Lessons from Ukraine / Taiwan contingency: Vigilance against nuclear threat from China

Photo caption: The Yomiuri Shimbun
Diet members from the Liberal Democratic Party and former senior officials of the Self-Defense Forces take part in a simulation of a Taiwan contingency held in Tokyo earlier this month.

Aug. 24 marked six months since Russia invaded Ukraine. Since the conflict began, new modes of war and related defense issues have come to light. This series explores possible lessons for Japan.

In February 2028, a U.S. reconnaissance satellite detects thousands of vehicles gathering on the Chinese coast facing the Taiwan Strait. As the situation in Taiwan grows tense, China tells Japan that “if it supports the U.S. military’s operations, it will suffer calamities greater than those experienced by Hiroshima and Nagasaki [in the war],” hinting at the use of nuclear weapons.

This is a simulation of a contingency involving Taiwan, organized by the Japan Forum for Strategic Studies and conducted in Tokyo on Aug. 7. In an effort to consider responses to such a situation, Diet members from the Liberal Democratic Party who represent the interests of the national defense sector and former senior officials of the Self-Defense Forces played the roles of the prime minister, cabinet members and senior SDF officials.

In the scenario, the Japanese government decided to recognize the situation as an “armed attack situation,” as China was also said to have laid mines in Japanese territorial waters around Yonaguni Island and the Senkaku Islands in Okinawa Prefecture, about 110 kilometers from Taiwan.

Later in the simulation, China launched an intermediate-range ballistic missile, the Dong-Feng (DF) 26, which caused a nuclear explosion over northern Taiwan. At a Japan-U.S. summit, the U.S. president approached Japan about allowing port calls by U.S. nuclear submarines carrying nuclear missiles, pressing for a political decision that would contradict one of Japan’s three non-nuclear principles, namely not permitting the introduction of nuclear weapons.

Former Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera, who played the prime minister in the simulation, said he would consider accepting the port calls. “As the only nation to have experienced atomic bombings, we need deterrence to ensure that nuclear weapons will never be dropped again. I want to explain this carefully so that the people of Japan will understand,” Onodera said.

Russia has threatened the United States and European countries with the use of nuclear weapons amid its invasion of Ukraine. The fact that Washington has avoided direct military intervention has given rise to a view in Japan that “the United States would not intervene even in a Taiwan contingency out of fear of a Chinese nuclear weapon,” a senior SDF official said.

China has been rapidly building up its nuclear capabilities. According to a report compiled last year by the U.S. Department of Defense and other sources, the number of nuclear warheads held by China is expected to increase from 350 in 2021 to 1,000 in 2030. The nuclear threat from China will only increase.

If Japan is actually threatened with nuclear attacks by China in the event of an emergency in Taiwan, there will be growing concern over whether Japan should put its citizens at risk just to protect Taiwan. Public opinion is expected to be split, and the prime minister would be forced to make an extremely difficult decision.

Last July, a video posted on a website by a Chinese military enthusiast created quite a stir in China. In it, the enthusiast said: “If Japan interferes militarily in China’s unification with Taiwan, China will surely use nuclear weapons against Japan and continue to do so until Japan unconditionally surrenders.”

Beijing has stated its policy of “no first-use” of nuclear weapons, which means that it will not use them unless it was attacked by a nuclear power. But the video, with a Taiwan contingency in mind, showed its spirit by declaring that “Only Japan will be excluded from the policy of non-nuclear use and non-preemptive attack.”

The video received more than 2 million views but was later deleted. However, it remained accessible for some time afterward on an account operated by the local committee of the Communist Party of China in Baoji, Shaanxi Province. Even though it was not the account of the Chinese government nor that of the Central Committee of the party, the fact that it could be viewed on the account of a local organization of the party was cause for speculation.

Japan is surrounded by nuclear threats from China, Russia, and North Korea. To avoid being menaced by nuclear weapons, the effectiveness of the U.S. nuclear umbrella must be enhanced. In his meeting with U.S. President Joe Biden in May this year, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida confirmed the assured provision of “extended deterrence,” including the U.S. nuclear umbrella.

For Japan, which adheres to the three non-nuclear principles of not possessing, producing or permitting the introduction of nuclear weapons, U.S. nuclear weapons are the final line of deterrence.

In 2010, when the Democratic Party of Japan was in power, then Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada said, “If a situation arises in which Japan’s safety cannot be protected, we will make a decision on the fate of our administration and explain it to the public,” suggesting that Japan would accept the introduction of nuclear weapons in an emergency.

Kishida, who aims to realize a “world without nuclear weapons,” also stated at a meeting of the House of Councillors Budget Committee in March that “the Kishida Cabinet has also carried on” the response made by Okada.

Some within the LDP have even called for discussion of “nuclear force sharing” with the United States. Under this system, non-nuclear weapon states in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, such as Germany and Italy, would deploy nuclear arms of the U.S. military in their countries and jointly operate them with the United States.

Some experts believe this would demonstrate the strength of the alliance, but it is not realistic because such an action is expected to provoke strong opposition from the public in Japan.

What Japan can do is expand its conventional defense capabilities while continuing to demonstrate to the international community that Japan is an indispensable ally of the United States and that the nuclear umbrella remains secure.

Former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who built a close relationship with former U.S. President Donald Trump, told those around him: “The reason why it is important to have a relationship of trust with the U.S. leaders is that we will ultimately need to have them use nuclear weapons. That is a job of the Japanese prime minister.”