Pacific Allies Worry About Taiwan Invasion, Call for Closer US Cooperation

America’s Pacific allies Japan and Australia want deeper cooperation with the U.S. in areas such as long-range weapons and military space activities with the goal of deterring a potential Chinese invasion of Taiwan and to prepare in the event of one.

“We need more conversation over our region,” said Japanese defense and air attache Maj. Gen. Hiroyuki Sugai on the sidelines of the China Aerospace Studies Institute (CASI) conference in Washington, D.C.

Japan’s geostrategic position as part of the so-called “first island chain,” bordering the East and South China Seas, means U.S. forces in Japan are close to Taiwan should an event arise. At the same time, hosting American bases would draw Japan into the conflict.

“Japan serves as the power projection platform for the U.S.,” Japanese Col. Kimitoshi Sugiyama, director of the Tokyo Center for Air and Space Power Strategic Studies, said in a CASI panel discussion May 17 on allies and partners. “Our interoperability is high, and we use the same effects and also conduct preparedness exercises.”

Sugiyama said Japan is deepening multilateral military operations with like-minded countries such as the United States and Australia in order to preserve a free and open Indo-Pacific. That includes closer space cooperation with the United States, he said.

Sugai said the U.S.-Japan alliance is a “challenge for China” in the event of a Taiwan invasion. But he warned that the Russia-Ukraine war highlights the need for further integration between the U.S. and Japanese air forces.

“Thinking about modern warfare, Ukraine is very important to understand what’s going on in case of the Taiwan Strait crisis,” Sugai explained, pointing to the use of unmanned aerial systems. “China is also studying the war in Ukraine because they use a similar weapon system as Ukraine is using on Russia, so they might see the advantage or disadvantage of their weapons.”

The situation in Ukraine might influence China’s thinking about an invasion of Taiwan, requiring attentive allied study and conversation.

“The Japanese air forces [are] studying how to use unmanned aircraft,” Sugai added.

The role of unmanned systems is vital to a Taiwan Strait scenario just as in Ukraine, where unmanned ISR aircraft are targeting Russian communication and other assets.

In many other areas, the U.S. and Japan are exercising together and sharing lessons learned, but UAS reviews are being done by the United States and Japan separately, highlighting an area that can be shared.

“We exchange our lessons learned,” Sugai said, hinting at deeper collaboration to come. “We regionally exercise in joint training with the U.S. Air Force, but in the near future we will discuss in more detailed conversations.”

Australian Calls to Share B-21 Technology

In September 2021, President Joe Biden announced the “AUKUS” arrangement made by Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States to share nuclear-powered submarine technology and deepen military cooperation in other areas.

Malcolm Davis of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute praised the agreement but on a CASI panel repeatedly asked when it will include sharing of B-21 bomber and other new technologies, especially given Australia’s likely willingness to aid the United States in Taiwan’s defense.

“Australia is facing a much more serious challenge from China,” Davis said, citing the 2020 Australia Defence Strategic Update, the country’s version of the National Defense Strategy, updated every four years.

“The chances of major power war, including U.S.-China conflict, are considerably higher than previously,” Davis said, citing the report. “As a result, the traditional assumption that we would have 10 years’ warning time for such a conflict is no longer an appropriate basis for defense planning.”

CASI experts assumed China could be prepared for a Taiwan invasion as soon as 2025. Davis said strategists in Australia think about Taiwan as the “key scenario” to prepare for with the sophisticated military assets to defend its homeland and aid allies before then.

AUKUS, he said, gives Australia the opportunity, alongside the United Kingdom and the United States, “to play a much more forward and focused role in the Indo-Pacific as a frontline state, rather than being in a strategic backwater.”

The potential for conflict with China will require Australia to reconsider its force posture on the continent and requires domestic capabilities such as missile production and improved strike technology, he said.

China’s ongoing negotiations with the Solomon Islands for basing access is a “game changer” for Australia, he said.

“Australia’s eastern seaboard is now potentially under threat of direct attack from a hostile military power in a way that could hold at risk our key urban areas and many of our key military bases,” he said. “The key concern, obviously, is China’s intentions regarding Taiwan.”

Davis said that in 2021, Australia granted the U.S. military increased basing access, and he predicted that access and positioning of American troops and assets will grow in coming years. However, to defend the bases where U.S. troops might be stationed, Australia will need to develop anti-access/aerial denial capabilities, long-range missile defense systems, cyber warfare capabilities, and ways to defend its space architecture.

The long-range strike capability being debated in Australia of late, Davis said, is the B-21.

“There is a debate in Australia about what is the best approach to defending our continent as far forward as possible,” he said. “If the Americans are prepared to offer us [surface to surface missiles], surely we should be able to talk to them about [the] B-21.”

Davis called for more burden-sharing with allies and joint development of capabilities to deter China instead of matching China “tank for tank” and “ship for ship.”

“What we need to be able to do is to build asymmetric counters that ultimately weaken and erode China’s ability to project power against us, against our allies, or to deter them from threatening Taiwan in the future,” he said.

Davis said Australian defense policy analysts are evaluating now how to deter China, and if deterrence fails, how to respond. A Chinese takeover of Taiwan will allow China to project power north to Japan, south to the Philippines, and deep into the Central Pacific, to Guam, he said.

“I would fully expect Australia to stand by America. At the same time, I fully expect [Chinese President] Xi to push forward and try to take Taiwan,” he said, describing what Australia believes would be a “protracted conflict” if China were to invade Taiwan.

“Losing Taiwan, I think, would be catastrophic,” he added. “That means talking to the Americans about things like B-21, NGAD, space … But there also has to be a defense diplomacy angle where we work together and strengthen those relationships.”