A recent National Institute for South China Sea Studies (NISCSS) report would appear at first blush to be an independent academic study. However, the institute, located in China’s southern Hainan island province, is according to the fine print affiliated with the Foreign Ministry in Beijing.

Not surprisingly, the report examines US military activities in the South China Sea and maritime areas adjacent to China. The report was released just weeks before the US officially rejected China’s sweeping claims to the contested waterway, the latest move in what some see as a fast-emerging new Cold War.  

The Communist Party-affiliated Global Times said the report underlined “the US’ return to the Cold War-esque great-power competition to China-US military relations” and that “China [had] no alternative but to increase its military budget and build up its military forces as appropriate to uphold its national security.”

Whether China’s fast and rich military buildup in recent years, including substantial investments to modernize its naval forces, has been prompted by US freedom of navigation operations and other maneuvers in the contested sea, which are not new or particularly more threatening than previously, is debatable.

But as China increasingly views the US as a potential threat and adversary, a point that will have been underscored by the US’ July 12 announcement rejecting most of Beijing’s wide-reaching South China Sea claims, the NISCSS report largely overlooked the rise of another regional military power: Japan.

Japan may have lost its once vast Pacific empire at the end of World War II, but its string of islands from Hokkaido in the north to Okinawa in the south forms a natural barrier that would substantially hem in China during any future military conflict. As Japan now seeks stronger strategic ties with Taiwan, that line of island defense may be more robust than many analysts realize.

In the event of a sea conflict with the US, China would need access to wide and secure sea lanes in order to reach the Pacific Ocean, the natural buffer between the Asian mainland and the Americas.

Map depicting first and second island chains of defense. Image: Consortium of Defense Analysts

In that direction, China has strengthened its ties in recent years with several Pacific Island nations, among them Tonga, Samoa and Fiji, which may be small in size but control huge maritime areas in the Pacific.

In September last year, Kiribati and the Solomon Islands decided to sever ties with Taiwan and establish diplomatic relations with Beijing, a move that came despite intense lobbying by US officials.

The month before, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited Micronesia, the Marshall Islands and Palau, other small but strategically important island nations. The top envoy stated then that “We know China seeks to engage and to influence this region,” and the US and its allies must “sustain democracy in the face of Chinese efforts to redraw the Pacific.” 

In light of recent Pacific developments, it has become even more important to the US to establish a line of defense closer to China and the Asian mainland. That’s at least part of the rationale behind Japan and Taiwan’s emerging China containment wall.

Taiwan controls the Pratas or Dongsha islands, three atolls north of the actual South China Sea, as well as Taiping island, or Itu Aba, the largest of the natural islands in the Spratlys. China’s newly-built artificial islands in the South China Sea may be bigger, but Taiping is a well-fortified island with its own airport that can accommodate militarily significant C-130 transport planes.

Supply ships can dock at the island’s piers and it also has its own telecommunications facilities. The population, which is not permanent, consists of a little over 200 military personnel and coast guards. They have not been reinforced recently, but, on June 22, Taiwanese marines were deployed on a “training mission” to the Pratas islands amid reports that the Chinese military planned to conduct drills in the area.

When mainland China turned communist in 1949 and the US and its allies fought a war against China and North Korea in the early 1950s, Washington’s insistence on a disarmed Japan started to loosen. In 1954, the Japanese Self-Defense Forces (SDF) were formed, ostensible for just that, self-defense, and nothing more. Since then, however, the SDF has grown into one of the world’s most powerful, if not understated, militaries. 

It now has nearly 250,000 active personnel equipped with the latest weaponry and technology procured mainly from the US. The much-publicized US bases in Japan are not the only ones in the country.

The SDF divides the country into the Northern, Northeastern, Eastern, Middle and Western Army on the main islands and the Southwestern Air Defense Force in southern Okinawa prefecture. There are bases and air radar sites for aircraft control in all those military regions.

