As if still repenting for its invasion of China proper more than 84 years ago, postwar Japan has always possessed a certain soft spot toward China. One can make a strong claim that it was Japan’s massive technology transfer and capital infusion in lieu of formal reparations that laid the groundwork for the eventual rise of China. Japan was also the sole G7 nation not to impose sanctions on China in the aftermath of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre.
Recently declassified government archival documents clearly indicate the extent to which Japan was committed to ensuring that China would not be forced into a corner by the Western powers. Moreover, even after it became readily apparent that China’s “peaceful rise” rhetoric was a farce, Japan’s leaders still steadfastly stood by China, as they were cognizant of the tremendous economic potential that could be reaped by strengthening Sino-Japanese relations. Thus, until a few years ago, a cohort of scholars in Japan unabashedly advocated a policy of Nichū-kyōshō—or Japan-China commercial entente—as the best course to pursue. Even in the period just prior to the outbreak of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, these same experts were advocating a policy wherein Japan would place itself squarely between the United States and China, supposedly playing the role of a mediator.
Such thinking is clearly devoid of any understanding of the geostrategic realities surrounding Japan, while also grossly overestimating Japan’s influence. Nevertheless, the concept held a certain appeal, largely because it ignored the reality that Japan was dependent on China for its economic interests while being equally dependent on the United States for its national security interests. Caught between a rock and a hard place—and given Japan’s long-running aversion to conflict—the seemingly ideal solution was for Japan to conveniently occupy the middle ground.
Undeniably, this also was the path of least resistance for Tokyo to pursue, particularly since many Japanese tend to place limited emphasis on human rights or the erosion of democracy under the current Chinese dictatorship. For instance, the intolerable situation in Xinjiang is seldom viewed as a problem related to Japan, and the death knell of democracy in Hong Kong does not resonate so strongly with many Japanese. Case in point, it has been business as usual for many Japanese conducting business in Xinjiang, eagerly purchasing the cotton produced from the region. Moreover, Japanese financial companies continue to make huge profits from their business ties in Hong Kong, the Asian Sudetenland of our century. Japanese corporations can act in this manner without any reservations, as they possess no fear of a backlash by Japanese consumers in the form of protests and/or boycotts.
Japan’s Traditionally Cautious Approach to Dealing with China
Therefore, it came as no surprise when Japan was conspicuously missing in March from the latest round of sanctions imposed by the cohort of democracies led by the United States, the EU, Britain, and Canada as a response to the harsh Chinese treatment of Uyghurs. As if not sharing values with these countries, Japan resorted to its typical modus operandi of expressing its “grave concerns” while also carefully avoiding being drawn into any multilateral action that could antagonize China. In doing so, it became the only G7 member not to back the punitive measures. With the pandemic crippling Japan’s economic growth, it can be surmised with a large degree of certainty that Tokyo is counting on a quick rebound—one that will rely mostly on China, both for its trade as well as the massive influx of tourists to Japan.
However, the United States is under new leadership now, and President Joseph Biden is much more interested than his predecessor in shoring up alliances so that they can become a more effective bulwark against Chinese expansionism. As Biden gradually reduces the US military presence in the Middle East, he will undoubtedly shift more of America’s weight toward the Indo-Pacific—not merely a pivot, but as an actual turn. Naturally, the most crucial partner in this endeavor will be Japan. The United States can no longer contain China alone, and it will increasingly need like-minded nations to pitch in and form a robust alliance that can counter Chinese aggressions. Japan, a nation whose very survival hinges on the US-Japan Security Treaty, is cognizant of this reality and thus is cautiously pursuing a balancing act of maintaining solid bilateral relations with the United States while also trying to avoid a rupture with China.
Japan’s Relations with Taiwan in the Context of US-Japan Relations
As part of this strategy, Japan does not explicitly name China when expressing its concerns while acting alone. In contrast, however, as the recent 2+2 meeting with the United States has shown, it becomes much bolder and assertive in its statements—to the extent of even singling out China—while holding America’s hand. As a matter of fact, the recent joint statement was the first time Japan had directly criticized China by expressing its concerns about Chinese “coercion and destabilizing behavior toward others in the region.” Furthermore, Tokyo took the additional step of including Taiwan in the discussion by reportedly agreeing that the Japan Self-Defense Forces (JSDF) and US forces would cooperate in the event of a military clash between China and Taiwan. This was an unusually bold move for Japan, which has traditionally been timid in engaging Taiwan in this manner, as doing so could trigger the wrath of China, which would in turn lead to economic pain. Understandably, the discussion between the Japanese defense minister and the US secretary of defense was to a large degree symbolic, since under the present Japanese Constitution, the specifics regarding how Tokyo can actually coordinate militarily in supporting Washington amid a China-Taiwan conflict would be up for much legal debate. As such, Japan’s official policy continues to be that of encouraging dialogue in order to ease cross-Strait tensions.
