Japanese Former Defense Minister Morimoto Satoshi on a Taiwan Contingency

If “China can unify Taiwan while eliminating U.S. interference. This is the best scenario for China… The surrounding countries cannot help Taiwan.”

As the struggle for supremacy between the United States and China intensifies in the Indo-Pacific region and elsewhere, the Taiwan issue is becoming more and more prominent. U.S. President Joe Biden has repeatedly vowed to defend Taiwan in the event of Chinese aggression, despite Washington’s long-held stance of “strategic ambiguity” over the self-ruled island.

For Japan, Taiwan’s fate is not somebody else’s problem. Taiwan is only 110 kilometers away from Yonaguni Island in Okinawa Prefecture. And Taiwan is a strategically important place, located at the center of the “First Island Chain,” which extends from Kyushu Island of Japan to the Philippines, thus becoming the forefront of the China-U.S. conflict.

Will Taiwan be the next Ukraine? And if the worst happens, is Japan prepared for a potential Taiwan contingency? The Diplomat recently sat down with Morimoto Satoshi, a former Japanese defense minister and the nation’s leading expert in defense and security issues, to discuss Japan’s role in a Taiwan Strat conflict. The interview was conducted in Japanese and has been translated into English.

Russia’s aggression against Ukraine is often compared to China’s possible invasion of Taiwan. In your book titled “Taiwan Contingency Scenario,” published at the end of January this year, you noted: “It is clear that China is aiming at unifying Taiwan by around 2035, which is a goal of China’s core interests.” Is there any change in your outlook following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine?

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The Chinese Communist Party’s willingness to unify Taiwan has not changed at all. President Xi Jinping said in October 2021, “The historical mission of the Chinese Communist Party to unify Taiwan must and will definitely be realized.” This continues to the present. However, China has not yet decided when and under what kind of scenarios it will unify Taiwan.

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There are three major factors that China keeps in mind when making this decision. First, what kind of decision will the U.S. make to intervene at the time of China’s action? Second, what is the military balance between the U.S. and China at that time? Third, what does the Chinese Communist Party leadership think about the importance of its impact on China’s domestic politics?

Regarding the first point on the U.S. decision, how China unifies Taiwan will be a key issue. What this means is that if China tries to unify Taiwan by force, it is up to the U.S. president’s political will to decide whether or not the United States actually intervenes in the conflict.

However, political will changes from time to time, and it [U.S. involvement] is not a promise, as in treaties or agreements. The U.S. does not have any treaties or agreements with Taiwan. The Taiwan Relations Act, enacted by the U.S. Congress in 1979, is a domestic political legal obligation in terms of American defense of Taiwan. It is not an obligation to foreign countries.

Most recently, U.S. President Joe Biden reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to defend Taiwan in the event of Chinese aggression during his visit to Tokyo on May 23.

That was a political commitment by one president, not a commitment to foreign countries. Taiwan is not a country, so the U.S. cannot make any treaty [with Taipei].

By comparison, Article 5 of the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty stipulates the U.S. would act to meet the common danger in accordance with its constitutional provisions and processes in the event of an armed attack by other nations against Japan. In U.S.-Japan relations, every U.S. president has said at summit meetings that he will keep this commitment.

In that respect, President Biden’s commitment to defending Taiwan is quite different. He merely stated his own determination in domestic politics, which does not imply any commitment under a treaty.

What is the best scenario for China to unify Taiwan?

China wants to unify Taiwan in a scenario where the U.S. either does not intervene or intervenes as little as possible. China wants to do so in a scenario without using force, as defined by international law.

Specifically, it will use threats, indirect invasion, operatives, and fake information to greatly disrupt Taiwanese society and encourage some parts of Taiwan to dare to say, “Taiwan should be independent.” And if the scenario moves in this way, China would say, “We have no choice but to unify Taiwan in order to prevent Taiwan’s independence.” In this case, there should be no act of using force as ruled by international law. The U.S. cannot send the U.S. military either.

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China can unify Taiwan while eliminating U.S. interference. This is the best scenario for China.

Even if this doesn’t work, no country can intervene if the actual operational actions are settled within a few days, following confusion caused by sabotage, indirect invasion, cyberattacks, fake information, and so on. Although the U.S. could direct the U.S. Forces Japan to undertake minimal military activities, there would not be enough time to send U.S. forces from the mainland U.S.

The surrounding countries cannot help Taiwan. It’s completely different from Ukraine. There are currently 33 countries providing weapons to Ukraine, but there is little chance that Taiwan will be able to receive similar support and cooperation.

