U.S., Japan step up military drills in case China seizes Taiwan

As China’s military increases military pressure on Taiwan, the United States and Japan have recently held secret military exercises and joint military training in response to the possibility that China could launch a forceful seizure of Taiwan.

The Financial Times, citing six unnamed sources, reported that the U.S. and Japanese militaries began serious planning for a possible conflict in the Taiwan Strait during the final year of President Donald Trump’s term. The two sides conducted top-secret sand exercises and joint military drills in the South and East China Seas.

Former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe decided in 2019 to significantly expand the Japan-U.S. military program in response to threats to Taiwan and the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea. The Financial Times, citing three people familiar with the matter, reported that the U.S.-Japan military cooperation program has continued to move forward since Joe Biden took the White House and Abe’s successor, Yoshihide Suga, took the helm.

Since the election of Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen in 2016, cross-Strait relations have taken a sharp turn for the worse, with Beijing not only cutting all official ties with Taipei but also continuing to increase military pressure on Taiwan. PLA fighter jets and bombers and other military aircraft have intruded into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone, reaching a record 28 sorties on June 15, alarming both the U.S. and Japan. The Chinese Navy, Air Force and Marine Police have also become increasingly active in the waters of the Senkaku Islands. The Senkaku Islands are currently administered by Japan, but both Beijing and Taipei claim sovereignty over them.

China has repeatedly stressed that Taiwan must complete reunification with the mainland, and that Beijing must accomplish this goal even if it uses force. Xi Jinping, general secretary of the Communist Party of China (CPC) Central Committee, stressed again on Thursday (July 1) at a conference commemorating the centennial of the CPC’s founding that “resolving the Taiwan issue and achieving the complete reunification of the motherland is a historical task to which the CPC is firmly committed and is the common aspiration of all Chinese sons and daughters.” Xi claimed that he would “resolutely crush any attempt at Taiwan independence and create a better future for national rejuvenation”. He also declared that “no one should underestimate the strong determination, firm will and powerful ability of the Chinese people to defend national sovereignty and territorial integrity”.

In an interview with the Financial Times, U.S. Assistant Secretary of Defense Randy Schriver, who is in charge of Indo-Pacific security until the end of 2019, said that “in many ways, the People’s Liberation Army has pushed the United States and Japan together, triggering new thinking on their part on Taiwan.” Schriver said that “showing strength near both the Senkaku Islands and Taiwan naturally makes people aware of the relevance of the two issues.”

The Financial Times report noted that the U.S. has long wanted Japan, with which it has a security agreement, to do more joint military planning with the U.S., but Japan is constrained by its post-war peace constitution. The Abe administration launched a reinterpretation of the constitution in 2015, partially but not completely removing this obstacle. Under the reinterpretation of the constitution, Japan could provide defense against allied forces under attack.

The Financial Times revealed that Japan asked the U.S. to provide and share its operational plans on Taiwan as the U.S. and Japan began to expand their bilateral joint military programs. But the Pentagon’s response has been less than forthcoming, as the U.S. side wants to expand military coordination with Japan in stages.

A former administration official told the Financial Times that the ultimate goal is actually for the U.S.-Japan military alliance to work together on a joint warfare plan for a conflict in the Taiwan Strait. Two sources told the Financial Times that the U.S. military and Japan’s Self-Defense Forces have held joint military exercises in the South China Sea under the guise of disaster relief training; both sides have also held more military exercises near the Senkaku Islands, and this could directly contribute to preparations for a Chinese attack on Taiwan, which is, after all, 350 kilometers west of the Senkaku Islands.

Some of the training activities that we do are highly interchangeable,” said former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Defense Ralph Sit. For example, an amphibious landing in a “disaster relief situation” could be “directly applicable” to the Senkaku Islands or any conflict around the Taiwan Strait.

Retired Rear Admiral Mark Montgomery, who served as commander of the USS George Washington carrier battle group, told the Financial Times that the U.S. needs to have a “comprehensive understanding of the support Japan can provide in wartime. The U.S. needs to have a “comprehensive understanding” of what Japan can provide in wartime support. Montgomery, who served as chief of operations at U.S. Indo-Pacific Command from 2014 to 2017, noted that “as the crisis erupts and Japan becomes a potential participant in the war, the U.S. needs to understand how Japan can support or enhance U.S. combat capabilities.”

The Financial Times report noted that U.S. and Japanese diplomats are reviewing legal issues related to joint military operations between the two sides, including the use of military bases and what kind of logistical support Japan could provide to U.S. forces in the event of a U.S.-China conflict.

In the event of a U.S.-China conflict over Taiwan, U.S. forces would have to rely on Japanese air bases, but that would raise the risk of Japan becoming involved in a war, especially if China destroys those bases in an effort to strike U.S. forces.

An unnamed official told the Financial Times that both the U.S. and Japan urgently need to form a tripartite information-sharing mechanism with Taiwan to keep a close eye on the movements of China’s naval and air forces, especially their access to the Miyako Strait east of Taiwan. Japanese sensors are deployed in the northeastern part of the Miyako Strait, while Taiwanese sensors are deployed in the southwestern part of the Miyako Strait.

“Information and data collected by their respective sensors are already being shared between Taiwan and the U.S. and between Japan and the U.S., but we don’t have a mechanism for direct sharing among the three parties,” the official noted. “You can’t wait for a situation to happen and then set up a three-way sharing mechanism, you have to do it right away.”

Another official revealed that the U.S., Japan and Taiwan have actually taken “a small but very important step in 2017, which is to share the identification codes of military aircraft of the three parties to help identify friendly military aircraft.”

The Financial Times report quoted Taiwanese officials and U.S. and Japanese sources as saying that cooperation between the three parties has increased significantly since Japan realized the importance of Taiwan to Japanese security. Heino Klinck, who has been serving as deputy assistant secretary of defense for East Asian affairs at the Pentagon since late 2019 until the end of the Trump presidency, said that “the Japanese government is increasingly aware, and even openly admits, that defense of Taiwan is equivalent to defense of Japan.”

In a reply to the Financial Times, Japan’s Defense Agency said Tokyo and Washington have continued to update their joint plans since Japan and the United States revised their security treaty guidelines in 2015, but did not provide any details.

The Pentagon did not respond to the Financial Times’ inquiry.