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What role for Japan in the event of strong tensions around Taiwan?

Taiwan (5)

“Anyone who dares to return to the old path of militarism and defy the limits of the Chinese people will face a bloodbath” (Wang Wenbin, spokesman of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China)

In 2021, Japanese diplomacy became more assertive in the face of Chinese threats to Taiwan, to the point where some observers spoke of a New Policy, and Washington saw it as a strong sign of the strength of the Japanese-American military alliance. This understanding of the attitude of the Japanese leaders is certainly not wrong; it is not, however, a radical change, since it is part of a historical continuity that is sometimes made up of ruptures.

Two preliminary remarks can be made. One is basic: Japan’s geographical position and its cultural and political history with China give it by definition a different sensitivity from that of the United States. Moreover, the Taiwanese question is not the only one facing Japanese leaders: on the one hand, the nuclearization of North Korea and its numerous missile tests are a direct threat to Japan, accentuated by the principle of the kidnapping of Japanese nationals in the past; on the other hand, several island issues involve Japan, the Kuril Islands, qualified as northern territories by Tokyo and occupied by Russia since the end of the Second World War, the Takeshima / Dokto Island that Japan disputes with South Korea and the Senkaku / Diaoyu archipelago that China claims.

  • Japan’s foreign policy, and that conducted in Asia, is determined, if not forced, by the strategic alliance concluded with the United States, which does not exclude questions, doubts or differences.

 

This alliance was a pragmatic adaptation of the archipelago, then in the midst of reconstruction, to the realities of the post-war period. It also corresponded to the rise of communism in Asia; this was also the case in the country itself, where, if only in contrast to past militarism, the communist party was powerful and the intellectual circles and the socialist party were steeped in Marxism in the aftermath of the war. The world has changed, but regardless of their personalities, American presidents and Japanese prime ministers have remained faithful to this alliance.

A sign of this loyalty, albeit anecdotal, is that when Donald Trump won the election and even before he was inaugurated, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe rushed to New York to meet him; his successor Yoshihide Suga was less hasty, but met with Joe Biden as soon as he could. A more concrete sign is the presence of American bases in the archipelago with nearly 50,000 military personnel.

However, the Japanese-American alliance is not without its rough edges. In the 1970s, Japan suffered several “Nixon shocks”:

  • First, there was a monetary shock when the American administration pushed for a revaluation of the Japanese currency, bringing it from 360 to about 100 yen in almost 20 years, and for the Plaza Accord of 1986; this monetary shock and its aftermath profoundly changed the Japanese economy and led to an exuberance of liquidity, and then, after the collapse of the stock and real estate markets at the end of 1990, to deflation, from which the archipelago has never really emerged.
  • Then came the diplomatic shock of Henry Kissinger’s and Richard Nixon’s visits to Beijing, with the establishment of diplomatic relations between the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the United States; 2022 is the 50th anniversary of this event, which marked several generations of Japanese politicians. This second “Nixon shock” led the Japanese government, then led by Kakuei Tanaka, to break off diplomatic relations with Taiwan and recognize the PRC as well as the One China principle.
  • More discreetly, the shock of the American defeat in Vietnam and the hasty departure from Saigon in the Spring of 1975 planted the first seeds of doubt in the Japanese military and politicians regarding the viability and durability of American protection and induced reflection on the need to increase the defense budget, which was in line with Washington’s desires. While it is difficult today to assess the impact of the American departure from Kabul or the AUKUS announcement of 2021, it is reasonable to think that there will be one. This thinking around national security issues has taken shape over the years. It has led to a steady increase in the defense budget; the budget for the new fiscal year 2022 has been announced at 5.4 trillion yen, or about €41.5 billion, putting it at a level close to that of France and the United Kingdom while being four to five times lower than that of the PRC. It also led to the concept of the Indo-Pacific, first developed by Shinzo Abe and then taken up by American leaders.

Along with the questions that these events of the past fifty years have raised, Japan sometimes seeks room for maneuver in its diplomacy. A recent example is the American decision to boycott the February 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics diplomatically. While various countries such as Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom immediately followed the U.S. decision, Japan took its time – some would write: dithered – and waited a few weeks until the end of 2021, to announce the absence of a government delegation without using the term diplomatic boycott, and the presence of the former Minister in charge of the Tokyo Summer Games, Seiko Hashimoto, who could be accompanied by parliamentarians. Beijing reacted calmly to this announcement, as it also undoubtedly appreciated the relative moderation shown by the Japanese government during developments in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region since 2019.

In other cases, tensions arise. This is what naturally happens during renegotiations on sharing the cost of American bases (the same difficulty exists in South Korea), or occasionally in the case of crimes committed by American soldiers against Japanese citizens. This is currently being observed because of the resurgence of Covid-19 cases at these bases in early 2022 and their consequences on the local populations.

