Taiwan and Japan haven’t maintained much of a relationship with each other as neighboring states over the years, but this ambiguous relationship may be threatened by concerns of China’s future goals for the fledgling state and their surrounding waters. This year alone, Japan and Taiwan have voiced their concerns over China’s overbearing demeanor regarding affairs on social media and in international organizations since June, calling for their allies to step in if things become worse for Taiwan. During an online conference in June for the Hudson Institute think tank, State Minster of Defence Yasuhide Nakayama called into question the ‘One-China’ policy each nation in the world has adapted since the 1970s, as well as calling for other democratic nations to ‘wake up’ to protect Taiwan, a fellow democratic nation, from Beijing’s pressures to assimilate into China. Described as a ‘red-line’ for democracy, Taiwan is a buffer zone between China and Japan, protecting the Taiwan Strait used by both nations for trade and fishing enterprises. With Chinese and Russian collaboration growing in recent years, Japan grows more concerned over the safety of this zone. As Reuters describes the situation, “Nakayama highlighted growing threats posed by China in space, in missile technology, in the cyber domain and in nuclear and conventional forces, and said that under President Xi Jinping’s leadership it had ‘aggressive, aggressive … thought and will.'”
Prior to this think tank event, however, Japan never made any pledges to defend Taiwan or their strait, nor have they agreed to assist in a U.S. Military-led response to a cross-strait conflict in the past. Though Japan hasn’t expressed a stable relationship with Taiwan since the 1970s, they often move in line with U.S. policies, which are vastly pro-Taiwan, formerly Taipei, since 1979’s Taiwan Relations Act. According to Adam P. Liff of the Brookings Institution, the U.S. considers “‘…any effort to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means a threat to the peace and security of the Western Pacific area and of grave concern.’ In recent months, U.S. officials and scholars alike have voiced growing concern that Beijing may use its military to force unification with democratic Taiwan.” Because the U.S. hosts a large military presence in Japan, scholars assume they would seek Japanese aid should the U.S. make a move in defense of Taiwan, using Japan as a base of operations. However, Japan doesn’t have to abide by the Taiwan Relations Act, since that is a U.S. exclusive act. Furthermore, Tokyo is more tight-lipped about their thoughts on Beijing or Taiwan until recently, so whether this alliance will ever come to pass is uncertain.
Overall, beyond this push on Hudson Institute’s think tank event, Japan has often pushed for a peaceful resolution between the nations. Joining President Biden in April, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga pushed for further peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait. Even though they may be concerned by China’s increasingly aggressive rhetoric regarding Taiwan’s stance as a nation (or rather a piece of rebellious territory that can be retaken by force), Japan’s federal government in Tokyo is still determined to focus solely on the safety and wellbeing of Japan. The U.S. may be their ally, but risking a conflict with China, a state they haven’t shown hostilities to, is not on their agenda. In October, China’s President Xi Jinping and Japan’s new Prime Minister Fumio Kishida agreed to have several talks about concerns both nations have with each other, including the disputed islands that are known in Japan as the Senkaku and in China as the Diaoyu, as well as Hong Kong and Beijing’s treatment of the Uyghurs in Xinjiang.
However, whether peace or war will come of these exchanges, Taiwan is preparing to defend itself from any naval threat from the more assertive China. In November of this year, Taiwan has amped up its multinational submarine program in order to counteract potential naval offenses from China, with Reuters claiming Britain, the United States and Canada helping with the submarines, while Taiwan succeeded in hiring engineers, technicians and former naval officers from at least six nations: Britain, Australia, South Korea, India, Spain and Canada. Tsai Shih-ying, secretary-general of the legislative caucus of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), thanked each nation that collaborated in this effort, though he did not identify any of them, possibly in an effort to undermine China and keep their allies anonymous. However, their fleet is still dwarfed in comparison to China’s armada, with the island nation harboring 4 ageing submarines in service, 2 of which date from WWII.
Whatever the outcome, Japan will remain concerned about the fate of Taiwan for the preservation of democracy and peace, but overall, the safety of their nation and their people. If China honors their word on reclaiming Taiwan as another province and attempts to conquer the island and their Strait, Japan will have to act against them in defense, and thus the U.S. would have no choice but to follow.
I don’t think it’s accurate to say that Japan WILL go to war with China over Taiwan and pull the US into it for a number of reasons. While Taiwan is very important to Japan’s defense from Chinese military aggression, they simply cannot afford to unilaterally go to war with China. They do not have the military might to face China. Some recent estimates are calling into question the United States’ ability to win an all out conflict with China in the West Pacific, which means Japan could not touch them. On top of this, China is Japan’s largest trading partner by a margin of about 50%/100 billion dollars. For Japan to go to war with China over Taiwanese agression, they would need the backing of other powers including the US before taking the action. However, the US may decide that Taiwan and protection of the Taiwan strait are important enough to directly threaten force if China uses force and even go to war if China tries to take Taiwan by force. For one, Taiwan is a major trading partner of the US. Japan is an even larger trading partner and as you said, Japan has major defense concerns over Chinese control in Taiwan, so the US does as well. The US also has an interest in projecting the idea that it protects democracy abroad and particularly in Southeast and East Asia because it will make other nations more likely to stand with it against China which is essential in making sure that China remains only a great regional power and does not become able to truly challenge the US on a global scale. Ultimately, it is the US that will make any decision regarding military reaction to Chinese aggression the Taiwan Strait.
Shane, great post! We are currently witnessing China consolidating and expanding its power and global reach wherever it can. With its Belt and Road Initiative, its actions in the South China Sea, and its collaboration with anti-democratic regimes like Russia and North Korea, China is proving that it will do all that it can to increase its global influence. It is my belief that it is important to support democracies in regions of the globe where democracy is not dominant, Taiwan being an example. The recent collaboration between Taiwan and Japan is hopeful. The two countries would mutually benefit from their support of one another, as they have similar interests in promoting democracy in the East. Though I think Japan should be doing more in support of Taiwan, I do agree with your analysis that if push comes to shove, Japan will intervene if China attempts to gain control of Taiwan. It is absolutely vital that the United States, Japan, and other democracies recognize Taiwan, normalize diplomatic relations with them, and offer their full support to Taiwan as a democratic ally in the fight against China. It should be concerning to everyone that China is even publicly entertaining an annexation of the island country. We do not want to see what happened to Hong Kong happen to Taiwan. Countries like the United States and Japan stood by as Hong Kong’s autonomy and freedoms were stripped from them. We saw in real time just how much China disregards democratic norms and the will of their people and the lengths they will go to to suppress opposition. It was egregious that the international community did not do more to support the Hong Kong protests, just as the international community is not properly sanctioning China for the ongoing genocide of the Uyghur muslims.
I liked getting to read this post, Shane. Currently, what is happening in the South China Sea and Tawain is quite frightening. I think China’s decision to grow its empire essentially is something Japan should be concerned about. I agree with you that Japan would likely come to the defense of Taiwan when it comes down to it. I would have thought Japan and Taiwan would have a better relationship than they do. An alliance between the two could potentially be beneficial in fighting the threats they both face from China’s increasing threats. It will be interesting to see how they handle future threats posed to Taiwan. The United States is known as the democracy defender around the globe, and their interests in Taiwan line up for the most part. But time will tell what happens in the region as tensions rise.