Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has served as a wake-up call for Taiwan, which some observers say faces a serious military threat from China. Experts in Japan are assessing the possibility of an armed strike and what it would mean for the region.
Former Japanese Deputy Foreign Minister Tanaka Hitoshi said a Chinese military operation is unlikely at this stage, mainly for economic reasons. He says President Xi Jinping is counting on economic growth to win the support of his people for the Communist Party of China, or CCP.
The Russian example – with Moscow facing severe economic sanctions from Western countries and Japan following its invasion of Ukraine – is having a chilling effect.
If China went ahead with a plan to take control of Taiwan by force, it too would be hit with sanctions from the international community. Economic growth, the CCP’s top priority, would be heavily impacted.
The eventuality of Taiwan “a question of when”?
But some foreign policy experts still fear that China is preparing for a military operation against Taiwan.
Takamizawa Nobushige, former ambassador to the Japanese delegation to the Conference on Disarmament, is one of them. Takamizawa says it’s critical to understand how Chinese policymakers think, because something that seems implausible from an outside perspective can seem inevitable if interpreted with CCP logic.
Kanehara Nobukatsu, former Deputy Cabinet Secretary, analyzes the CCP’s logic from the perspective of modern history. They consider Taiwan as a territory taken by Japan in 1895 following the Sino-Japanese war. After World War II, it came under the control of the Chinese Nationalist Party led by Chiang Kai Shek, who fled there after losing a civil war on the mainland to CCP forces. That is why they regard the reunification of Taiwan as a historical mission.
Today, Taiwan is ruled by President Tsai Ing-wen and her Democratic Progressive Party has strained relations with the CCP.
Kanehara says the CCP views the recapture of Taiwan as even more valuable than that of Hong Kong, which was taken by Britain during the Opium Wars and returned to China in 1997, as the territory has always been under American influence since 1945.
The CCP has pledged to be equal to or stronger than the United States by 2049 – the party’s 100th anniversary.
Former Vice Foreign Minister Tanaka said, although he thinks the move is unlikely at this time, “the CCP leadership believes that Taiwan unification is not a matter of” whether or not”. It’s more a question of “when, by 2049”.
Analysis: Masuda Tsuyoshi, NHK Senior Political Commentator
It’s very unlikely, but if China attacks Taiwan, Japan would be hit directly. Japan’s southern islands could be caught in a potential war zone.
Many of the diplomacy and security experts I interviewed believe that the United States would move its military to defend Taiwan because of its strategic importance, unlike the situation with Ukraine. US forces have bases in Japan under the Japan-US Security Treaty, and Japan has an agreement to provide logistical support.
In such a case, in a military logic, China could block Taiwan by cutting off air-sea communications and creating a vast combat zone around it.
Japan’s westernmost island, Yonaguni in the Sakishima island chain, is just over 110 kilometers from Taiwan. Japan’s territorial waters and airspace could become a combat zone.
The Japan Self-Defense Forces have bases on the islands of Yonaguni, Ishigaki and Miyako. Former deputy cabinet secretary Kanehara said it would not be surprising if China tried to neutralize SDF bases and, in the worst case, overrun them.
Although unlikely, this is a situation that Japan should be prepared for.
Meanwhile, some members of Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party believe the current level of cooperation between Japan, the United States and Taiwan is insufficient. They say there doesn’t seem to be a common understanding of the situation and strategic goals. They believe that some sort of framework is needed to discuss these issues.
The Japanese government should also think seriously about how it would protect and evacuate people from the Sakishima Islands in the event of an emergency.
It must also prepare for large numbers of refugees moving from Taiwan to Japan, just as millions have fled from Ukraine to Poland.
Diplomatic efforts are always important, and Japan must unite with other countries against Chinese aggression and persuade Beijing that there is nothing to be gained by invading Taiwan.