Japan signals a ‘sense of crisis’ over Taiwan — this is why it is worried about China’s military aims

In recent weeks, Japan has signalled a significant foreign policy shift that could have implications for security in the Asia-Pacific region.

Japan’s latest defence white paper, released last month, has for the first time made direct reference to the importance of Taiwan when it comes to peace and security in the region.

Noting an uptick in cross-strait tensions as a result of China’s “intensified military activities around Taiwan”, the document warns that Tokyo will “pay close attention to the situation with a sense of crisis.”

This follows even firmer language from Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso, who said earlier this month that Japan “would have to defend Taiwan” alongside the United States if it was invaded by China. He later retracted the statement.

China reacted with predictable fury to the statements, both through official channels and its more bellicose media outlets.

Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian decried the white paper as “extremely wrong and irresponsible”. Meanwhile, the Global Times newspaper claimed Japan “will lose badly” if it comes to Taiwan’s aid.

And a more incendiary video appeared on a military commentary channel advocating a nuclear response to any Japanese intervention, before being deleted.

Why Taiwan is a regional flashpoint

The unresolved status of Taiwan has long been considered a potentially dangerous flashpoint in the Asia-Pacific region. As US power has waned and China has become increasingly dominant in recent years, the issue has returned to the fore.

Beijing has never given up on its ultimate aspiration to reclaim what it dubs a “renegade province of China”. In 2005, it passed an “anti-secession law” declaring any attempt by Taipei to translate its de facto sovereignty into formal “independence” would be met by force.

Chinese President Xi Jinping has been particularly adamant in his desire to achieve “national reunification”, as he expressed, in colourful language, during the centenary celebration of the Chinese Communist Party in early July.

Xi Jinping pledged to complete ‘reunification’ with Taiwan as one of the ‘unswerving historical tasks’ of the Chinese Communist Party. XINHUA/JU PENG/EPA

Having viewed Hong Kong’s unhappy return to the “motherland” in recent years, however, the people of Taiwan have resolved in the words of Foreign Minister Joseph Wu to “defend ourselves to the very last day”, should a Chinese attack actually materialise.

The ruling Democratic Progressive Party in Taipei has been buoyed by the increasing support of the Biden administration, though the US has sought to avoid possible military confrontation with China and stopped short of backing any move toward formal “independence”.

Why Japan is worried

This is where Japan enters the picture. Traditionally, Tokyo has been cautious in offering overt support to Taiwan due to the diplomatic sensitivities with Beijing, a major trading partner.

But for Tokyo, Taiwan’s predicament is indicative of the challenges that a more powerful and assertive China poses to Japan’s own security and to regional stability more widely. This has been heightened by the inexorable shift in the Asia-Pacific balance of power in China’s favour.

Not only is Japan now more supportive of Taiwan as a fellow democracy, it fears for its own strategic vulnerability should China occupy Taiwan.

This is because Taiwan sits at a crucial strategic chokepoint for naval forces in the western Pacific — the so-called “first island chain” stretching from Japan in the north to the Philippines in the south.

Taiwan is just 100 kilometres from the closest island in Japan’s Ryukyu archipelago, meaning that without Taiwan as a friendly neighbour, Japan’s southern strategic flank would become extremely exposed.

How Japan is stepping up

This has led Japan to adopt a more robust stance in regional security matters, particularly under the leadership of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

In 2015, for instance, Japan passed a controversial “peace and security” law that allowed it to engage in “collective self defence” with allies and strategic partners, providing the opportunity to contribute more meaningfully in any crisis scenario.

Japan has also increased its defence budget (it rose by 0.5% to 5.34 trillion yen or A$66.4 billion this year). And it has emphasised its new military capabilities, such as the retrofit of its helicopter destroyers into de facto aircraft carriers, the creation of an amphibious assault force, and the acquisition of stand-off or strike missiles.

Tokyo has also assumed the mantle of a more vocal regional leader in terms of its diplomacy. This is exemplified by its “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” vision for regional order, which emphasises the promotion of the rule of law, pursuit of economic prosperity and a commitment to peace and stability.

One of the most significant aspects of this “vision” has been the strengthening of bilateral strategic partnerships with countries such as Australia and India. Alongside the US, these countries form the “Quad”, a loose coalition seeking to counteract increasing Chinese dominance of the region.

Is a conflict between Japan and China likely?

Japan is also concerned about increasingly assertive moves by China to expand its maritime reach and exert more pressure on Japan’s Senkaku islands, which are claimed by Beijing (as well as Taiwan) as the Diaoyu islands.

To wit, Japan’s defence white paper notes the sharp increase in the number of Chinese Coast Guard vessels that have entered Japanese territorial waters since 2019, denouncing Chinese “attempts to unilaterally change the status quo by coercion”. Moreover, the Chinese Coast Guard is now empowered to use force against foreign vessels under a new law passed this year.

