Japan’s reluctant realism on Taiwan

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Author: Mong Cheung, Waseda University

While the US-Japan alliance, US military bases in Japan, and its geographical proximity make Japan an important country across the Taiwan Strait, it is yet to formulate any specific plans or legislation to guide its response to a potential crisis. If the United States were to request military assistance from Japan, Tokyo might be well in chaos.

Several key factors have shaped Japan’s foreign policy to Taiwan over the past two decades. Former Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe sought to thaw Japan’s frosty attitude to China during his first stint in the top job in 2006–2007. Despite historically being tough on China, Abe who avoided visiting the controversial Yasukuni Shrine at this time and resumed the long interrupted summit meetings between Japanese and Chinese leaders. According to former deputy chief cabinet secretary Hakubun Shimomura, easing Japan–China tensions was part of Abe’s strategy for the upper house election in 2007.

Former Japanese ambassador to China Yuji Miyamoto revealed that before Abe was inaugurated as prime minister in September 2006, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs was already considering improving relations with Beijing. According to Miyamoto, the Abe administration intentionally avoided diplomatic exchanges with Taiwan. Official visits from Taiwan were also refused to avoid offending China. This approach mainly served Abe’s domestic agenda and was not indicative of a new foreign strategy or any concern about Japan’s economic interest in China.

Since 2017, the China–US–Japan strategic triangle has largely constrained Japan’s Taiwan diplomacy. The nature of the strategic triangle is that whenever the Japan–US alliance is united by the shared goal of containing China, the relationship between Japan and Taiwan tends to be closer. But when the Japan-US alliance is destabilised or if China and the US bypass Japan, Tokyo will get closer to Beijing in order to counteract US uncertainty.

From 2017–2020, under former US president Donald Trump’s ‘America First’ approach, the Japan–US alliance experienced a high level of uncertainty. In response, Abe resorted to a tactical hedging strategy of trying to get close to Beijing to achieve a balance between China and the United States. With these strategic moves, in March 2019, Japan ultimately announced that its policy toward Taiwan would adhere to the agreements set out in the 1972 China–Japan Joint Declaration

In 2020, the world was rattled by the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic and the continuing intensification of competition between China and the United States. These factors combined to create a more stable alliance between the United States and Japan. This signified that Japan’s Taiwan diplomacy would follow the US lead. In December 2021, Abe said that any Taiwan contingency would also be a ‘Japan contingency’. By publicly commenting on the Taiwan issue, Abe hoped to pressure Japan’s new Prime Minister Fumio Kishida to reveal his administration’s position on Taiwan, and to maintain the influence of his own faction over the Kishida administration.

Against this domestic background and under pressure from the Biden administration, Japan’s position on Taiwan at an international level is also shifting. When former prime minister Yoshihide Suga was in power, Japan and the United States, for the first time in 52 years, formally discussed their concern about the security situation in the Taiwan Strait during the April 2021 US–Japan summit. Japan also stressed ‘the vital importance of a stable security scenario across the Taiwan Strait’ in its 2021 White Paper on national defence.

This sent a signal about Japan’s policy adjustment towards Taiwan. In the past 10 years, Japan has been cautious about the Taiwan issue, seldom challenging China’s bottom line. It is puzzling to observe Tokyo’s switch, particularly if one takes into account Suga’s inexperience with foreign policy.

Before the Japan–US summit in April 2021, the United States sent Kurt Campbell, coordinator of Indo–Pacific affairs at the US National Security Council, to Tokyo to request Japan’s support for efforts to contain China by passing a bill similar to the Taiwan Relations Act in the United States. Not wanting to upset China, Japan had difficulty meeting the request. To prevent Biden from making such requests during the summit, Japan chose to compromise and express its concern about the security situation across the Taiwan Strait in a joint statement. By doing so, Japan hoped to alleviate Washington’s suspicion over its relatively close relationship with Beijing.

Japan’s Taiwan stance is closely tied to Japan’s domestic politics, the US–China–Japan strategic triangle and alliance politics with the United States. Importantly, Japan’s policy adjustments do not necessarily indicate support for Taiwan’s independence.

As a key US ally in East Asia, Japan is debating the introduction of legislation to ready itself to deal with a contingency scenario in Taiwan. This seems to be more of a defensive response rather than a proactive military strategy. At the same time, Japan has repeatedly called for a ‘peaceful resolution’ of the Taiwan issue through dialogue, and is well-positioned to achieve regional balance by handling China–Japan relations within the framework of the US–Japan alliance.

China often views Japanese intervention in Taiwan affairs through the historical lens of Japan’s colonial rule of the island from 1895–1945, casting distrust on Japan’s attempt to balance Chinese interests in Taiwan. This highlights the need for China and Japan to find ways to effectively communicate with each other and avoid misinterpretations over Taiwan.

Mong Cheung is Associate Professor at the School of International Liberal Studies, Waseda University, Japan. He is the author of Political Survival and Yasukuni in Japan’s Relations with China (Routledge, 2017).

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