Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has made people realize, not least of all those in Japan, that major war is again within the realm of possibility, and the idea that China could do the same with Taiwan has become more tangible, even if not necessarily more likely. If nothing else, the odds of a military invasion are almost certainly greater than the odds that the PRC will recognize Taiwan’s independence. Gakushuin University’s Takako Hikotani wrote that “for many ordinary Japanese, the war in Ukraine has led to the realization that they cannot take their own security for granted.” Taiwan is held in fond regard by many Japanese for a variety of different reasons: conservatives admire its anti-communist history and efforts to stand up to pressure from the PRC (as well as the fact that the former Japanese colony is far less antagonistic about Japan’s imperial legacy), liberals admire it for its progress towards representative democracy and progressive social policies, and many more Japanese enjoy traveling to Taiwan and often have friends or colleagues from the island. Yet for all the concern for a possible invasion of Taiwan and the steps Japan could take to prevent it, a full invasion like the one Putin launched in Ukraine is still unlikely – meaning that Japan faces a different set of risks that increasing defense spending can only go so far in addressing. If Japan wants to support Taiwan, the best avenues to do so are political and diplomatic, not defense-oriented.
Concerns about the future of Taiwan’s autonomy are certainly well-founded, but the nature of any future reunification between mainland China and Taiwan will make all the difference in how the rest of the world will respond. For one, there should be no objection to peaceful reunification if Taiwan freely decides to join with the People’s Republic of China. U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan has said that “the U.S would not oppose the peaceful, uncoerced unification of Taiwan with mainland China,” and it is unlikely Japan would either. It would still be a disruptive event and would certainly change relations between Japan, the PRC, and the island of Taiwan, as well as disrupting important economic relationships. This is also the scenario that PRC decision makers have most often committed themselves to, but with the majority of Taiwanese now identifying themselves as a unique nationality rather than as Chinese, it’s an unlikely scenario – making it almost certain that unification would involve at least some level of coercion on the part of the PRC.
Rather than a full invasion like that seen in Ukraine, the safer scenario for the PRC is a series of grey zone incursions or military provocations short of direct force, all intended to incrementally degrade Taiwan’s ability to defend itself, undermine state capacity, and prevent Taiwan’s international partners from mounting a decisive international response similar to the one that followed Russia’s invasion. The fundamental idea behind grey zone operations is to incrementally change the status quo in China’s favor without provoking retaliation, allowing the PRC to argue enough plausible deniability to prevent a decisive response from the United States, Japan and others until reunification is a fait accompli. Examples of grey zone operations might include incrementally manipulating borders, disinformation campaigns, maritime and air force incursions, and diplomatic measures to undermine Taiwan’s viability as a sovereign entity (indeed, many of these are already underway).
Rather than a full invasion like that in Ukraine, the safer option for China to subdue Taiwan might be a series of grey zone incursions
For China, the benefits of this approach are obvious and it fits with Xi Jinping’s goal of “subduing the enemy without fighting” – it avoids direct use of force and keeps the United States on the sidelines, and if it’s successful it can give a legitimizing sheen of uncoerced reunification. Even the much-hyped concern about the military balance shifting towards Beijing’s favor can play into this, since it raises the costs of defending Taiwan, even if U.S. and allied forces still have absolute superiority. One of the reasons there has been so much Sturm und Drang in the United States and elsewhere about a Chinese invasion of Taiwan is that a direct military conflict scenario still represents a comparative advantage that Taiwan’s defenders have over the PRC and would provide the likeliest option of preventing forced reunification given the alternatives. A scenario of grey zone incursions would be more complicated to respond to, more difficult to war game, harder to rally against, and responding to swarms of “civilian” fishing boats or the construction of small outposts on disputed maritime features is a much more complicated scenario than defending against an overt assault.
This shouldn’t minimize the sense of threat Japan feels from China – China’s incursions around the Senkaku Islands, themselves a kind of grey zone operation, have almost guaranteed that Japan will remain suspicious of the PRC’s intentions, not to mention China’s insistence that it retains the right to all options to prevent Taiwan’s independence. The draft of Japan’s 2022 defense white paper states that attempts to unilaterally change the status quo in the Taiwan Strait by force cannot be tolerated, but Japan’s basic policy towards Taiwan, like that of the United States, remains one of strategic ambiguity. For conservatives especially, a sense of crisis had emerged long before Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, with many, including former prime minister Abe Shinzo, seeing any threat to Taiwan as also representing a threat to Japan. They are now using the invasion of Ukraine as an opportunity to raise alarms about the threat of potential PRC military action in East Asia. While most Japanese may not share the conservatives’ sense of crisis, Russia’s invasion has been a daily reminder that war is not merely a matter for history books, making them wonder if such a thing could also be possible in East Asia.
This will give conservatives a significant degree of political cover for their long-desired goal of raising Japan’s defense spending – something which the public was firmly against not so long ago – but the question of defending Taiwan, is more complicated than simply raising defense budgets. For Taiwan’s defenders, maintaining the status quo requires preserving a delicate legal balance between recognizing Taiwanese self-rule while maintaining the principle of One China. No clear contingency or joint operations plan between Taiwan and the United States has been created because of the potential hostile reaction from China. As the University of Tokyo’s Matsuda Yasuhiro reminds, security cooperation between Japan and Taiwan will probably remain limited, but communications channels may remain open, along with other avenues for cooperation, which are extremely valuable even if not directly defense-oriented. While the 2015 security legislation allowed Japan to participate in collective defense operations, Taiwan is not a recognized state and thus would hypothetically not be covered by the legislation. Matsuda points out that if Japan were to recognize Taiwan as a sovereign state, the PRC could interpret such a move as a declaration of war against China given that the PRC sees Taiwan as part of its sovereign territory. This wouldn’t mean a sudden attack from China, but it would represent a much more direct threat against Japan than if it maintained its current posture of ambiguity.