A Chinese Coast Guard vessel sails near disputed Japanese islands in the East China Sea. 11th Regional Coast Guard/AP

Seeing Taiwan’s plight as part of a larger pattern of Chinese assertiveness is surely a motivator behind Tokyo’s new declaration of interest in the Taiwan issue.

Nevertheless, it is important to underline that Japan is in no sense legally obligated to provide military assistance in a potential conflict over Taiwan. There are still strict legislative restraints on the use of force firmly in place.

Rather, the defence white paper should be viewed as a strong indication that Japan believes it cannot afford to idly stand by as the Asia-Pacific security environment continues to deteriorate. It is therefore assuming greater responsibility to maintain a rules-based order that it believes will provide stability and prosperity for this dynamic region.

This article was originally published in The Conversation.

Dr. Thomas S. Wilkins specializes in security studies and strategic studies, with a particular emphasis on the Asia-Pacific region. He is a tenured senior lecturer (associate professor) at University of Sydney, and the author of numerous articles and several books—most recently, Security in the Asia Pacific: The Dynamics of Alignment (Lynne Rienner, 2019). Dr. Wilkins has served as a visiting fellow at various institutions throughout the world, including the East West Center (Honolulu), International Institute for Asian Studies (Amsterdam), National Taiwan University, Tokyo University, and University of San Francisco. He is also a member of the JPRI advisory board. This article originally appeared in The Conversation.

Sheila1-copy (1)

Dr. Sheila K. Johnson: In Loving Memory (1937-2021)

On March 26, 2021, Sheila K. Johnson passed away peacefully in her home. Although she resisted accepting the honorary title “JPRI co-founder,” she was every bit that and more. As she recently reflected, “My 50s began with our move from Berkeley to San Diego and my serving as editor, printer, and mail-girl of JPRI—the grandiosely named Japan Policy Research Institute, which I prefer to think of as Chal’s and my mom-and-pop think-tank.” Officially, she served as editor of JPRI from its inception in 1994 until 2009.

She was born Sheila Knipscheer in 1937 in The Hague, Holland, and emigrated to the United States in 1947. She received an A.B. and a Ph.D. in Anthropology, and an M.A. in English, from the University of California, Berkeley. She specialized in cross-cultural gerontology, and her dissertation, Idle Haven: Community-Building Among the Working-Class Retired, was published by the University of California Press in 1972. After teaching at San Francisco, Hayward, and Sonoma State Universities, she became a free-lance writer and published numerous articles in The New York Times Magazine, CommentaryThe Los Angeles Times, and elsewhere. In 1975, she published American Attitudes Toward Japan, 1941-1975—a book that she first updated and revised in 1986 for the Simul Press in Tokyo, which published it as Amerika jin no nihon kan. In 1988, Stanford University Press published a still further revised edition as The Japanese Through American Eyes, which appeared as a paperback in 1991.

Sheila Johnson was married to Chalmers Johnson, and first traveled to Japan with him in 1961. She made numerous trips to Japan between 1961 and 1993, and thereafter continued to publish articles and book reviews about women and aging in Japan as well as other topics. Please see the links below for a sampling of her publications at JPRI.

Critique, Vol. I, No. 1: Perspective on Violence: Explaining America to the Japanese
Critique, Vol. II, No. 1: Denying History: Cancelling the A-Bomb Stamp and Prospects for U.S.-Japan Relations in 1995
Critique, Vol. II, No. 4: Tom Clancy’s Debt of Honor
Critique, Vol. II, No. 7: Aum Shinrikyo and Oklahoma
Critique, Vol. III, No. 5: Role Narcissism and Suicide in Japan
Critique, Vol. IV, No. 4: The Nasty Japs Again: War Memories and the Movies
Critique, Vol. IV, No. 9: The Chrysanthemum Club Seizes the American Embassy, Tokyo
Critique, Vol. VI, No. 2: Do Asian Women Count?
Critique, Vol. VI, No. 9: Flag Anthems and National Symbols
Critique, Vol. VII, No. 6: Zhang Yimou’s “Not One Less”: Art, Propaganda, or Both?
Critique, Vol. VIII, No. 6: All Art is Propaganda, but Not All Propaganda is Art
Critique, Vol. XIX, No. 5: Review: Patrick Smith’s Time No Longer: Americans After the American Century
Critique, Vol. XXI, No. 12: In the Land of the Brokenhearted
Critique, Vol. XXI, No. 11: Review of Battle Rattle: A Last Memoir of World War II by Roger Boas
Critique, Vol. XXII, No. 1: A Love Letter to Japan
Critique, Vol. XXII, No. 3: Who Will Mind the Children
Critique, Vol. XXII, No. 9: Whither Hong Kong?
Critique, Vol. XXV, No. 2: Chalmers Johnson and Ozaki Hotsumi: A Life-Long Intellectual Love Affair
Occasional Paper No. 23: Of Sex, Okinawa, and American Foreign Policy
Occasional Paper No. 40: Chal: An intellectual Memoir
Occasional Paper No. 42: Remembering Chalmers Johnson

     Holy Names University  

     3500 Mountain Blvd

     Oakland, CA 94619