A Japanese Special Defense Force soldier in a drill. Photo: Flickr

If a military conflict were to erupt in the region, Japan would be well prepared on land and at sea. Japan’s newly-developed hypersonic anti-ship missiles could threaten China’s aircraft carriers at a time Japan is building its first real carriers since World War II.

The Japanese navy is as capable, and possibly superior, to any force in the Pacific, including China’s. In December last year, Japan’s government approved an eighth straight annual boost in defense spending to a record high: US$48.5 billion in the fiscal year starting April 1. The budget includes provisions for buying US-made Stealth fighters, interceptor missiles and other equipment to counter China.

The US had long wished for an informal, tripartite defense pact between itself and its two main allies in the region: Japan and South Korea. But, for historical reasons, that plan never coalesced between Japan and its former colony. Taiwan was also under Japanese rule, from 1895 to 1945, but there is no parallel to the anti-Japanese feelings that still prevail in Korea. As such, Taiwan, not South Korea, is Japan’s natural regional ally.

In May, as Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen began her second term, Japanese top government spokesman Yoshihide Suga said that Tokyo is eager to deepen its ties with Taiwan. Japan’s annual diplomatic bluebook, which was released on May 19, called Taiwan an “extremely important partner, a boost from last year’s description of Taiwan as a “crucial partner.”

Suga said that the emphasis would be on “non-governmental, working-level ties” and expressed appreciation for the “warm support” Japan had received from Taiwan after the the Covid-19 crisis outbreak. The blue book emphasized that Tokyo has “consistently supported” Taiwan’s efforts to gain observer status at the World Health Assembly, the forum through which the World Health Organization is governed.

But the bilateral understanding goes way beyond diplomatic niceties. The Japan Times reported on November 11 last year that a group of Japanese lawmakers, headed by Keiji Furuya of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, “is looking to ramp up security cooperation with the United States and Taiwan in a bid to counter China’s military buildup and growing assertiveness in the region.”

The idea is to create a forum consisting of lawmakers from Japan, Taiwan and the US to coordinate activities in the region. While neither Japan nor the US has official diplomatic relations with Taiwan, Furuya noted in a statement clearly aimed at China that “we share fundamental values such as freedom and democracy.”

Taiwanese naval officials stand at attention in a file photo. Image: Facebook

On May 21, Japanese Foreign Minister Keisuke Suzuki pointed out on a blog quoted in media that Taiwan is important to Japan’s national security and said that the Chinese Communist Party should not be allowed to “ravage” Taiwan on the global stage. Suzuki stated that Tokyo would not “tolerate China’s peremptory threats to people living in free societies.” He also promised to protect Japan’s national interests “at all costs,” and that no doubt includes keeping Taiwan safe from Chinese threats.

While the Taiwanese may not share the Koreans’ animosity towards Japan, there are a few things that prevent fostering closer relations between Tokyo and Taipei. First of all, says a veteran observer of Taiwanese politics, Taipei claims a group of islands between Okinawa and Taiwan, called Senkaku in Japanese and Diaoyudao in Chinese. Beijing also claims them.

But, the observer points out, the now ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) to which president Tsai belongs, “pays the issue only lip service” while some in the opposition nationalist Kuomintang (KMT) “strongly emphasize it.”

A similar dispute exists around Okinotori-shima, a tiny, 9.44 square meter coral atoll in the Pacific Ocean. Japan controls it — and then claims a 200 nautical mile economic Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) around it. That claim is disputed by China, South Korea and Taiwan. Okinotori-shima does not meet the definition of an island under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), those countries say, and therefore no such EEZ can legally be declared.

In 2016, Japanese coast guards seized a Taiwanese fishing boat and detained the ten men on board because they had ventured inside that self-declared EEZ. They were released after paying a security deposit, but the incident led to demonstrations outside Japan’s “representative office” — a name many countries use for their unofficial diplomatic missions — in Taipei.

While Article 9 of the post-World War II, pacifist Japanese constitution outlaws war as a means to settle international disputes and the SDF is meant only to defend the country if it comes under attack, in 2014 the Japanese government approved a reinterpretation of that clause.