On the other hand, even if developed countries aim to impose some sanctions because of China’s actions, if they do not come together within a few days, the Chinese flag will fly on Taiwan by then. If this happens, then we will have to fight China, but no nation can actually fight anymore. China would be thinking of such a scenario.

What are the military challenges for China to invade Taiwan?

China has to cross the Taiwan Strait, but in order to cross it, enough landing ships are required. However, the number of landing ships is limited in China. Only about 25,000 to 30,000 people can cross now. Out of the 2.3 million soldiers in the People’s Liberation Army, only that number can be taken across the strait.

In addition, China must have overwhelming control over the sea and air in the Taiwan Strait. The Air Force and the Navy of the U.S. Forces Japan can thwart China’s moves, but if that becomes a short-term decisive battle and China achieves its goal shortly while preventing the U.S. forces, there is nothing else we can do.

Given this military balance, China will seek to craft a scenario of minimal intervention by the U.S. and prevent foreign countries from supporting Taiwan. Since Taiwan is an isolated island, if you want to support it, you have to use the sea transportation route. If the sea is blocked, relief supplies will not reach there from any country. Perhaps some supplies have to go via Japan. Japan will be a relay point.

China is probably thinking of a scenario where it would be best to take Taiwan in a few days with little resistance while restraining U.S. troops in Japan.

If the U.S. military does not have time to receive support from other areas, then the U.S. military in Japan must be fully activated. In that case, there should be no shortage of strength in the U.S. Navy and U.S. Air Force in particular. China doesn’t want to move, especially when the U.S. military’s maritime force is present. However, should the U.S. Navy troops be dispatched to the Middle East and other areas, and then China may move on its Taiwan unification scenario, aiming for a gap in power.

This situation occurs when the U.S. military presence in Japan is almost empty. The U.S. Air Force has less than 250 fighters in total, combining those of the U.S. Forces Japan and U.S. Forces Korea. If something happens [in the Taiwan Strait], the Korean Peninsula will definitely have signs of something bad happening and the U.S. Forces Korea will not be able to send troops to Taiwan. South Korea’s military cannot support Taiwan either. So we will have to deal with the situation only by using the existing U.S. military presence in Japan and the Japan Self-Defense Forces.

It is unlikely that 33 countries will bring weapons [to Taiwan] like Ukraine. This raises the question of whether the U.S. has provided Taiwan with sufficient equipment in advance that can handle such situations.

The U.S. had better review this a little more carefully. The weapons that the U.S. has provided to Taiwan so far are extremely defensive-oriented weapon systems, and they are not sufficient. Taiwan needs more anti-ship missiles and anti-aircraft missiles.

Do you think that the number of F-15 fighters at the Japan Air Self-Defense Force (JASDF) Naha Air Base in Okinawa is not enough in the event of a Taiwan emergency?

Two squadrons at Naha base (about 20 fighter jets per squadron) can escort U.S. Air Force aircraft in Japan, but cannot fight. Naha base has only the minimum necessary fighters to defend Japan’s air zone. What Japan needs most is not fighters, but air-to-air refueling tankers. Japan must have the ability to refuel in the air for the U.S. Air Force to operate.

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What is more troublesome is whether there is sufficient maritime transportation capacity to evacuate Japanese and foreigners in Taiwan to Japan as well as maritime security capabilities to protect that maritime transportation. Are there enough ships to evacuate about 100,000 Okinawans in the Sakishima Islands, located at the southernmost end of the Japanese archipelago, to Japan’s main island? There is almost nothing. Japan is not yet fully prepared yet.

And the biggest problem is that government officials from Japan, the U.S., and Taiwan have never discussed how they can cooperate in an emergency.

Is that because Taiwan is not recognized as a country?

No. In the Japan-China Joint Communiqué (September 1972) when Japan regained diplomatic relations with China, and in the [U.S.-China] Shanghai Communiqué (February 1972), the “One China” policy was agreed upon, with China saying Taiwan is part of China. Since Taiwan is not recognized as the government, there can be no government-to-government talks.

So in Japan and the U.S., we can do simulation exercises and training for a Taiwan emergency, but Taiwan cannot participate any of these preparations.

If we don’t include Taiwan, that’s meaningless.

The security environment in Japan is only getting worse.

Japan is now the only country in the world to face the three most serious military threats of China, Russia, and North Korea. It cannot be said that Japan’s defense capabilities alone have sufficient defense capabilities to counter these three threats. Therefore, we are now arguing that defense spending should be increased.