Japan’s Defence White Paper of the year 2021, for the first time, mentioned Taiwan’s stability as important for Japan’s security and also warned officials to pay close attention to the situation. The white paper has come amidst the remarks by the Japanese defence officials, and Defence Minister Nobuo Kishi, which linked Taiwan’s security directly to Japan and Japan has also asked the US to further share the details of its plans to defend Taiwan.
The relations between Japan and Taiwan have been cordial for decades and the recent summit between Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and President Joe Biden provided an indication that Tokyo treats Taiwan’s security as one of its top foreign policy priorities. Tokyo is also determined to work with Washington to keep a close check on the Chinese aggression against Taiwan. China had sent 28 warplanes near Taiwan, to build up the military pressure around the democratically ruled island. Beijing claims Taiwan as part of its territory and this issue is highly contested in the East Asian region. Taiwan is believed to be crucial for Japan, with the Luzon Strait to the south being an important shipping lane for the energy tankers.
Over time, Taiwan has also become an important topic for the US and its allies who are concerned about China’s growing assertiveness. Japan also sent around one million vaccine doses to Taiwan, after shipping 1.24 million doses at the starting of June as Taipei was struggling to have its own supplies. The importance of reducing tensions in the Taiwan Strait was emphasised widely during the Suga-Biden summit in April. Furthermore, in March 2021, Japan’s Defence Minister Kishi underlined the need to study ways for the Japanese Self-Defence forces (SDF) to cooperate with the US forces which were helping in defending Taiwan against Chinese aggression. However, Japan’s security laws also allow the SDF to provide logistical support to the US military and partner in case of a conflict between the US and China over Taiwan. The 2021 defence white paper states that “the stability of the situation surrounding Taiwan is important for the security of Japan and the stability of the international community.”
Historically, Taiwan has been a Japanese colony for 50 years until 1945 and the connections between the two remain strong. In 1972, Japan recognised the People’s Republic Of China (PRC) as the representative of the Chinese nation and Japan had to cut its ties with Taiwan. However, Tokyo remained quite considerate towards Taiwan’s defence as an independent nation. China must now be quite apprehensive about annexing Taiwan as it is aware of the Japanese commitment to Taiwan’s security and the US could be in an advantageous position to retaliate against Chinese aggression. The deputy Prime Minister of Japan Taro Aso also stated that if China invades Taiwan, Tokyo might interpret the move as a threat to Japan’s survival and deploy the SDF to exercise collective self-defence. However, due to Japan’s constitutional constraints, it is only allowed to mobilize the SDF for national defence. Since the United States is responsible for defending Japan under Article 5 of the Japan-US security treaty, if the US is attacked, this could further affect Japan’s survival. The United States would indeed need Japanese support to face any chance of defeating the Chinese invasion.
The US and Japan have become more careful as China has flown more fighter jets and bombers into Taiwan’s Air Defence Identification Zone. The Chinese Navy and the air force have become active around the Senkaku Islands which are claimed by China but administered by Japan. China has not ruled out the use of force to seize the control of Taiwan which further makes Japan vigilant. Chinese officials feel that Japan has interfered in China’s internal affairs and condemned China’s normal defence and military activities. Beijing’s recent military activity around Taiwan is worrisome for Japan since the self-ruled island lies close to the Okinawa chain at the western end of the Japanese archipelago. Earlier, Chinese President Xi Jinping had also pledged for the complete ‘reunification’ with Taiwan and the Chinese military also thought of the US as the region’s greatest creator of risks. Tokyo has become more outspoken on the issue of Taiwan as tensions continue to grow and the deputy PM Taro Aso has also advised that Japan should join forces with the US to defend Taiwan from any invasion. However, he later contended that the Taiwan issue should be resolved through dialogue. The US and Japan have been attempting to strengthen their alliance to counter China’s moves as it continues to expand its military with the goal of occupying Taiwan. Stability regarding the Taiwan issue is also vital for the Indo-Pacific region as it is going through certain security issues like that of China’s expansion of its naval activities and missile development by North Korea. The importance of the region is increasing manifold as it is facing a global power balance change.
The military tensions around Taiwan and the economic rivalry between China and the United States threaten peace and stability in East Asia as the regional power balance tends to shift in Beijing’s favour which is of concern to Japan and has also been mentioned in the defence white paper. The US has also increased its military support for Taiwan, including dispatching warships to the Taiwan Strait and arms sales. Moreover, recently, the Japanese State Minister of defence Yasuhide Nakayama announced that Taiwan shall be protected as a democratic country, breaking the Chinese taboo on calling Taiwan a country, which infuriated Chinese officials. In February 2021, Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party’s foreign affairs subcommittee held the first meeting of the ‘Taiwan project team’. It seeks to strengthen relations between Taiwan and Japan amidst growing pressure from China on Taiwan.
One of the challenges that come up between the two nation’s security cooperation is that Japan and Taiwan do not have a formal diplomatic relationship as Japan acknowledges Taiwan as an essential partner, it may still continue to abide by the 1972 Japan-China Joint Communique. The deepening of Japan-Taiwan bilateral relations would bring about an aggressive reaction by China. Keeping in mind China’s aggressiveness against Taiwan, the time is quite stable for Japan to explore ways to deepen its security cooperation with Taiwan. Japan’s SDF can share experiences with the Taiwanese armed forces and the Japan Coast Guard can engage with their Taiwanese counterparts on issues such as maritime safety.
There is also a lot of potential for Japan to cooperate with Taiwan on issues related to economic security, including the focus on supply chain resiliency. Both nations can also play an important role in safeguarding advanced technologies that could be utilized for national security end-uses. Furthermore, with the new Japan-US understanding of Taiwan, Tokyo-Taipei relations have reached a new level in terms of security. Both nations are determined to work together to counter any potential Chinese aggression in the region. However, it remains to be seen how this Taiwan issue turns out to be with Tokyo’s full determination in near future.