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U.S. on alert against possible Taiwan contingency

President Joe Biden speaks to State Department employees, Feb. 4, 2021. (State Department/Released)
March 19, 2021

The fact that Japan and the United States held a so-called 2-plus-2 meeting of their foreign and defense ministers less than two months after the inauguration of U.S. President Joe Biden’s new administration — the swiftest such gathering in history — is believed to indicate the importance that the United States attaches to the Japan-U.S. alliance in dealing with China. Japan, for its part, will be urged to take concrete measures to strengthen its deterrence capabilities.

In a joint press conference after the meeting, U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin stressed working with Japan to counter China’s moves. “Our goal is to make sure that we maintain a competitive edge over China or anyone else that would want to threaten us or our alliance,” Austin said. “We are much stronger when we operate as a team.”

Both the U.S. secretary of state and the defense secretary chose Japan for their first foreign trip because of the sense of urgency over China’s increasing moves to change the status quo in the Western Pacific, including the area around Japan. The U.S. side considers the prevention of a contingency in Taiwan to be an urgent issue, which was also on the agenda at the 2-plus-2 meeting.

Since last year, China has repeatedly sent its air force planes into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone, and at the end of last year, civilian ships from China approached Taiwan’s Matsu Islands in large numbers. Within the U.S. government, talk of a Taiwan contingency has become a reality.

On March 9, Cmdr. Philip Davidson of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, told a U.S. congressional hearing that China is accelerating its ambitions and Taiwan is clearly in the midst of this. Davidson expressed the view that a Chinese invasion of Taiwan is possible within six years. The year 2027 marks the 100th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Liberation Army of China.

—Urgency to narrow power gap

The narrowing gap in military strength between the United States and China is also fueling the urgency felt by Washington. According to a Pentagon report released in September last year, China has 350 military vessels, exceeding the number of U.S. vessels, which stands at slightly over 290. Some analysts believe that the two nations’ military strength around East Asia has reversed.

By 2025, China is expected to have three aircraft carriers in the region while the United States has one, and China will have six amphibious assault ships to the United States’ two. In the event of a contingency, China is expected to adopt anti-access and area-denial strategies, also known as “A2AD.”

Under these strategies, China plans to block U.S. military operations inside the “second island chain,” which runs through Guam, and to prevent U.S. forces from entering the “first island chain,” which connects the Nansei Islands and Taiwan. In the Taiwan Strait crisis of the mid-1990s, the U.S. military dispatched aircraft carriers to the waters near Taiwan to deter China.

The same strategy will likely not work again. In addition, it would take about three weeks for the U.S. military to move its fleet from the U.S. mainland. It is the U.S. military based in Japan that would be responsible for the initial response in a contingency, and Japan’s geopolitical importance will only increase. The U.S. military also has high expectations for the support from the Self-Defense Forces.

—Missile network concept

The weak point of the U.S. military is ground-launched medium-range missiles. 

China has deployed more than 1,250 of these missiles, and they are a strike force that can block the approach of U.S. forces, while the U.S. military has deployed no such missiles. This is because the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, or INF Treaty, between the United States and Russia prohibited possessing such missiles.

The U.S. military has been exploring their introduction since the treaty expired in 2019. The U.S. military stated a concept of building a missile network along the first island chain in a report submitted to Congress earlier this month, requesting a budget of $27.3 billion over six years from fiscal 2022 to strengthen deterrence against China.

If such missiles are deployed in the first island chain, Japan could be a candidate site. The U.S. Defense Department is reviewing its strategy toward China and plans to present its outline by June. Eric Sayers, former special assistant to the commander of U.S. Pacific Command, said that the U.S. military must take advantage of Japan’s geographical superiority in all areas, including sea, air and strike power.


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