Media  Foreign Affairs and National Security  2022.08.04

How U.S. and Japanese strategists differ in preparation for a Taiwan contingency

The two countries' war games over such a scenario differ greatly: One keys in on the military aspect, the other the legal

the japan times on July 21, 2022

International Politics/Diplomacy

In March 2021, Adm. Phil Davidson, Commander of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, testified in front of the Senate Armed Services Committee that the Chinese threat to Taiwan “is manifest during this decade, in fact in the next six years.”

Since then, universities and think tanks in Japan and the United States have conducted war games more frequently on a Taiwan contingency.

Although dealing with the same theme of a potential Chinese armed attacks against Taiwan with similar military scenarios and organizational methodologies, the war games conducted in Tokyo and Washington are in reality quite different from each other, particularly in terms of their assumptions, objectives and, of course, conclusions.

In a nutshell, the war games conducted by the Americans, which assume the military involvement of allies, are more operational and laser-focused on critical military elements of a war. In contrast, the war games carried out by Japan have participants struggling to justify their government going to war and are more abstract, esoteric and apologetic.

This gap is ominous. The most recent Taiwan war scenario carried out in the U.S. that I know of involved “a high-level strategic-operational war game exploring a fictional war over Taiwan, set in 2027,” and was conducted by the Gaming Lab at CNAS this May in partnership with NBC’s Meet the Press. The game examined “how the United States and its allies and partners could deter the PRC from invading Taiwan.”

In contrast, the war games on a Taiwan contingency in Japan are not as specific and operational as the American scenarios. In Japan, it has been long considered taboo to openly talk about a contingency in Taiwan due to China’s “one China” policy. Even during the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s study sessions, the word “Taiwan contingency” is considered to be too provocative.

Although there are some good publications and studies in Japan focused on a Taiwan contingency, they do not always deal with specific tactical aspects of the situation. The most recent book, which was titled “Taiwan Contingency Scenarios” and coauthored by several retired chiefs-of-staffs of the Self-Defense Forces, as well as a retired senior official of the Cabinet Office, emphasized Japan’s challenges in regard to legal issues, both domestic and international, in its contingency policy making.

War games are no exception. In August last year, the Japan Forum for Strategic Studies (JFSS), in partnership with NHK, the nation’s public broadcaster, conducted a policy simulation titled “How Japan should deter and cope with the Taiwan Strait Crisis.” The exercise was reportedly aimed at enhancing the knowledge base of the political, public and private sectors regarding a crisis.

Dozens of participants took part, including three members of parliament, foreign and defense experts and retired SDF generals. Although they discussed such issues as cyberattack response capabilities or a situation involving the Senkaku Islands, they concentrated much of their effort studying the “timely recognition of the situation” under Japanese law.

After reading the reports and recommendations of CNAS and JFSS, in addition to various Taiwan contingency publications both in English and Japanese, I have become convinced that something is missing in both U.S. and Japanese war game studies — and the gap between the two must be bridged as soon as possible.

Here are my takeaways:

As for U.S. war games, the objective is to identify the best political or military measures to maximize U.S. deterrence and the possibility of defeating China if such deterrence fails. The American participants comprise mostly military officers with real combat experience or seasoned war-policy makers who know exactly which specific military tactics best fit each situation in times of war.

The conclusions of the CNAS exercise are both realistic and specific. The war game indicated that there is no quick victory for either side and that “Beijing was faced with a dilemma” of either attacking America or avoiding involvement. In addition, China may be willing to rattle its nuclear saber — but Beijing faces “an additional asymmetry,” meaning that China has no real ally while the U.S. has many, and therefore the U.S. and its allies have a better chance in the game of deterrence.

The CNAS study then made some concrete recommendations, such as making sustained investments in long-range precision-guided weapons and undersea capabilities, bolstering basing access in the Indo-Pacific region and the deepening of strategic and operational planning with Japan and Australia.

More broadly, it advocated for planning to fight a protracted war, facilitate a favorable endgame and exploring the risks of escalation in the context of a war with China. It also called on the U.S. Congress to use the Pacific Deterrence Initiative to help shape Taiwan’s military posture and support its asymmetric war-fighting capabilities with stockpiled weapons and supplies.

In contrast to American war games, Japanese war games or publications naturally focus more on the so-called gray-zone situation, the defense of Japan rather than the defense of Taiwan and legal interpretations for the justifications for waging war rather than specific military tactics. They also avoid overt discussions on nuclear weapons.

The most plausible reason for the shortcomings is that, under Japanese law, there are at least five different categories of “situations,” each one of which specifically identifies and authorizes the degree and extent of Japan’s use of military force.

They are:

  • “Critical impact situations,” meaning “leading to a direct armed attack on Japan if left unchecked”
  • “Emergency response situations,” meaning “large-scale terror attacks on Japan”
  • “Anticipated armed attack situations,” meaning “an armed attack on Japan is imminent”
  • “Armed attack situations,” meaning “real armed attack on Japan” when Japan can strike back
  • “Survival-threatening situations” meaning “an armed attack against a foreign country results in a threat to Japan’s survival” when Japan can use force to assist its ally

It is complicated even for the Japanese. Still, many experts in Japan argue that it is critically important to ensure that the timing and content of Japan’s “situation” recognition be consistent with the U.S. side through prompt decision-making and coordination.

How would it be possible to make these decisions in the middle of a contingency over Taiwan? No one knows.

Which makes the situation even more urgent that this tragic gap between Japan and the U.S. is bridged as soon as possible. If not, we may lose Taiwan before fighting even begins.