Maintaining the status quo in the Taiwan Strait means walking a legal tightrope
In that case, the goals for Japan in a scenario of PRC grey zone coercion against Taiwan should be to signal to China that the costs of an armed invasion will be too great to bear, to improve communication and strategic clarity to reduce the odds of miscalculation, and to create space for diplomatic responses not only to an invasion but to any incremental steps by China to unilaterally change the status quo in Taiwan. One example of this would be to advance Taiwan’s application to the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), since Taiwan applied for entry as an independent customs zone rather than as a sovereign economy, consistent with CPTPP and World Trade Organization rules – this would help entrench Taiwan’s autonomy and deepen its economic connections with other key economies in the region.
Like grey zone incursions, a diplomatic response would itself be long and incremental, with successive steps building on earlier ones. Japan’s participation in Western sanctions against Russia, as well as Japanese regional diplomacy to build support for the sanctions regime, should be seen as laying the groundwork for a similar international sanctions regime if China were to attempt forceful reunification with Taiwan, counting on a reciprocal effort from Western states and their partners in the event of an invasion. Whether a diplomatic initiative could be successful is more complicated and far from certain. Much like the way the West responded to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine with initial shock and unity followed by more cautious hedging once the easy responses had been checked off, a hypothetical coercive reunification of Taiwan would similarly see shock among regional neighbors, a swift response where it would be easy to respond, but much less unity beyond that initial point. The Indo-Pacific region is far more politically and economically diverse with far deeper political and economic relationships with China than the West had with Russia, so much so that the idea of a “tough” unified regional response is almost fanciful. No doubt Japan, Australia, the United States, and others might try to solidify a tough regional response to an invasion, but any efforts would not be easy going. That’s not to say that the Indo-Pacific region would divide into pro-China and pro-Taiwan blocs, as many see happening in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but that there’s no guarantee that a forceful Chinese invasion of Taiwan would suddenly unify the entire Indo-Pacific region against China. The role of Africa is also worth considering – African states (along with many others from the global south) have been ambivalent about signing on to Western sanctions regimes or disciplining Russia through votes at the United Nations. There are a lot of explanations for their behavior, from frustration with what they see as Western hypocrisy to skepticism with sanctions’ efficacy to concerns of reciprocal economic hardship, among others.
The key reason why diplomacy would be so difficult is because of China’s economic relationships with global economies. An invasion of Taiwan wouldn’t only disrupt Japan’s trade with the island, any ensuing sanctions regime against the PRC would severely disrupt Japan’s trade with one of its most important economic partners – Japan’s trade with China is ten times that of its trade with Russia. China’s economy is the second largest in the world and China is the world’s largest exporter of manufactured goods. Disrupting trade with China through economic sanctions isn’t simply an issue of will or resolve; it means almost willingly signing up for an economic recession. It may be even more difficult for the global south and Africa in particular to sanction China, given that China is the continent’s largest trade partner (the continent’s trade with China is $70 billion per year, compared to $20 billion with Russia) and its companies have been essential in development, particularly technological. It’s even worth asking if the G7, which has taken the lead in crafting the economic and diplomatic response to Russia’s invasion, can provide the same effort in response to PRC coercion of Taiwan given that trade relations with China are significantly more valuable than those with Russia.
Creating a sanctions regime that could contain China is a much more difficult task than sanctioning Russia
This is a big reason why the arguments that the world should just decouple with China are unrealistic. There are certainly some steps that can cause economic pain for the PRC, like expulsion from the SWIFT banking system, and supply chain diversification can remove some the risks of overdependence on the Chinese economy. In Russia’s case, the threat of sanctions were not enough to deter Putin from deciding to invade Ukraine and it’s much less likely that the threat of sanctions could deter China from coercive moves towards Taiwan, not least since China is far more capable of economic self-reliance than Russia. The best case for Japan would be to begin raising awareness among potential sanctions partners of what might happen between China and Taiwan and to brace them for the potential costs in order to elevate the issue and build an awareness of others’ priorities.
Ultimately, the best response will be a slow, methodical, process-driven approach that entrenches the status quo in the Taiwan Strait as much as possible without upsetting the delicate legal balance required, while also signaling the costs that a violent invasion of the island would bring. Ultimately, the scenario of grey zone operations raises the unsatisfying possibility that there may be nothing that can be done to prevent coerced reunification. In Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, efforts at negotiations and deterrence all failed, and there’s every possibility that similar efforts may fail with the PRC’s ambitions of reunification – and Hong Kong’s experience should show that PRC leaders will certainly not be benign in their pursuit of those ambitions. Nothing in international politics is ever foolproof.
Paul Nadeau is a project researcher at the University of Tokyo's Institute for Future Initiatives, an adjunct professor at Temple University's Japan campus, and an adjunct fellow with the Scholl Chair in International Business at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). He was previously a private secretary with the Japanese Diet and as a member of the foreign affairs and trade staff of Senator Olympia Snowe. He holds a B.A. from the George Washington University, an M.A. in law and diplomacy from the Fletcher School at Tufts University, and a PhD from the University of Tokyo's Graduate School of Public Policy. He should be general manager of the Montreal Canadiens.