Besides China’s growing missile arsenal, which it should be stated does not only target Taiwan, North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs has also awakened the region to the threat. South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Vietnam and the Philippines are now all potential targets to missile attack by an adversary. Earlier this week, Pyongyang test-fired four ballistic missiles, ostensibly as part of a simulated attack on U.S. military bases in Japan. Meanwhile, in response to the threat from the North, South Korea has agreed to the deployment of a U.S.-made Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system on its territory, with the first units arriving earlier this week. Beijing, which sees a potential use of the system to counter its own missile force (including the possibility that the radar systems could be used to monitor the Chinese military), has reacted with consternation and launched a series of punitive measures against South Korea.
For its part, Japan is a target of both North Korean missiles and, due to its longstanding disputes with China over history and territory in the East China Sea, to PLA attacks. U.S. military bases across Japan, which would play a crucial role in contingencies in both the Korean Peninsula and the Taiwan Strait, would be prime targets during the initial phase of hostilities, particularly if China decided to launch major military operations against Taiwan. Given the threat it faces on two fronts, Japan, working in conjunction with the U.S. military, has had every incentive to take early warning, tracking, air defense and mitigation seriously. Pyongyang’s missile tests, while unsettling, have nevertheless contributing to better preparedness by the Japan Self-Defense Force (JSDF) and U.S. military forces deployed in the region.
Should tensions between China and North Korea on one side and South Korea, Japan, Taiwan and the U.S. on the other continue to increase—much of this contingent on the kind of policies the Donald J. Trump administration adopts for the region—the latter group may feel compelled to increase intelligence sharing on the missile threat emanating from China and North Korea. U.S. satellite and aerial surveillance, combined with South Korea’s early warning systems (including the X-band AN/TPY-2 radar guiding the THAAD system), Japan’s EW systems and Taiwan’s long-range early-warning radar on Leshan—a modernized version of the AN/FPS-115 Pave Paws which can track any air-breathing target 4,000 km inside China—could form the basis of a nascent missile tracking/intercept quadrumvirate within the region.
As one of the corners of that square and due to its proximity to China, Taiwan should do its utmost to ensure it has a seat at the table, both as a provider and consumer of such critical real-time EW information. Given the affinity between Japan and Taiwan for historical reasons, Japanese jitters at the thought of a PLA presence in Taiwan, and the greater role the U.S. is expected to give Tokyo in a transforming regional security architecture, the time might be ripe for closer security cooperation between Tokyo and Taipei, something which may already have begun since the election of the DPP’s Tsai Ing-wen to the presidency in 2016.
Buttressing the desire to share intelligence (and perhaps technology), moreover, is the fact that all four countries are U.S. allies/partners and democracies aligned against two revisionist, authoritarian, and destabilizing regimes. Thus, despite the growing threat it faces from an increasingly powerful China and the high uncertainty surrounding the future of the region, circumstances—particularly the potential for Beijing to alienate Seoul should the relationship continue to sour—could in fact turn more favorable for Taiwan, thus creating an opportunity to play a greater role in regional security.
J. Michael Cole is a Taipei-based senior non-resident fellow with the China Policy Institute, University of Nottingham, UK, a research associate with the French Center for Research on Contemporary China (CEFC), and chief editor of Taiwan Sentinel.
This was first published last year.