Japan’s reluctant realism on Taiwan

Author: Mong Cheung, Waseda University

While the U.S.-Japan alliance, U.S. military bases in Japan, and its geographic proximity make Japan an important country across the Taiwan Strait, it has 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 could well be in chaos.

Several key factors have shaped Japan’s foreign policy toward Taiwan over the past two decades. Former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe sought to unfreeze Japan’s frosty attitude toward China during his first stint as prime minister in 2006-07. Although he was always tough on China, Abe avoided visiting the controversial Yasukuni Shrine at the time and resumed long-broken summit meetings between Japanese and Chinese leaders. According to former deputy chief cabinet secretary Hakubun Shimomura, easing tensions between Japan and China was part of Abe’s strategy for the 2007 upper house election.

Japan’s former ambassador to China, Yuji Miyamoto, revealed that before Abe’s inauguration as prime minister in September 2006, the foreign ministry was already planning to improve relations with Beijing. According to Miyamoto, the Abe administration intentionally avoided diplomatic exchanges with Taiwan. Official visits from Taiwan have also been refused to avoid offending China. This approach primarily served Abe’s domestic agenda and was not indicative of any new foreign strategy or any concern for Japan’s economic interests in China.

Since 2017, the China-US-Japan strategic triangle has largely limited Japanese diplomacy in Taiwan. The nature of the strategic triangle is that whenever the Japan-US alliance is united by the common goal of containing China, the relationship between Japan and Taiwan tends to grow closer. But when the Japanese-American alliance is destabilized or if China and the United States bypass Japan, Tokyo will move closer to Beijing in order to counter American uncertainty.

From 2017 to 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 closer to Beijing to achieve a balance between China and the United States. With these strategic moves, in March 2019 Japan finally announced that its policy towards Taiwan would abide by the agreements set out in the 1972 China-Japan Agreement. Joint Statement

In 2020, the world was shaken by the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic and the continued escalation of competition between China and the United States. These factors combined to create a more stable alliance between the United States and Japan. This meant that Japan’s Taiwanese diplomacy would follow the lead of the United States. In December 2021, Abe said any eventuality in Taiwan would also be a ‘Contingency Japan‘. By publicly commenting on the Taiwan question, Abe hoped to pressure new Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida to reveal his administration’s position on Taiwan and to maintain his own faction’s influence over Kishida’s administration.

In this domestic context and under pressure from the Biden administration, Japan’s position on Taiwan internationally is also changing. 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 over the security situation in the Taiwan Strait at the US-Japan summit in April 2021. Japan also stressed “the vital importance of a stable security scenario across the Taiwan Strait” in its 2021 report. white paper on national defence.

This sent a signal about adjusting Japan’s policy toward Taiwan. Over the past 10 years, Japan has been cautious on the Taiwan issue, rarely challenging China’s financial results. It’s confusing to watch Tokyo change, especially considering Suga’s inexperience in foreign policy.

Before the Japan-US Summit in April 2021, the United States sent Kurt Campbell, Coordinator of Indo-Pacific Affairs at the United States National Security Council, to Tokyo to seek 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 antagonize China, Japan struggled to keep up with demand. To prevent Biden from making such demands at the summit, Japan chose to compromise and express concern about the security situation across the Taiwan Strait in a joint statement. By doing so, Japan hoped to allay Washington’s suspicions about its relatively close relationship with Beijing.

Japan’s position in Taiwan is closely related to Japan’s domestic policy, the United States-China-Japan strategic triangle, and the policy of alliance with the United States. It is important to note that Japan’s political adjustments do not necessarily indicate support for Taiwan independence.

As a key US ally in East Asia, Japan is debating introducing legislation to prepare for an emergency scenario in Taiwan. This appears to be more of a defensive response than a proactive military strategy. Meanwhile, Japan has repeatedly called for a “peaceful resolution” of the Taiwan issue through dialogue and is well placed to achieve regional balance by managing China-Japan relations within the framework of the alliance. American-Japanese.

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

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

Melvin B. Baillie