Japan leans forward on China–Taiwan tensions

Author: Sheila A Smith, CFR

Today Beijing has far greater military resources to bring to bear on its relations with its neighbours and increasing pressure on Taiwan’s defences by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has many in Washington and Tokyo worried about Beijing’s intentions. China is now the top priority for the US–Japan alliance, as the foreign and defence secretaries and cabinet ministers of both nations made clear in their joint statement for the Japan–US Security Consultative Committee (2+2) in March 2021.

A month later, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and US President Joe Biden also called out China for its behaviour, raising concerns about human rights issues, maritime challenges across the region and economic coercion imposed on trading partners. Their statement suggests renewed allied concern about rising tensions there.

Japan will have no choice but to prepare to defend itself in the case of a conflict across the Taiwan Strait. Proximity to Taiwan — only a hundred or so kilometres separate Taiwan from Japan’s southernmost islands — makes the possibility of conflict there of deep interest to Japan’s Self-Defense Forces (SDF). In addition, Okinawa hosts a considerable array of US military forces, making it a likely staging area for any US assistance to Taiwan’s defences.

Japanese Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso testified to the Diet on 5 July that a military crisis across the Taiwan Strait would threaten Japan’s survival. This was a nod to the 2015 security laws that laid the groundwork for the SDF to join with other national militaries in case of a conflict.

But the consequences of Tokyo’s decision-making on Taiwan will be grave. China remains one of Japan’s largest trading partners and the PLA regularly operate in and through Japan’s waters and airspace.

The regional military balance around Japan has been shifting in China’s favour. The clash between Beijing and Tokyo over a long-dormant sovereignty dispute over islands in the East China Sea a decade ago suggested that China was willing to use its maritime forces, both coast guard and navy, in support of its territorial claims.

Military action by China against Taiwan would provoke the United States into a military response. Many experts argue that China has little to gain from a direct attack on Taiwan. Yet, outgoing Indo-Pacific commander Admiral Philip Davidson told the US Congress that he thought the PLA would be able to launch such an attack within the next six years. A US response to Chinese aggression against Taiwan would be calibrated to the nature of that threat. Chinese pressure on Taiwan could present itself as grey-zone tactics or as cyberattacks. Both could create unprecedented challenges to Taiwan’s economic vitality and territorial integrity.

Regardless of the intensity of such a confrontation, Tokyo would be faced with difficult decisions about how Japanese and US forces would cooperate in response. Japan’s role would likely involve two distinct actions. First, Japan would be asked to provide support for US operations. Second, Japan’s Self-Defense Forces would need to consider how best to defend Japanese territory during a conflict.

Not surprisingly, opinion within Japan is divided. There are those who believe that Japan must play a role with the United States should China use force against Taiwan. Defence ministry officials clearly see a need to develop more clarity on how the alliance would respond.

Minister of Defence Nobuo Kishi’s political deputy, State Minister of Defence Yasuhide Nakayama, has repeatedly declared to the media that it is time to ‘wake up’ regarding Taiwan. The newly released 2021 Defence White Paper — which drew considerable attention for its anime-inspired samurai on the cover — clearly stated that cross-Strait tensions were an important factor in considering Japan’s security.

Political leaders, even those within the Liberal Democratic Party, are unsure of what steps to take next. Prime Minister Suga has taken a more reserved stance than his deputy. Sharing fully US and Japanese assessments of Chinese behaviour across the Taiwan Strait and in the vicinity of Japanese territory is indispensable, but care must be taken to ensure the politics of the moment take a back seat to the need for alliance readiness.

Alliance consultations will move ahead by year’s end, and Japan should be prepared to develop its options in three areas: which bases and facilities would be available to US forces in a Taiwan contingency; what priorities and principles for…

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