Welcome to instalment XXXI (July 2021) of Sino-Japanese Review, a monthly column that provides running commentary on major developments, current events, and the evolution of China and Japan relations.
As Beijing’s military pressure on Taiwan steadily grows, Japan has become more vocal in expressing its concerns over the island’s future. In remarks by senior officials and in a recent defense white paper, Japan has abandoned its long held ambiguity on the subject, affirming that Taiwan’s autonomy is crucial to its own national security and that it would be ready to join the United States in a fight to defend the island if necessary. Needless to say, this commitment has been very poorly received in Beijing.
The start of China’s pressure campaign against Taiwan can be traced back to the election of Tsai Ing-wen as president of the island in 2016. Despite her pragmatism and moderation with regard to cross-strait relations, her refusal to endorse the “1992 consensus” made her a dangerous “separatist” in Beijing’s eyes. China then launched an effort to poach Taiwan’s remaining allies and narrow as much as possible its space for participation in international diplomacy while also increasing its military presence in the airspace and waters around the island. Yet this was only a prelude to the intensification of military exercises and incursions in the past two years, which has been fueled by the growing U.S.-China rivalry and Washington’s moves to strengthen ties with Taipei.
Japanese policymakers have reacted with open alarm to China’s coercive tactics. They have urged the United States to “be strong” in its support for Taiwan and emphasized that the fate of the island is crucial to Japan’s own security. Deputy Prime Minister Aso Taro went so far as to call a crisis in the strait a “survival-threatening situation” for Japan, to which it would have to respond militarily. The defense white paper was only slightly less dramatic, touching on the situation in the strait for the first time to emphasize the need for stability and evoking a “sense of crisis more than ever before.”
In this context, Japan has come close to officially making the defense of Taiwan an integral part of its national security strategy. Senior officials have all but confirmed that Japan would intervene alongside the United States if conflict was to erupt over Taiwan. This commitment had been an implicit part of the U.S.-Japan Alliance ever since the revision of its guidelines in the mid-1990s, but has now become more or less explicit. Japanese officials have explained in simple terms why they feel the need to clarify their position. As the defense white paper notes, the balance of power in the Taiwan strait is tilting in China’s favor, putting into question the ability of Taiwan to thwart an invasion. Since a Chinese takeover of the island is seen as a grave threat to Japan’s control over Okinawa, Tokyo must do its part to strengthen deterrence and diminish the risk of conflict by raising its costs. In other words, Japan’s explicit defense commitment to Taiwan aims to bring more clarity to the strategic balance in the strait and to influence China’s calculations.
The balance of power in the Taiwan strait is tilting in China’s favor, putting into question the ability of Taiwan to thwart an invasion
The Chinese response to these Japanese declarations has been virulent. A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman called Aso’s remarks “wrong and dangerous” while state media thundered that Japan was showing its “failure to learn from [its] history” of aggression during WWII and would “dig its own grave” if it joined the U.S in a confrontation with China. The official Communist Party account of a mid-tier city in northeastern China even threatened to use nuclear bombs against Japan.
Beijing considers any public pronouncement about Taiwan an interference in its domestic affairs and is always quick to protest. This is doubly true for Japan, the island’s former colonial master. Yet the venom directed at Tokyo also probably reflects an assessment that plans for an invasion, if necessary, have become more challenging.
China, however, is not about to take such a dramatic action. Convincing arguments have been made over its use of force in the next few years. Yet the general consensus among analysts is still that Beijing favors coercive means short of war in order to deter Taiwanese “separatists” and weaken the island’s resolve to resist reunification. In his speech on July 1st to mark the 100th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party, Xi Jinping pledged once again to “advance peaceful reunification” and gave no sign that China’s policy had changed.
The main battleground therefore remains Taiwan’s international status. Beijing has maintained a high degree of pressure on the island despite the pandemic, refusing to let it join international discussions of global health issues and even hindering its efforts to obtain vaccines. Japan, on the other hand, has stepped up its support by donating more than two million vaccine doses and increasing its purchases of Taiwan-grown pineapples after a Chinese boycott. Emphasizing the value of Taiwan’s autonomy for Japan’s own security and for the U.S.-Japan alliance is another way to urge Taipei to stay strong and to show that it has powerful allies.