In April 2021, the Biden-Suga joint leaders' statement noted the “importance of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait” for the first time since 1969. In July 2021, the defense white paper was released, which placed Taiwan under a new section titled “Relations between the United States and China, etc.” and not as part of the China section (the usual practice in previous papers). Thus, the document for the first time directly highlighted the need to pay “close attention” to the situation surrounding Taiwan, as well as warned of “heightened” crisis in the region. The clear-cut concern for Taiwan and its inclusion as a separate entity was a definite shift from ambiguity to unreserved support. The ensuing period saw a strengthening of this stance.
The 2022 white paper has further codified Japan's evolving rhetoric on the Taiwan situation, wherein Japan has been concerned about the China-Taiwan military dynamics for years. But in recent times, its top government officials have announced forthright support for Taiwan's defense. Therefore, the latest document follows the same trajectory outlined in the 2021 paper, but the issue has been accorded magnified coverage (twice that of last year's), including not only Taiwan's national deterrence measures and asymmetric warfare capabilities but also the close monitoring required in the larger context of Russia-China convergence and the ongoing Ukraine war.
In view of the intensified US-China strategic competition, Japan has highlighted its alignment with the US, which has committed to enhancing its engagement with Taiwan via the new guidelines released in April 2021. The 2022 document emphasizes the role of shared universal values of democracy and freedom in guiding Japan's solidarity with Taiwan. Tokyo sees China's increased military exercises (“coercion” and “faits accomplis” in East and South China Seas) through the lens of unilateral attempts at changing the status quo – thus calling for international cooperation against such shared global challenges.
China's increased aggression in its neighborhood, especially vis-à-vis Taiwan in the last year when the air incursions into Taiwan's air defense zone spiked, has resulted in Japan's hawkish approach – where the equilibrium between economic cooperation and security policy has tilted in favor of the latter. After Speaker Pelosi's visit, the situation has only grown more precarious with live-fire military drills surrounding the island amid China's warnings of further repercussions. The recent phone call between Presidents Xi Jinping and Joe Biden (before Pelosi's visit) – which featured Xi's much-publicized warning, “Those who play with fire will get burned” – and China's recent anti-Japan strategic discourse also indicate that the Taiwan conflict is in the throes of a major escalation.
Japan's new defense white paper is also taking forward former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's oft-quoted paradigm that “a Taiwan emergency is a Japanese emergency, and therefore an emergency for the Japan-US alliance.” Hence, the paper in anticipating an imminent invasion is not only echoing the US perception of the growing threat from China but also demonstrating Japan's preparedness in dealing with the impending scenario.
As would be expected, the new white paper has received significant criticism from Beijing, with Wu Qian, a spokesperson for China's Ministry of National Defense, claiming that it is full of prejudice and accusations that “exaggerate the so-called China threat” and interfere with China's internal affairs (referring to Taiwan). Qian has also implied that Japan is attempting to use the perceived threat of China as an excuse to increase Tokyo's defense spending given it will be in “breach” of the post-World War II international order.
But Japan's shift in approach is drawing from not just China's increased pressure tactics against Taiwan but also a growing trust deficit largely due to the intrusions into Japanese territorial waters by Chinese (and Russian) vessels. In geo-political terms, the annexation of Taiwan by Beijing would bring the Chinese military closer to the island of Yonaguni, located only 110 km off the east coast of Taiwan, as well as the Japan-administered disputed Senkaku (known as the Diaoyu in mainland China and as the Diaoyutai in Taiwan) Islands, which Japan fears are next in line of Beijing's expansionist plans.
Japan has already begun to augment its military deployment to the strategically vulnerable Yonaguni. However, what is becoming more evident is that Japan needs to build up its defensive capabilities because, in the event of a Taiwan contingency, Tokyo must be prepared to engage on three fronts with China, Russia, and North Korea. Such a prospect is strengthened by Chinese actions such as the post-Pelosi military exercises encircling Taiwan, which led to Chinese ballistic missiles being dropped into the Japanese exclusive economic zone for the first time.
Moreover, a conflict within the Taiwan Strait will have implications for important sea routes to and from Japan, endangering its economic security plans too. The paper therefore highlights not only building resilient supply chains but also including non-traditional security areas, such as emerging technologies, into the national security fold.
In line with Prime Minister Kishida's previous warnings, the new white paper also recognizes that the situation in Ukraine could trigger a similar crisis in East Asia in the near future. Both China's ability to exert pressure over Taiwan and its propensity to invade have been heightened as a consequence of the Ukraine war. As such, given that the government believes a conflict to be more likely now, the paper sets out its ambition for Japan to play a more active role in maintaining regional stability and preventing a war-like escalation. It advocates for Japan responding through a stronger “Japan-US alliance as well as its own defense capabilities.”
The white paper's emphasis on security concerns will also reinforce the ruling Liberal Democratic Party's pledge to increase Japan's defense spending up to two percent of gross domestic product (GDP), ahead of the Ministry of Defense's budget request due in August. In addition, the defense white paper justifies the accelerated defense expenditure by outlining that Japan currently has the lowest ratio of defense spending to GDP among the Group of Seven (G7) countries, Australia, and South Korea.
Earlier this year, the latest Diplomatic Blue Book 2022, an annual report on Japan's foreign policy was released, which included several mentions of the Taiwan Strait for the first time. In addition, a week after the white paper was released and ahead of the publication of three more defense-related papers by the Japanese government before the end of this year, a delegation of parliamentarians from Japan's National Diet went to Taiwan in late July to discuss regional security concerns in the Taiwan Strait. The delegation expressed “bipartisan” support for Taiwan and highlighted the efforts to promote bilateral cooperation. This trip in concert with other major documents highlights Japan's elevation of the Taiwan issue.
The overall trend clearly indicates a change in Japan's foreign policy trajectory toward Taiwan. Besides security concerns, the Japan-Taiwan relations have witnessed ramped-up economic security cooperation through action-oriented diplomacy such as tie-ups in semi-conductors – the Japanese government aims to fund a joint venture with the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC) subsidiary to set up a factory in Japan – and Tokyo's endorsement of Taipei's application to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP).
Nonetheless, although the latest defense white paper has highlighted the forceful reunification plans by China, Japan is unlikely to change its current stance of walking a tightrope in limited security cooperation while maintaining enhanced economic relations with Taiwan.
*Dr. Jagannath Panda is the Head of Stockholm Centre for South Asian and Indo-Pacific Affairs at the Institute for Security and Development Policy (ISDP), Sweden. Dr. Panda is also the Senior Fellow at The Hague Centre for Strategic Studies, and Director for Europe-Asia Research Cooperation at the YCAPS, Japan.