As concern about Chinese military ambitions grows across the region, Japan is increasingly making clear that it considers Taiwan remaining independent of the PRC to be an integral aspect of their security regime.
Former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe stirred up the relationship between Japan and China after decades of caution by saying that Japan couldn’t allow Hong Kong’s fate to befall Taiwan.
Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso then reiterated that Japan would work with the US to defend Taiwan in the event of a crisis. He urged other countries to “wake up” to the Chinese threat, and suggested that Japan must “protect Taiwan as a democratic country.”
The support for US efforts to defend Taiwan might be expected from the alliance partner, however is seldom made so explicit, nor publicly linked directly to Japan’s own security interests.
Japan’s constitutional reforms in 2015 now allow the previously only defensive military to be used to defend another country if Japan’s security is at stake suggesting that they could take a significantly more active role depending on their perception.
Yoshihige Suda, Japan’s new Prime Minister after Abe stepped down in 2020, made clear that he wanted the Taiwan strait to remain stable, suggesting that Japan had an interest in playing into the deterrence structures that keep an invasion from taking place.
While Bloomberg and reporters have suggested that the primary reason for Japan’s concern is avoiding a largescale conflict on its borders, security officials theorize that the concern is deeper. There is longer term fear over a rising China, still hostile to Japan and dogmatically seeking revenge for WWII, as the party so often reiterates, breaking into the first island chain of the West Pacific and gained a foothold within 300 km of Japanese territory at their closest point. Last year, the State Minister of Defense Yasuhide Nakayama defined the invasion of Taiwan as a “red line.”
This longstanding security concern has been no secret to Chinese officials, who likely have delayed invasion to some extent out of fear that Japan would nuclearize in response, which might possibly spur South Korea to do the same.
This chain of events would leave China surrounding on nearly all sides by hostile nuclear armed powers, which would in turn significantly lower China’s their margin for error in dealing with disputes with its neighbors, and hinder its capacity to dominate the West Pacific.
For all of these reasons, politicians in both countries have tended to maximize their deterrence-aimed rhetoric, while acting cautiously. Thus, these statements represent a more aggressive shift by both Japanese officials and the Chinese semi-official response.
The comments, made in the first week of August, have been met with Chinese consternation, including directly labeling the statements as gross interference. Threats of Chinese nuclear retaliation surfaced in a video posted by a communist party-affiliated channel, and can be taken as a semi-official response.
The threatening video was deleted but recorded clips are still on the internet.
Japan this week has committed to a rare expansion of their military, the Japanese Defense Forces, to the tiny islands outlying Taiwan, including a force of between 500 to 600 accompanying a full missile system to Ishigaki, about 180 km from the Taiwanese mainland, but also close to the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands.
There are also suggestions that within two years, an additional electronic warfare unit will also be deployed to Yonaguni, around 70 nautical miles from Taiwan, and 125km from Yilan. Such a move is being considered in the following annual defense budget.
The defense budget will likely expand under an increasingly fearful Japanese Liberal Party, which has been in power almost continuously since 1955. Japan has one of the lowest defense budgets as a percentage of GDP, 0.94%, amongst all developed nations, let alone East Asian states. This was alluded to in the state’s defense white paper for this year as a weakness, and the government has indicated that they will aim to break the 1% margin. By comparison, their neighbor South Korea spends proportionally about three times as much as Japan does, at 2.7% of GDP.
Japan is becoming increasingly assertive in its security domain after questions were left over the US military commitment under the Trump administration, paired with a war-weary US public. It is also increasingly expanding domestic research and development on weapons systems, rather than opting to buy from the US.
Other US alliance members, including the UK and Germany, are also undertaking the potentially provocative action of sailing warships through the Southwest Pacific, including wide swaths of international waters that the PRC is now claiming are its own sovereign waters.
Such actions suggest that China’s soft power and leverage are insecure under an increasingly threatened West Pacific. It signals that states across the region and as far of Europe are less hesitant to act in ways that may harm their relationship with China, effectively dismissing the threat of retaliation.
US Secretary of State Tony Blinken, in meetings with state leaders in ASEAN, reiterated US concern over the expansion of China’s nuclear arsenal, in an attempt to expand the coalition of China-skeptical states in the region. If that concern magnifies, other regional states may feel pressure to nuclearize, or expand their arsenals to keep parity in their deterrence regimes. The mere threat of such expansions could undermine the offensive advantages that China currently maintains, and perhaps the US believes that this would be sufficient to reduce the potential benefits that China might reap, or at least significantly raise costs, of expanding Chinese belligerence in Asia.
forbes.com/sites/niallmccarthy/2020/04/27/the-biggest-military-budgets-as-a-share-of-gdp-in-2019-infographic/?sh=bdfc9ce37f10#:~:text=In 2019%2C military spending accounted for 3.4%25 of,increase on 2018 and 85%25 higher than 2010.