Taiwan was among the main points of discussion—along with the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands dispute—when Japanese Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide met President Biden in person for the first time in the summit talks held on April 16, and the outcome was essentially a rehash of the joint statement given after the recent 2+2 meeting. Although the Japanese press made a big deal over the inclusion of “Taiwan” in the post-summit joint statement, the actual phrase was “Taiwan Straits.” Just as the term “Sea of Japan” does not directly refer to “Japan” proper, it is hard to fathom how Taiwan Straits can be synonymous with Taiwan itself. Clearly, Japan’s posture is lacking. As the third largest global economy, which also maintains a well-trained and well-equipped military, Japan must jettison its ingrained “middle-power mentality” and strive to become a greater proactive presence in contributing to regional stability. In order to achieve this, Japan must alter its security identity from that of a perennial “security receiver” to that of a regional “security provider.” If human rights do not weigh heavily on the minds of many Japanese, then at least Japan’s historical colonial legacy over Taiwan should. Japan possesses a moral obligation to defend Taiwan in times of dire need. It cannot just stand idly by, merely providing logistical or financial support. If such assistance were to be the extent of Japan’s support, the Taiwanese public would surely not forget the fact that Japan did not care to shed any blood in defending a neighbor and a fellow democracy.
Japan Should Build Its Security Ties with Taiwan
With this in mind, Japan must begin to earnestly prepare for a worst-case scenario arising in a China-Taiwan showdown with the same amount of vigor and financial resources that it expends in preparing for natural disasters. One important facet of this is to forge more meaningful links, whether formal or informal, between the Japanese military and that of Taiwan. The leading generals and admirals on both sides should be aware of who their counterparts are, as well as what they are thinking. Of course, none of this needs to be made public, and indeed, such interactions already exist to a certain degree. However, these connections must be further expanded and enhanced. For example, a Japan-Taiwan hotline should be established to ensure smooth communication in times of crises.
Second, Japan should pursue a more active public diplomacy campaign to increase awareness of the importance of Taiwan in the minds of its citizens. The geostrategic space that Taiwan occupies just south of the Ryukyu island chain makes it also critical for the security of Japan. Presently, most Japanese perceive Taiwan as a destination for tourists to enjoy its culinary delights and historic sights. Therefore, Japan must clearly convey the message that Taiwan yūji wa, Nihon no yūji, or “a war over Taiwan is Japan’s war.”
Lastly, Japan must start to contemplate the formulation of a Japanese version of the US Taiwan Relations Act. Japan can learn from countries like Australia in this regard by being less rigid when applying the policy of non-recognition of Taiwan. When I was in Guatemala, the accompanying Japanese diplomat refused to enter the Taiwanese embassy with me, citing government regulations. Surely, there could be more flexibility in dealing with such situations, in a similar vein to the recent US guideline revisions governing its dealings with Taiwan. More importantly, Japan should be much more magnanimous in pressing for Taiwanese inclusion in various international frameworks such as the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP). Tokyo should also be more proactive in supporting Taiwan and not shy away from strengthening links as well as bolstering bilateral economic ties. Specifically, this means that Japan should refrain from being parsimonious in linking the prohibition of agricultural products from Japan’s North Eastern (Tōhoku) region by Taiwan with closer trade relations, as Taipei was firmly against this ballot measure.
The recent fate of Hong Kong should be a clarion call to all of us, signaling what could come next: the subjugation of Taiwan by China. Japan can neither remain aloof to this reality nor act indifferently. It is time for Japan to move ever more boldly, as there is no denying the reality that the fate of both Japan and Taiwan are inextricably intertwined; both win together or lose together.
The main point: Although the current pandemic has greatly altered our regular daily routines, Chinese geostrategic ambitions remain unaffected and unchanged. As such, those in Japan must not only pay attention but also fully prepare themselves for this reality. We must be aware that in a post-COVID world, it is quite likely that dealing with a more belligerent China will emerge as the most vital global security issue. The novel coronavirus has taught us an important lesson about the steep price we pay when we are too slow in recognizing and reacting to potential threats. Let’s not make the same mistake again.