This environment of the U.S.-Japan alliance, strong as it is, suggests that Japanese diplomacy, while not deviating from or opposing U.S. policy, may have its own characteristics.

  • Despite the breakdown of diplomatic relations in 1972, Japanese-Taiwanese relations have remained strong and cordial.

 

In the days of anti-communism and twenty years of diplomatic relations between Taiwan and Japan, relations between the ruling KMT in Taipei and the LDP in Tokyo were strong and the pro-Taiwanese clan within the LDP was dominant. The situation changed with the breakdown of this relationship, the need to develop ties with mainland China, and the well understood interests of the business community in Japan. In addition, generations changed: those among Taiwan’s top executives who were intimately familiar with Japan and its ruling elite, having studied there before the war and being fluent in Japanese, largely disappeared. In 1972 Kakuei Tanaka, while recognizing the PRC, agreed to the establishment of an Exchange Association in Taipei, a form of unofficial Japanese embassy, and allowed Taiwan to open the equivalent in Tokyo. As time went on, with the democratization of Taiwan and the political changeover that took place there, it was necessary to forge ties with the pro-independence DPP party currently in power without risking the 1972 commitments with Beijing. This has been achieved, as evidenced by the 2+2 meeting between the LDP and DPP in the summer of 2021 on diplomacy and security. Given the very close links between the LDP, the administration and the Japanese government, this type of meeting is very close to official meetings.

On the other hand, as seen from Tokyo, relations with Taiwan have remained cordial despite the colonization from 1895 to 1945 and differences such as those relating to the Senkaku Islands and fishing. Although Taiwan and Korea were both colonies, the former was seen more as a natural extension of the archipelago while the latter was more of a living space; this difference in approach has left its mark on people’s minds and populations. Before the Covid-19 pandemic, Taiwanese represented a significant part of the foreign tourists visiting Japan. Two events have strengthened the ties between populations: the Taiwanese donations during the tsunami and the Fukushima disaster in 2011 and the shipments of Covid-19 vaccine in 2021 by Japan when the PRC hindered the delivery of vaccines to Taiwan.

Finally, the Japanese economic presence in Taiwan has been substantial since the post-war period. From the end of the Korean War to the end of the 1980s, Japanese investments represented two-thirds of those coming from the United States, and while since the recognition of the PRC, Japanese actors have naturally redirected their investments towards China, they have not ignored Taiwan. Japan has also remained an important trading partner of the island despite its preponderant weight, close to 40% of the island’s foreign trade; it is the 3rd or 4th partner, with an essential share of electronic products. The takeover by a Taiwanese company of an emblematic Japanese electronics company, Sharp, and the announcement of the construction of a large-scale factory by TSMC, the world leader in semiconductors and chips, on the island of Kyushu, the southernmost island of Japan’s main archipelago, has further strengthened cooperation between Tokyo and Taipei. A meeting between Japanese and Taiwanese parliamentarians proposing to consolidate cooperation in this field gave it a political symbolism.

However, Japan is currently in a delicate situation due to Taiwan’s and the PRC’s demands to join the CPTPP, the comprehensive and progressive partnership that succeeded the TPP from which President Trump withdrew early in his term. In September 2021, when Taiwan made its application, the Suga administration’s foreign minister had welcomed it and had less warm words for China’s. Japanese academics have pointed out that the organization of Taiwan’s economy and its market-based operating rules are much more in line with CPTPP principles than an economy with a dominant share of state-owned or parastatal enterprises. As Japan is currently in charge of the CPTPP’s rotating presidency, it is likely that it will be careful not to make any hasty decisions and will examine this issue carefully before passing it on to its successor.

  • Despite a growing rhetoric of commitment to Taiwan, the degree of Japanese involvement in the event of strong tensions or even conflict remains uncertain. 

 

For several years, the themes of national security, freedom of the seas, and the recognition of China as a strategic threat rather than a mere economic competitor have been increasingly evident in government speeches and texts, and sometimes in the blunt language of Japanese politicians. A further step was taken in April 2021 when Yoshihide Suga, visiting President Biden, stressed “the importance of peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait” as a major issue for his country. In doing so, he repeated, almost word for word, Prime Minister Sato’s remarks to Richard Nixon in 1969, three years before the breakdown of Japanese-Taiwanese diplomatic relations.

There was some verbal escalation by Japanese leaders or aspiring leaders in the 2021 LDP presidential elections. In the Spring, Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso, who is very close to Shinzo Abe, emphasized heavily the need to strengthen Japan’s security and the threat from China. Presidential candidate Sanae Takaichi, also very close to Shinzo Abe and a member of the conservative Nihon Kaigi (“Japan Conference”) group within her party, just like the new Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, had even stronger words, those that an election campaign allows. At the beginning of December, in front of a Taiwanese think tank, Shinzo Abe indicated that a military incident involving an American ship in the Taiwan Strait could be a case of collective self-defense and underlined the strategic role of Yonaguni Island, the southernmost island of Japan and located 110 km from the Taiwanese coast (about 1,700 Japanese live there and 200 military personnel are stationed there with their families). In fact, the pro-Chinese lobby of the LDP is now weakened and the pro-Taiwanese one strengthened.

