Tokyo, Beijing, And New Tensions Over Taiwan – Analysis

Taiwan, a perennially sensitive issue between Japan and China, gained increased salience in the run-up to Japanese elections in fall 2021. In separate incidents in late August and early September, a Chinese flotilla sailed through the waters between Taiwan and Japan’s island of Yonaguni and on through the Miyako Strait for what the Chinese media described as a warning to right-wing Japanese and Taiwan secessionists whom they see as colluding to sabotage peace of security in the region. Beijing’s nationalistic Global Times, responding to Deputy Defense Minister Yasuhide Nakayama’s comments that Japan considered Taiwan’s peace and security as its own business, editorialized that Japan is in its worst geopolitical environment since the Meiji Restoration (1868-1889) and termed its posture toward China “morally dirty.” Previously, the paper continued, Japanese officials had steered clear of Taiwan matters, especially those related to national security, but were now openly discussing Taiwan in increasingly provocative rhetoric. What were once high-level Chinese comments on the importance of peace and security became hypotheticals about how Japan might react if the PRC used force against Taiwan.

Such statements, explicitly described as deterrence, had the opposite effect: the conservative Sankei Shimbun praised outgoing prime minister Suga’s statement that a Taiwan crisis could have ripple effects on Japan. This would, said Sankei, send a message to China on the possibility of a joint U.S.-Japan military intervention to counter a PRC attack on Taiwan. Candidates to succeed Suga were supportive as well. Sanae Takaichi even conferred directly, albeit virtually, with Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen. It is extremely rare for a Japanese politician, let alone a possible prime minister, to hold a meeting with any senior Taiwanese officials, much less its president. Beijing was particularly annoyed by video footage of Takaichi hanging the Taiwan and Japanese flags side by side, implying Taiwan maintained equal sovereign status to that of Japan. Chinese media complained that such acts undermined the foundations of China-Japan relations.

While campaigning, the ultimately victorious candidate for the prime ministership and former foreign minister Fumio Kishida said that Japan should cooperate with Taiwan and other countries that share its values of freedom, democracy, and the rule of law, and expressed his support for Taiwan to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) pact if it “can meet the necessary high standards.” Chinese analysts dismissed such statements as campaign rhetoric, incorrectly as it turned out. Other influential officials, past and present, expressed support for Taiwan. Calling in to a conference on Japan-Taiwan relations in September, then-Deputy Defense Minister Yasuhide Nakayama declared that Japan and Taiwan were not friends but family members. Beijing has long harbored concerns that Japan aspires to re-annex the island—which was in Japan’s possession from 1895 to the end of World War II—so Nakayama’s use of the word ‘family’ likely struck a chord. Perhaps as worrisome as the statement was the lineage of the speaker: Yasuhide Nakayama’s father, Masaaki Nakayama, was one of five Diet members who stood resolutely against Japan formalizing relations with the PRC in 1972. As if carrying the family baton, Yasuhide Nakayama now asked whether this half century old diplomatic arrangement still served Japan’s interests considering China’s aggressive behavior.

Chinese leaders responded swiftly. Marking the 72nd anniversary of the PRC’s founding on October 1, the Chinese air force sent two waves of 34 warplanes—one during the day, the other at night—into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone (ADIZ), breaking the single day record, previously 28, set in June. By October 4, the number reached 52, including bombers and multi-role strike fighters. The apparent aims of the exercise were both intimidation and preparation for pilots who might one day, or night, be called upon for an actual invasion.

The PRC’s incursions of Taiwan’s ADIZ heightened Japanese concerns about an imminent invasion. Senior officials and even non-conservative media began to say more publicly and explicitly what was well known but more delicately expressed before: a Taiwan crisis would be a threat to Japan. Japan’s Nansei Island chain stretches from the tip of Kyushu, the southernmost of its main islands, to just over 100 kilometers from the east coast of Taiwan. Given this geographic proximity, an invasion of Taiwan would likely have consequences for Japanese security. In turn, Japan expressed support for Taiwan’s separate existence, though worded carefully in accordance with its one China policy.

Current and former high-ranking officials made virtual surprise appearances at defense-related conferences in Taiwan. In December, former prime minister Shinzo Abe warned that a Chinese attack on Taiwan would be an emergency for Japan and could meet the conditions for Tokyo to use military force. Two weeks later, in a video address to the Taiwan-U.S.-Japan Trilateral Indo-Pacific Security Dialogue, Abe warned Beijing that it would be “suicidal” to invade Taiwan, and advised that Taiwan, the U.S., and Japan work together to strengthen their deterrent capabilities. The Global Times, referencing his “repeated provocations over the Taiwan question,” described Abe as Japan’s chief anti-China politician.

Meanwhile, the center-left Japan Times editorialized that Beijing was building a military to rewrite the rules of the Indo-Pacific region, and advocated that Tokyo increase its defense budget while integrating more deeply with the U.S. and other security partners. A Taiwan contingency is likely to require quick thinking and a decisive response. An American analysis urged U.S. and Japanese officials to think through the many potential scenarios in a Taiwan contingency and privately share their potential responses.

