If the Chinese Communist Party invades Taiwan, under what conditions can the Japanese Self-Defense Forces participate in the war?

Soldiers use ropes to dangle from a CH-47J helicopter during a live-fire exercise by the Japan Ground Self-Defense Force (JGSDF) in the East Fuji Maneuver Area, Gotemba City, Shizuoka Prefecture, Japan, May 22, 2021.

As tensions continue to rise in the Taiwan Strait, what role can Japan play in the event of U.S. military involvement in the Taiwan Strait? A report analyzes what kind of support Japan could provide to U.S. forces in the event of a possible war in the Taiwan Strait, whether it could contribute to the war effort, and the legal and political issues associated with it, under the U.S.-Japan “spear and shield” strategy.

“Tom Shugart, a former U.S. Navy submarine warfare officer and part-time senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security think tank, told Nikkei Asian Review that the Chinese Communist Navy would have to pass through different choke points and straits between the first island chain if it wanted to enter the high seas from the offshore. “This will provide opportunities for its adversaries – the U.S. and our allies’ submarine forces. They can be monitored more closely and attempted to intercept them if we get involved in a conflict, or if a conflict is about to break out.”

Jeffrey Hornung, a political scientist at Rand Corp, a U.S. think tank, said controlling the maritime chokepoint could be one of Japan’s most important contributions in a potential conflict with the Chinese Communist Party.

The U.S. Department of Defense hired Hornung to write a report titled “Japan’sPotentialContributions in an East China Sea Contingency.

The 160-page report points out that after the Cold War, the Japanese military shifted its defense focus from the Soviet Union to the Chinese Communist Party, especially the Ryukyu Islands near mainland China and Taiwan, where Japan’s three self-defense forces, air, land, and sea, were reinforced. In wartime, all three SDFs could help the U.S. military by blocking the “throat” of the Chinese Communist forces to and from the Pacific Ocean.

This article introduces the armament of Japan’s Self-Defense Forces and its advantages, including the advantages of cooperation between Japanese and U.S. forces; this article will introduce the circumstances under which Japan can participate in the war if war breaks out in the Taiwan Strait, as well as the legal and political aspects of the use of bases by U.S. forces and the participation of Self-Defense Forces in the war.

Pompeo: Communist China commits Taiwan will also pose great risk to the Japanese people

The report begins by stating that the Chinese Communist Party is already considered a “major security threat” in Japan’s strategic thinking on armaments.

Japan’s Nansei Islands chain extends from the southernmost tip of Kyushu to the northern part of Taiwan. It consists of smaller groups of islands, including the Osumi, Tokara, Amami, Okinawa, Miyako and Yaeyama chains. In April, the Chinese aircraft carrier Liaoning and five frigates crossed the Miyako Strait, a 250-kilometer-wide waterway between Okinawa and Miyako, before the Liaoning headed south to Taiwan.

If the Chinese Communist Party goes to war with Taiwan, it could also endanger Japan’s security. Former U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the U.S. and Japan could build an alliance because of the geographic location and the great risk that a Chinese communist move to commit Taiwan would also pose to the Japanese people. Kyodo News quoted informed sources last month as revealing that the situation in the Taiwan Strait is increasingly causing concern in Japan. The Japanese government has begun formal discussions on laws related to unexpected developments in Taiwan.

Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi attends a live-fire exercise by the Japan Ground Self-Defense Force (JGSDF) in the East Fuji Maneuver Area in Gotemba, Shizuoka Prefecture, Japan, May 22, 2021.

The report also analyzes how, in the event of a war in the Taiwan Strait, Japan could, under a newly revised law in 2015, help support U.S. forces with logistics, intelligence, blockade and other support, even in the event of “an armed attack against a foreign country with close ties to Japan that threatens the survival of Japan” without its own country being attacked. It is possible to directly deploy the Self-Defense Forces against Chinese communist ships.

In an interview with the Japanese media on May 19, Japanese Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi was asked whether the “Japan-U.S. Defense Cooperation Guidelines” would be revised in the event that “something happens to Taiwan,” and Nobuo Kishi said that in response to changes in the situation, it would be necessary to make appropriate revisions according to the situation Although there is no plan to revise it yet, but will continue to pay attention to the relevant trends. The situation in Taiwan will be treated seriously as a problem for Japan,” said Nobuo Kishi. Discussions must continue between Japan and the United States on this issue.

Horn said in the report that since the SDF has never been in combat, there are many legal and political questions about how Japan would support the United States if war broke out in the Taiwan Strait, allow U.S. forces to use their bases in Japan or civilian bases in Japan to fight Communist forces, and authorize the SDF to use force.

The U.S.-Japan Security Treaty, which sets out basic alliance obligations and expectations, and the U.S.-Japan Defense Cooperation Guidelines, which are responsible for implementation, are not legally binding.

  1. U.S. Use of U.S. Bases in Japan Requires Prior Consultation

Japanese officials understand that the U.S. needs Japanese bases to carry out military operations, such as defending Taiwan. However, from Tokyo’s perspective, prior consultation with Japan is legally required for the U.S. to use its forces from these bases for combat operations, if not for the defense of Japan.

Japan expects that if the United States is considering using its bases in Japan to engage in an armed conflict with another country, where Japan itself is not a party to the conflict, and the United States acts so as to put Japan in a position to be the target of a strike, then the United States should consult with Japan before engaging in combat.

In practice, prior consultation is not a burdensome process. Before deciding on any combat action, a U.S. government official, perhaps the U.S. ambassador in Tokyo, would approach the Japanese government, perhaps the foreign minister.