This change within the majority party, which is less marked in Komeito, its ally in the Diet, has been facilitated by the current state of public opinion, as according to polls 75-80% of the population considers China to be a threat to 75-80%, with the public being slightly less willing to commit – but how much? – in favor of Taiwan. However, it is difficult to assess the depth of public opinion, which has long been pacifist or even neutralist.

In this context, 2021 has seen a significant number of Japanese military exercises both at the national level to test the archipelago’s overall defense capability and at the Indo-Pacific level via joint maneuvers with allied countries, including of course the United States. On the other hand, and mainly as a symbol, French, British and German military vessels were welcomed in Japanese ports; American fighter jets landed on the aircraft carrier Izumo. Finally, military garrisons and facilities on the southernmost islands were reinforced.

Does the arrival of a new Prime Minister change the outlook for Japanese foreign policy? Probably not. Fumio Kishida is expected to follow in the footsteps of his predecessor and especially those of Shinzo Abe. However, some nuances may appear. While Abe tends to be more rigid in his approach to China, Fumio Kishida will have the “beautiful role” and could adopt, at least in words, a more conciliatory attitude to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of diplomatic relations between Japan and the PRC. Moreover, the current Prime Minister, a former foreign minister from 2012 to 2017 in the Abe government, has probably suffered from the fact that Japan’s diplomacy was more the head of government’s than his own at the time. He has appointed Hayashi Yoshimasa, often presented as a moderate on Chinese issues, as foreign minister. Finally, he will probably try to organize a meeting with Xi Jinping, the one planned for April 2020 having been cancelled due to the pandemic without a new date.

Nevertheless, predicting the Japanese reaction in the event of strong tensions or even conflict is very delicate, first of all because it is difficult to predict what China will do and what the United States will do. Moreover, while Japanese politicians may be carried away by statements that Beijing disapproves of and considers to be a return to nationalism or even militarism, the industrial and business communities are more inclined to the status quo that preserves their interests in Taiwan and mainland China.

  • The Taiwanese issue hides another one with China, that of the Senkaku Islands.

 

The Senkaku are a group of eight islands in the East China Sea located 410 kms from Okinawa and 150 kms from Yonagumi-shima, thus 260 kms from Taiwan. They were incorporated into Japan by the Shimonoseki treaty of 1895 following the Sino-Japanese war. After the Second World War, they were administered by the United States without being returned to the PRC, notably during the San Francisco Treaty of 1951 which delimited the territorial limits of Japan; moreover, in 1920 the Chinese government of the time had recognized Japanese sovereignty.

The dispute over these islands between the PRC (as well as Taiwan) and Japan resurfaced in the early 1970s once these islands were returned to Japan by the United States – like Okinawa – and after the discovery of hydrocarbon resources in the late 1960s gave them an interest that went beyond fishing resources. Over the years, these islands have especially become a nationalist issue for Chinese leaders anxious to erase the humiliations of the 1840-1949 period suffered at the hands of the Western powers and Japan.

In 2012, this dispute escalated when the very conservative governor of the Tokyo Metropolis, Shintaro Ishihara, wanted to acquire some privately owned islands, forcing the social-democratic Noda government to intervene and take the place of the Metropolis. Since then, many incidents have taken place: intrusion of Chinese fishing and exploration vessels, clashes between Chinese and Japanese ships, arrest of Chinese officers and sailors, attempted landings of Chinese and Taiwanese nationalists, aerial overflights…

President Obama in 2014 recalled that the protection of the Senkaku falls within the scope of the Japan-US security treaty, a position reaffirmed by Presidents Trump and Biden.

Since then, Japanese sovereignty over the Senkaku Islands has become a primary issue for all Japanese governments and the risk of a military incident cannot be ruled out.

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In conclusion, while it is reasonable to consider that Japan should adopt a policy toward Taiwan in line with or in continuation of the U.S. response to a serious tension with China, it is also likely to seek to avoid a worsening of the current situation. Acrimonious exchanges and martial language between Tokyo and Beijing will undoubtedly occur in the coming months and years, but they have always been present to a greater or lesser extent in the past without any lasting or permanent damage to relations between the two countries. Japan’s “red line” should be the infringement of its own sovereignty in the East China Sea. The risk lies in a patriotic “over-ego” of the political and military leaders in Beijing or in a slippage triggering a series of uncontrollable actions.