Now it means that the Japanese military has the right to engage in “collective defense”, or, in other words, it can now also defend its allies, including the US, if war is declared upon them. Some now wonder if that rereading of the provision could also extend to Taiwan’s defense.

The Covid-19 crisis permitting, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe would like to see a referendum to revise Article 9, making the SDF legitimate and no different from other countries’ armed forces.

Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen and Japanese President Shinzo Abe together in a file photo. Image: Facebook

The 2014 reinterpretation of Article 9 was met with protests in China while the US, Philippines, Vietnam and Indonesia reacted positively. The South Korean government, reflecting age-old animosity between the two countries, did not oppose it — but stressed that it would not approve of any JDF operations near the peninsula without its prior approval.

Taiwan and Japan do not yet have overt military relations, but as early as 2018, Fan Chen-kuo, deputy secretary-general of the Taiwan-Japan Relations Association, said openly that “Taiwan and Japan should exchange security-related information.” At a debate in April this year at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, its Japan chairperson Grant Newsham stated quite bluntly that “Taiwan’s defense is Japan’s defense.”

If China decides to invade Taiwan, which it considers a renegade province, “Tokyo either helps Taipei defend itself or sits by and hopes Taiwan doesn’t come under Chinese control,” Newsham said. It is unlikely that Japan would choose the latter option, and China is certainly aware of that. An invasion of Taiwan could trigger a regional conflict that escalates into something much wider.

The US role in this new Japan-Taiwan defense paradigm is unclear. On the one hand, President Donald Trump has expressed more sympathy for Taiwan than any American president since Washington shifted recognition of China from Taipei to Beijing in 1979. Trump famously called Tsai weeks after being elected in 2016, the first by an American president or president-elect with Taiwan’s leader since ties were cut.  

Further to Beijing’s chagrin, Trump approved a $180 million arms deal in May, which included the sale of 18 MK-48 Mod6 Advanced Technology Heavy Weight Torpedoes and related equipment. Earlier sales included air-to-ground missiles, spare parts for aircraft and technical assistance to upgrade Taiwan’s shipboard electronic warfare systems and KIDD-class destroyers.

But Trump’s 2017 withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade agreement binding the US with 11 countries in the region, was poorly received in Tokyo, which has tried to rescue the pact which overtly excluded China. Tokyo has also come under pressure from Trump to shoulder more of the costs for US bases in Japan, a rising bone of contention between the two allies.

In April this year, the US ended the rotating presence of B-52 bombers in Guam, a US-controlled island from where Washington has traditionally maintained capabilities to project power in the Pacific. The bombers are now stationed on the US mainland, from where they will continue to operate in the Indian and Pacific Oceans. But from Tokyo’s perspective, that is hardly the same as having then based on nearby Guam.

US Air Force maintenance technicians prepare to tow a B-2 Spirit aircraft after a local training mission at Anderson Air Force Base, Guam, January 19, 2017. Photo: US Air Force

As Trump appears less committed than his predecessors to maintaining America’s highly strategic Pacific footprint, East Asia’s defense will increasingly fall on Japan’s shoulders. As one Western defense analyst put it: “Japan and its outlying islands provide a very handy base to monitor or interdict Chinese naval forces breaking out of the Yellow Sea and into the Pacific.”

That’s also true for China’s ally Russia, whose Far Eastern Fleet is based at Vladivostok on the opposite side of the Sea of Japan. With Taiwan and its islands assuming a new role as a strategic partner of Japan, the encirclement that China fears – and which is clearly articulated in the NISCSS report – could soon become a strategic reality in the post-Covid-19 era.

A new strategic order is emerging in East Asia with Japan and Taiwan in one corner and China in the other. That order will solidify regardless of who wins the US presidential elections in November and whether Washington becomes more or less committed to the region. Japan already is a force to be reckoned with and Taiwan is emerging as its closest, if not understated, regional strategic ally.