Welcome to installment XIX (July 2020) of Sino-Japanese Review, a monthly column on major developments in relations between China and Japan that provides a running commentary on the evolution of this important relationship and helps to put current events in perspective. Previous installments may be found here.
Japan’s foreign policy operates under a dualism when it comes to China. Tokyo has recognized the need to build some semblance of diplomatic comity while at the same time firmly opposing China’s maritime advances. In official exchanges, more emphasis has been placed on mutual gains, especially economic ones, rather than on confrontation. Yet Tokyo has never softened its stance when it comes to security disputes or geopolitical competition.
As we noted in our last column, China’s imposition of a harsh new national security law on Hong Kong does not yet appear to have derailed Japan’s dual track approach. However, as China seeks to strangle the pro-democracy movement in the once semi-autonomous city, fears are rising that Taiwan will be the next target of Beijing’s belligerence. If China were to try and force reunification on the island, Japan’s reaction would certainly be more vocal. Unlike Hong Kong, whose fate does not directly affect Japan’s security interests, Taiwan is indeed considered a crucial national defense matter. A crisis surrounding the island would probably push Japan to switch forcefully toward confrontation in its relations with Beijing.
Unlike Hong Kong, Taiwan is considered a crucial national defense matter
Historically, Japan’s official position on Taiwan has been much less clear than the American one. Unlike Washington, Tokyo never explicitly endorsed the “one China principle”. In the first official diplomatic document between the PRC and Japan – the joint communique of 1972, the latter only expressed its “full understanding and respect” for China’s position. That stance was never altered, and Taiwan repeatedly arose as a topic of contention in the post Cold War era when Japan and the U.S. sought to redefine the scope of their security cooperation.
China has long urged Japan to fully commit to the “one China” principle and to non-interference in cross-straits affairs. Tokyo’s reluctance is prompted by two key factors: First are the shared values and deep ties of friendship between the people of the archipelago and of the island to its south, which have developed in particular after Taiwan’s democratization in the 1990s and now manifest in mutual cultural appreciation, intense educational exchanges and a significant two-way traffic of people (at least before the pandemic) as well as close economic relations. Secondly, at the elite level, a lot of good will toward Taiwan remains in Tokyo, even if ties are not as close as they were during the Cold War.
A lot of good will remains toward Taiwan, even if ties are not as close as they were during the Cold War
More hard-headed calculations are also at play. Namely, Japanese strategists see a Chinese takeover of Taiwan, especially under the assertive and nationalistic crop of leaders now ruling in Beijing, as a serious threat to their country’s territorial security. An armed conflict between China and Taiwan would in itself be very perilous for Japan, whose southernmost islands are extremely close to the potential combat area, and which would risk being drawn in the confrontation if the U.S. decided to intervene from its bases in Okinawa. Were the PRC to successfully “recover” Taiwan, this would only be the beginning of Japan’s troubles. The island-nation is first heavily reliant on energy imports. Its vulnerability in this sector has been exposed amidst the pandemic, as it was revealed that Japan holds only two-weeks’ worth of stockpile of liquid natural gas at any given time – gas mostly reaching Japan from the Middle-East through the South and East China Sea. The People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) could easily choke the archipelago’s supply routes from any newly built base on Taiwan.
If the now-still-unthinkable were to occur and Japan and China enter into direct armed conflict, energy would not be Japan’s only exploitable vulnerability. Taiwan would then be the perfect basis for the PLAN to island-hop through the Ryukyu island chain – which is much closer to Taipei and Shanghai than to Tokyo – and quickly reach Okinawa or beyond. It wouldn’t be excessive to consider a Chinese takeover of Taiwan an existential national security threat to Japan.
A real Chinese attempt to solve the Taiwan issue by force remains unlikely for now. Indeed, the PRC currently has a lot on its plate. Beijing is also well aware of the fact that invading and controlling Taiwan are two different things entirely. The island still has more potential to be a contentious issue in the worsening U.S.-China confrontation than a direct target of Chinese action. Yet, due to the frightening consequences of this scenario, the fate of Taiwan must keep Japanese defense planners up at night. A cross-strait crisis would fundamentally upend Japan’s current nuanced China policy. Taiwan is where Japan would have to draw the line.