Realistically, it is difficult to imagine that Japan would object to a request by the United States to use its bases in the event of an outbreak of regional conflict. If the United States were to engage in hostilities with the Chinese Communist Party, it is hard to imagine that a U.S.-China conflict would not affect Japan’s national security. Given that the United States is Japan’s only ally, it is almost politically impossible for Tokyo to oppose the use of its bases by U.S. forces, but such approval would not be automatic and would require prior consultation.

From May 11 to 16, the U.S., Japan, France and Australia participated in the Jeanne D’Arc 21 joint exercise (Jeanne D’Arc 21). (Japan Self-Defense Forces Twitter)

  1. U.S. military use of Japanese air/sea ports may be time-consuming

Under the Japan-U.S. Status Agreement (SOFA), U.S. forces are permitted to use Japanese airports and ports, both SDF and civilian, in a regional contingency conflict.

However, this permission is not automatic in the event of a contingency. For U.S. forces to use Japanese civilian airfields and ports, the U.S., through the U.S.-Japan Joint Committee (U.S.-Japan Joint Committee), first notifies Tokyo of the specific ports and airfields it wishes to use.

The law allows the Japanese government to coordinate with civilian authorities to facilitate U.S. access to the facilities it needs. If the civilian authorities object, the law gives the central government the authority to order the local authorities to comply. If the local authorities refuse, the central government can grant direct permission for U.S. forces to move into the facility. However, this process can be time-consuming.

French soldiers and Japanese Self-Defense Forces soldiers (right) participate in a joint military exercise held by the U.S., Japan and France, May 15, 2021, in Ebino, Miyazaki Prefecture, Japan.

  1. Authorization for the use of force by the Self-Defense Forces was relaxed

Unlike the North Atlantic Treaty, where an attack on either side of the alliance was equivalent to an attack on all allies, Japan was not obligated to assist the United States in a conflict. However, Japanese law today is able to assist the United States in emergencies, albeit with strings attached and in limited circumstances.

Prior to 2015, the Japanese Self-Defense Forces could only use force in the event of an armed attack on Japan. Under the Armed Attack Response Act, two situations were defined as “an armed attack incident” and “an anticipated armed attack incident.” The former is defined by then Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi as an organized and premeditated armed attack against Japanese territory, sea or airspace, and also applies to armed attacks against Japanese vessels on the high seas. The latter is defined as a situation where an armed attack has not yet occurred, but is expected to occur.

In 2015, the Abe administration passed a new security law that introduced two new concepts that broadened the scope of the use of Japan’s Self-Defense Forces. The first is “situations that would have a significant impact on the peace and security of Japan (significant impact events),” meaning that these impacts, if not addressed, could lead to a direct armed attack on Japan.

The second is “situations that threaten the survival of Japan (existential crisis situations).

The Japan Ground Self-Defense Force (JGSDF) conducts a live-fire exercise in the East Fuji Maneuver Area in Gotemba, Shizuoka Prefecture, Japan, May 22, 2021.

Under these new laws, Tokyo must first give a definition and make a decision. If a contingency breaks out, but Japan is not attacked, and Tokyo defines the situation as “one that has a significant impact on its peace and security,” SDF participation will be limited. It will be limited to non-combat rear support activities, which may be conducted on Japanese territory/waters/airspace or on the high seas. These activities are described in defense guidance and include such things as logistical support, provision of supplies, maintenance and medical services, and search and rescue operations. The Self-Defense Forces will not be authorized to use force.

Only the Prime Minister has the legal authority to order the deployment of the SDF. However, these decisions must be decided by the Cabinet and then approved by the Diet.

In 2014, then-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe reinterpreted Japan’s constitution to allow the SDF to use force in the exercise of collective self-defense. Under these changes, the SDF can now use force if the following three conditions are met

  1. When an armed attack occurs against Japan, or against a foreign country with which Japan has close ties, and thus threatens the existence of Japan and poses a clear danger of fundamentally subverting the people’s right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
  2. When there are no other appropriate means to repel the attack and ensure the survival of Japan and the protection of its people.
  3. when the use of force will be limited to the minimum extent necessary.

Under Condition 1, Japan does not have to be directly attacked in order to be declared a threat to its survival. For example, since the U.S. has a responsibility to defend Japan under Article 5 of the Security Treaty, if the U.S. were attacked, this could be defined as a “threat to the survival of Japan” because it could affect the survival of Japan. This allows Japan to use force as an exercise of its right to collective self-defense, and once a situation is declared a “threat to the survival of Japan,” SDF activities are no longer limited to non-combat areas.

Although there is no law that obligates Japan to support the United States in regional contingencies, the consensus among Japanese officials and SDF officers is that Japan is likely to do so. When a conflict occurs between the United States and the CCP, whether the United States wins or loses, they tend to conclude that it is in Japan’s interest to support the United States to prevent CCP hegemony.

Importantly, in exercising the right to collective self-defense, the SDF acts as if it were defending itself in the event of a direct attack on Japan. In other words, the SDF would not be restricted in specific actions in order to win a battle. For example, even if a CCP ship is not targeting Japanese facilities and poses no threat to Japanese civilians or troops, the SDF could fire on the ship if Japan exercises its right to collective self-defense for the United States.

While the SDF can legitimately engage in contingencies unrelated to Japan’s own national defense, its operational space is limited. Japan is more likely to use force on its own territory than on the high seas or in the territory, waters, or airspace of another country.