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Opinion & Reviews

OPINION: First, catch the tiger: Japan's potential military role shielding Taiwan

When considering an invasion of Taiwan, China should not rule out the Japanese Self-Defense Forces and its allies as a protector of Taipei

Troops from Japan's defense force
Troops from Japan's defense force | Shutterstock

April 8, 2022 2:23pm

Updated: April 9, 2022 11:10am

Tiger stew is considered a delicacy in many far east cultures. It is believed that consumption of this dish provides one with the virile qualities of the massive jungle cat itself. There is also a profound admonition associated with tiger soup which reads, “before one aspires to dine on tiger stew, one must remember that first you must catch the tiger.” In other words, don’t get too enthralled with the potential benefits that you overlook the obvious peril.

This is exactly how I view Chinese designs on dominating the Asia-Pacific region without counting on the now powerful Japanese military and its allies. Since December, Tokyo, Taipei and Washington initiated plans for a joint defense of Taiwan, a plan that calls for strategically using Japanese owned islands as a staging area to reinforce Taiwanese forces, according to Tokyo Reuters. 

China should take note of this since in the past Japan has proven to be a formidable challenger, and although its military forces were significantly reduced after the Second World War, the Japanese Self Defense Forces have since amassed 247,154 active personnel and more than 56,000 reservists. And although Beijing boasts the second highest military budget in the world at $252 billion just behind the United States at a whopping $778 billion, Japan’s $50.3 billion annual defense budget still ranks as ninth among the top ten nations in the world.

To better understand the challenges China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) may have in taking Taiwan amidst its longtime Japanese rival as a Pacific-rim watchdog, it is important to understand the wartime history between the two Asian powers.

Modern history reminds us that the Japanese have pretty much had their way in various direct confrontations with the Chinese. For example, The First Sino-Japanese War (25 July 1894 – 17 April 1895), a conflict between the Qing dynasty of China and the Empire of Japan primarily over influence in Joseon Korea. This conflict was marked by six months of unbroken victories by Japanese land and naval forces and the taking of the port of Weihaiwei. The Qing government urgently sued for peace in February 1895.  The defeat was also a catalyst for a series of political upheavals led by Sun Yat-sen and Kang Youwei, culminating in the 1911 Xinhai Revolution.

The Second Sino-Japanese War (1937–1945) was a brutal conflict that was primarily waged between the Republic of China and the Empire of Japan. The war made up the Chinese theater of the wider Pacific Theater of the Second World War. This full-scale war between the Chinese and the Empire of Japan is often regarded as the beginning of World War II in Asia. 

The Japanese ground and naval forces rapidly defeated numerous Chinese forces from Manchuria south and east to Wuhan. The Imperial Japanese Army (IJA) ultimately committed over 200,000 troops, along with numerous naval vessels and aircraft, to capture the city. On 26 October, 1927 the Japanese Army captured Dachang, an important strong-point within Shanghai, and on 5 November, additional reinforcements of Japan landed from Hangzhou Bay. Finally, on 9 November, the NRA (National Revolutionary Army) began their embarrassing retreat. 

It took Allied involvement in the greater conflict known as World War II to liberate China from its Japanese masters, but not before a series of humbling defeats and corresponding atrocities that we cannot seriously address in this article. The Japanese would go on to challenge the naval might of the United States and be overwhelmed themselves, yet not before registering a number of bold military surprise victories that earned them a grudging and ignominious recognition as the fathers of carrier warfare.

Since March 2016, Japan's Legislation for Peace and Security enables seamless responses of the JSDF (Japanese Self Defense Forces) to any situation to protect the lives and livelihood of Japanese citizens. It also increases proactive contributions to peace and security in the world and deepens cooperation with partners. This enhanced the Japan-U.S. alliance as global partners to promote peace and security in the region and the international community.

Japan activated the Amphibious Rapid Deployment Brigade, its first marine unit since World War II, on 7 April 2018. It is trained to counter invaders from occupying Japanese islands. The Ministry of Defense has raised the maximum age for enlisted personnel applicants would be raised from 26 to 32 in order to secure “a stable supply of Self-Defense Forces [military] personnel amid a declining pool of recruits due to the recently declining birth rate.”

British troops of the Honourable Artillery Company (HAC) conducted a field exercise together for the first time with Japanese GSDF soldiers in Oyama, Shizuoka prefecture on 2 October 2018. This also marked the first time in history that foreign soldiers other than Americans have had field exercises on Japanese soil.

The purpose was to improve their strategic partnership and security cooperation. Japan and the United States conducted the biggest military exercise around Japan to date in the biennial Keen Sword from Oct. 29 to Nov. 2, 2018. It included a total of 57,000 sailors, marines and airmen. 47,000 service members were from the JSDF and 10,000 from the U.S. Armed Forces.

A naval supply ship and frigate of the Royal Canadian Navy also participated. There were simulations of air combat, ballistic missile defense, and amphibious landings. Japan also unveiled the 84-meter long, 2,950-ton Taigei-class submarine on 4 Oct. 2018. Japan's first submarine powered by lithium-ion batteries; it was developed by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries. The Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force utilized it for the first time in March 2020.

Most recently, Japanese Defense Minister Takeshi Iwaya announced plans to deploy Type 12 surface-to-ship missiles in March 2020. The missiles have a range of 300 km and will be used to protect the southern Ryukyu Islands. Japan is also developing high-speed gliding missiles with a range of 1000 km.  Additionally but not surprisingly, Tokyo, Taipei and Washington have (since December of 2021), initiated plans for a joint defense of Taiwan.  A plan that calls for strategic use of Japanese owned islands as a staging area to reinforce Taiwanese forces. This according to unnamed Japanese sources who have spoken to Reuters in Tokyo. 

As we can see, The Japanese have not taken their increasingly important military role in the Pacific lightly, and if The Chinese government has any appreciation for history, it will do well to remember the culinary admonition that before one can aspire to dine on “tiger stew,” one must first catch the tiger.