How Japan could find itself dragged into a conflict between US and China over Taiwan

Kristin Huang
·4-min read

Japan may find itself in the firing line if mainland China attacks Taiwan because of the multiple US bases on its soil, analysts have said.

Last week, Japanese and US defence chiefs agreed to cooperate closely if Beijing decides to attack the island, which it regards as a breakaway province that must eventually be reunited with the mainland.

The US is required by law to provide Taiwan with the means to defend itself, but it has not made clear whether it would intervene militarily in the event of a Chinese attack, something that would probably lead to a much broader conflict with Beijing.

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Last week Admiral John Aquilino, Joe Biden’s nominee to lead America’s Indo-Pacific Command, told Congress that Beijing will have the ability to invade Taiwan sooner than current predictions would suggest.

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“If Beijing decides to attack Taiwan, PLA generals will have a strong incentive to launch extensive missile strikes on US military bases in Okinawa and Japan, as these are the most powerful forces that could intervene and inflict heavy losses on PLA forces,” said Timothy Heath, a senior security expert from US think tank Rand.

The US has a total of 23 military bases in Japan, including the Kadena Air Force Base on Okinawa, which is known as the “keystone of the Pacific”.

According to aviation tracker Aircraft Spots, most of the US military planes that conduct surveillance and reconnaissance flights take off from Kadena base.

“There is a possibility that in such a conflict Chinese People’s Liberation Army ships and warplanes might enter Japanese maritime territory and airspace, which Japan needs to defend against,” said Heath. “War in the Taiwan Strait will almost certainly disrupt energy and trade shipments to Japan, which is critical to the Japanese economy.”

Malcolm Davis, a senior analyst in defence strategy and capability from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, also said the US bases in Japan would come under direct Chinese attack very early in a conflict, directly dragging Tokyo into the war

“Chinese thinking on counter-intervention strategy emphasises ‘anti-access and area denial’, which includes striking forward bases,” said Davis, referring to the US bases in Japan. “Furthermore, even if US forces were not located in these regions, it is highly likely that China would strike at Japanese bases early to prevent Japanese intervention in an effective manner.”

Davis warned that if Japan were dragged into a war between Beijing and Taipei, the battle would quickly escalate into a major conflict that will involve other countries like Australia.

“If that deterrence were to fail, and were China to undertake provocations either within the grey zone, or worst case, a direct assault on Taiwan itself, the US, Japan and Australia would certainly coordinate their response,” said Davis.

“Obviously all parties do have the choice not to intervene in support of Taiwan, but to do so would guarantee the collapse of the US-led security order in Asia, leading to a power vacuum that China will quickly fill,” he added.

However, Song Zhongping, a Hong Kong-based military analyst, said the major factor in any escalation would be the US rather than China.

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“China hopes to minimise casualties if a military resort were to be used, but if the US meddles in China’s effort to reunify with Taiwan, then the whole situation would worsen quickly, leading to many countries getting involved, and this is the worst case scenario,” said Song.

Japan has historically refrained from commenting on potential conflict in Taiwan and its stance is to “encourage dialogue for a peaceful solution to cross-strait tensions,” according to Kyoto. The country’s post-war constitution also states that its armed forces are purely for defensive purposes.

In a joint statement issued with Japan last week, US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin and Secretary of State Antony Blinken said, “China’s behaviour, where inconsistent with the existing international order, presents political, economic, military and technological challenges to the alliance and to the international community.”

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