Other security partners were courted as well. Most significant was Australia, whose relations with China have been contentious ever since Canberra requested an independent inquiry into the origins of the coronavirus. Beijing’s ambassador compared Australia to gum stuck to the bottom of its shoe: sometimes you just need to scrape it off. A steady stream of insults, followed by restrictions on trade, resulted in a less compliant rather than a penitent Australia. Case in point, Australia and Japan participated in military exercises along with the United States and India, and in January finalized the Reciprocal Access Agreement, the first such defense pact signed by Japan with any country other than the United States. Among other provisions, the pact removes legal barriers to allow the troops of one side to enter the other for training “and other [unspecified] purposes.”

The next day, the 2+2 meeting of Japanese and American foreign and defense ministers began, which led to the two countries agreeing to collaborate on countering hypersonic missiles, a response to China’s hypersonic missile that circled the globe before heading for its target. Japanese news agency Kyodo previously reported that the Japanese and American armed forces would finalize a draft plan for a Taiwan emergency under which the U.S. Marine Corps would set up temporary bases and deploy troops on the Nansei Islands. Chinese media held dual reactions, downplaying the significance of the agreements (“heading in a dangerous direction as the US-Japan alliance has become increasingly weak and foolishly isolated in the Indo-Pacific region”) while still displaying anxiety (Australia should stop its nuclear submarine project; Japan may change its constitution and become more “war-able.”)

Japanese diplomats have also turned their attention to Southeast Asian states. Nobuo Kishi, whose pro-Taiwan lineage[1] is even more distinguished than Nakayama’s, became defense minister in September 2020. His first overseas trip in the role was to Vietnam, where he criticized China for trying to change the status quo through strength and highlighted the key role Taiwan can play in the world. Responding to Kishi’s remarks, the PRC’s embassy in Vietnam accused Japan of interference in China’s affairs through the Taiwan question.

Chinese media cast doubt on whether the U.S. would actually come to Japan’s, or Taiwan’s, defense in time of attack. Survey data indicate, however, that Taiwanese do not believe this. For example, according to a Taiwanese Public Opinion Foundation poll, released in November 2021, 58% of respondents think it possible that Japan would send troops to defend Taiwan, and 65% believe that the U.S. would come to Taiwan’s aid.

Taiwan and Japan have also strengthened ties at a cultural level. Despite objections from members of the PRC consulate-general in Osaka, the ninth annual meeting of the Japan-Taiwan Cultural Exchange Summit was held in Kobe, where organizers reported that attendance was greater than expected. A Taiwan Japan Academy was launched at Taipei’s National Chengchi University. Ambassador-equivalent Japan-Taiwan Exchange Association head Hiroyasu Izumi marked the occasion by honoring the legacy of the old generation of Japanese-speaking Taiwanese, such as former president Lee Teng-hui. Separately, the Taiwan government is helping to subsidize Japanese colonial-era buildings that have fallen into disrepair and are being refurbished to restore Japan’s historical legacy through nostalgic restaurants, museums, and luxury residences.

The Japan-Taiwan Co-Prosperity Chiefs Alliance, comprised of 127 Japanese city and local officials, held its first meeting in December 2021 and called on the Diet to draw up a Japanese version of the U.S.’s 1979 Taiwan Relations Act. In an address to the Taipei Christmas fair, ambassador-equivalent Izumi, described 2021 as the ‘Year of Taiwan’ because more countries stood up to support its free and democratic way of life, a celebration that seemed to allude to China’s claims about its superior governance style.

An American analyst believes that the internationalization of the Taiwan issue has given Japan cover for its more active support for Taiwan’s sovereignty, as has its growing role in the liberal economic order exemplified by its leadership in the CPTPP. Japanese politicians celebrated Taiwan’s national day and were photographed eating Taiwanese pineapples after China announced a boycott of them. Taiwan’s president actively courts pro-Japanese youth, even tweeting them in Japanese. Likewise, an Indian analyst wrote that closer cooperation between Japan and Taiwan was needed to mitigate Beijing’s increasing use of gray-zone tactics, pointing out that the next Taiwan administration may not be as favorably disposed toward Japan.

Though both Japanese and Taiwanese leaders are testing Beijing’s reactions, there are also mitigating factors worth noting. Prime Minister Kishida’s appointment of Yoshimasa Hayashi, widely regarded as pro-China—indeed, he resigned as chair of the Japan-China Parliamentarians Friendship League the day after his appointment to “avoid causing unnecessary misunderstandings” about bias—should provide some balance to Defense Minister Kishi and mollify Beijing to a certain extent. Furthermore, Tokyo continues to pay attention to at least the letter of Beijing’s one China policy. According to recently-leaked information, when high-ranking Taiwanese military officials proposed to the Japanese government in February 2019 that the two sides regularly exchange intelligence about the locations and activities of Chinese warplanes, Japan rebuffed the proposal on grounds that the two sides had no official diplomatic relations. However, Japanese threat perceptions have evolved since then, and a new administration has taken office.

Although Chinese media frequently warn that Japanese behavior is dangerously close to China’s red lines, unnamed Chinese sources have opined that China will avoid hardline responses until after the Olympics and Paralympics in February and March. Moreover, Sino-Japanese trade relations continue to be robust and are profitable for both sides. Tokyo and Beijing have other reasons, too, to maintain cordial relations. Despite mounting tensions, the two countries have welcomed the opportunity to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations on September 30th. And Xi Jinping surely prefers a peaceful atmosphere in the run-up to this fall’s 20th Party Congress. Barring unforeseen escalation, the outlook in the region will likely be a continuation of managed hostilities.