Imagine for a moment a scenario in which Taiwan was presented a security alliance that was so politically sensitive that it was never to be mentioned by the governments of either country. Any questions regarding such an agreement would be neither confirmed nor denied by the states involved. In the event Taiwan was the victim of an unprovoked attack, it would conditionally receive the support of a modernized and capable navy—frigates and destroyers kitted with AEGIS combat systems, helicopters and aircraft that would provide the latest in anti-submarine warfare (ASW), and diesel submarines widely recognized as being among the best in service. Taiwan could also be the recipient of support from this ally’s air force—highly trained pilots flying fourth and fifth generation aircraft that would provide support under such dire conditions. All that is asked of Taiwan in return is that it continues its trajectory of maintaining a long-standing friendship with this country.

This agreement however, comes with a major caveat: This ally gives no actual guarantee that it would commit to Taiwan’s defense, and would only reveal its intentions shortly before or immediately following the commencement of hostilities. The United States, you say? That’s so Cold War. Taiwan’s potential ‘silent partner’ lies much closer to its shores—the state of Japan.

On July 1st, the coalition that comprises the Japanese Cabinet released their unified position regarding the government’s “reinterpretation” of collective self-defense. Under the long-standing interpretation of Article 9 in the Japanese constitution, Japan was only able to use military force in self-defense. The proposed changes, spearheaded by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, would allow Japan a wider array of military options under scenarios in which a Japanese ally were to come under attack from a shared enemy. There would, however, be three conditions that would have to be met before Japanese military intervention could be authorized:

  •  An attack on a country that has close relations with Japan that would pose “a clear danger to Japan’s survival or could fundamentally overturn Japanese citizens’ constitutional rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
  •  There would be no other way of repelling the attack and protecting Japan and its citizens
  •  The use of force would be limited to “the minimum necessary”

There is little doubt that a Taiwan scenario was factored in heavily during the final drafting of the Japanese cabinet consensus. For its part, Japan has increasingly called for Taiwan to be incorporated into the U.S.-Japan defense cooperation guidelines that are currently being negotiated, and has done so with good reason. Geographically speaking, it would be difficult to find a country that is as vital to Japan’s economic and security interests as Taiwan.

Japan relies heavily upon two vital shipping routes that fall at least partially within Taiwan’s current maritime jurisdiction—the Taiwan Strait and the Luzon Strait—for unfettered access to both receive energy imports and distribute exports. If these routes were to be disrupted by Chinese military action towards Taiwan, it would have a particularly devastating effect on Japan due to its almost exclusive reliance on maritime trade. Regarding Japanese security interests, a Chinese occupied Taiwan would cut the distance for Chinese military forces to the Senkaku Islands from 200 to 120 miles, which would allow for increased Chinese military pressure in that area. Japan would also see its southernmost territory, Yonaguni Island, become overshadowed by Chinese territory a mere 140 miles away. The United States—Japan’s primary security partner—would see its military assets in Okinawa suddenly a mere 400 miles away from an island that up until Chinese military actions was a reliable ally of both the United States and Japan.

It would appear that in a Taiwan contingency, conditions one and two would both be aptly satisfied. For the government of Japan to elect to utilize condition number three, however, would be the single most important decision made by Tokyo since Emperor Hirohito agreed to Japan’s unconditional surrender to the United States, ending the Second World War.

If taken in the proper context, the benefits of having the Japanese military as an ally against a Chinese military scenario could become Taiwan’s most valued military asset. Due to political and economic pressure from China, Taiwan has found it increasingly difficult to procure weapon platforms outside its own indigenous production. In all likelihood, Taiwan has already seen its military qualitative edge vis-a-vis China permanently lost. In lieu of constantly being denied expensive foreign weapon systems and being offered retired vessels with limited combat utility, Taiwan could seek to target systems that fill a specific asymmetric role in order to most effectively counter China’s military capabilities. A Japanese inclusion into a Cross-Strait conflict could support Taiwan with the aforementioned systems that under current conditions Taiwan can only currently dream of procuring. When factoring in the additional benefits of logistics, intelligence, and the possibility that any Chinese attack on Japan or its military increases the chance of the United States joining in the fray, the opportunity for Taiwan becomes even more clear. And the cost? Taiwan’s continued commitment to its relationship with Japan.

Nonetheless, even with all of the potential benefits, Taiwan must realize that it cannot mortgage its future solely on its relationship with Japan. The primary reason Abe chose for a reinterpretation of Article 9 as opposed to a national referendum to alter the constitution is because the chances of its passage would have been questionable at best. Even Abe’s current choice of action does not appear to have support from a majority of the Japanese public. Governments do change, as do the ideologies that accompany them. A future government could choose its own reinterpretation of Article 9 bringing Japan back full circle, or perhaps public support for Japanese intervention in a Taiwan scenario is overwhelming to the point that any such action would be political suicide for a sitting government.

These risks however, do not outweigh the potential benefits of such an alliance. For China, the prospect of facing a Taiwan-Japan-United States military alliance in response to military action taken towards Taiwan would likely be too high a price to pay, as the Chinese Communist Party would likely forfeit its legitimacy to rule if it were to lose such a high stakes gambit over Taiwan—adding in the fact that such a defeat could include rivals Japan and the United States would only add to the humiliation. The alliance therefore will give Taiwan years, if not decades, to solidify its own still-emerging national identity while further establishing its rightful place in the global community as a separately functioning state. While not a perfect scenario, a strong Taiwan-Japan relationship could turn out to be Taiwan’s wisest investment in its security yet.

(Feature photo of Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force destroyer JS Ikazuchi, by US Navy on Wikicommons.)


Brian Benedictus

Brian Benedictus is a Washington D.C.-based foreign policy analyst specializing in East Asian security issues. He is also an Asia-Pacific Desk analyst for Wikistrat. Brian owns the blog Warm Oolong Tea.

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