the internet for “history of Taiwan” and there it all is—which has been a main source for this article.)
Yet as I have argued here, the Taiwan issue is primarily a conflict between China and Japan over the future of Taiwan in which Japan hopes its great ally the US will come to its assistance either under the US–Japan Mutual Defense and Security Treaty or simply out of its long-term strategic interests. If it failed Japan it would have failed the world.
But why does China want Taiwan? The Han Chinese, that is the Chinese who rule today, claim that Taiwan is a “breakaway province”, a “renegade province” or a “rogue province” from China. But Taiwan has never been any sort of province except as a tactical move by the Manchus in the last five or six years of their remote colonisation of Taiwan at the end of the first Sino-Japanese war in 1895. The reason China wants control of Taiwan is the obvious one: the Chinese navy and military want easy access to the North Pacific Ocean so they can attack Japan, and they cannot obtain that without control of Taiwan.
The only time any Han Chinese regime or political force on the mainland ever ruled Taiwan was between 1945 and 1949 when Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist regime was asked to administer the island by the United Nations following the defeat of Japan. When Chiang and the Nationalists were forced to flee to Taiwan in 1949 following the communist victory, they established an independent dictatorship that for years treated the local Taiwanese with great brutality while claiming to still be the legitimate government of all China. Over the years the nation of Taiwan, called the Republic of China by Chiang, has morphed into a robust and prosperous democracy.
So what can we say of the Manchus and others who preceded the Japanese in Taiwan?
The Manchus marched down from the north-east and conquered the collapsing Han Chinese Ming Dynasty in 1644 to establish the Qing or Ching dynasty. Most Han Chinese at that time did not consider their conquerors to be Chinese, but just Manchurian barbarians who had raped and killed millions of the Han. This raises a question I heard recently: Why weren’t the areas of China the Manchus controlled renamed Manchuria when the Manchus took over? By the end of the Qing dynasty 267 years later, much of this anti-Manchu animosity had greatly subsided but by no means had it completely died. It still lingers today.
However, back in 1683 when the Manchus drove the ruling Zheng family, led by the brilliant warrior Zheng Chenggong, also known as Koxinga, out of Taiwan, the anti-Han feeling was still very strong. The Zheng family was loyal to the defeated Han and Ming dynasty, but never had a base on the mainland. Indeed, the Manchus, like the Han over centuries before them, had little interest in Taiwan and when they took it over treated it as a backwater. It was made a Prefecture of Fujian province and when the Manchus were losing control of the region as a result of naval losses in the first Sino-Japanese War, they upgraded its status to province in 1889. In 1895 in the Treaty of Shimonoseki they ceded Taiwan to Japan in perpetuity.
Taiwan was never a “breakaway province” nor a “renegade province” nor a “rogue province”. Indeed, given its treatment it was hardly a province at all. Perhaps this is why Beijing has never taken the matter to a United Nations tribunal. Incidentally, the concept of “one China” only came into being after Chiang Kai-shek moved his government to Taiwan. Neither Chiang nor Mao had any interest in Taiwan before 1942.
But whatever the history, it is irrelevant to what is happening today. China wants Taiwan because it is a key strategic link in the First Island Chain. If China can take control of Taiwan its navy will gain strategic level access to the North Pacific. That would enable it to seriously threaten Japan militarily from both east and west—and also nations further south. Japan would fight to prevent that happening and that would mean another Sino-Japanese War.
This scenario should be seen in the context of Xi Jinping’s numerous statements that China’s ultimate ambition is “world domination” within a few decades, perhaps by 2049 to coincide with the hundredth anniversary of the communist victory in China. To achieve this, China would not only have to conquer Japan, but dominate the US and Europe as well, and that would require military domination, including cyber and space weaponry. Like Japan’s global ambitions in the Second World War, it is highly unlikely to come to fruition for a number of reasons, including its habit of making too many mistakes.
Where does all of this leave Xi Jinping? In November 2016, Xi is reported by the Taipei Times to have said that if he fails to deal with Taiwan, he and his government will be overthrown. He didn’t say by whom. The military? Party factions? The secret societies? Or some combination of them?
Frank Mount is the author of Wrestling with Asia: A Memoir (Connor Court). He was the Editor of Asia Pacific Report from 1997 to 2007