The most important development for Taiwan’s security might be unfolding right now in Japan. Tokyo’s strategy toward Taiwan is dramatically shifting. Once reluctant to join all but the most anodyne of pro-Taiwan statements with the United States, Japanese officials now increasingly state their desire to “protect Taiwan as a democratic country.” While no formal changes in security policy or diplomatic legalities are likely, Tokyo is signaling that it is willing to support Taiwan’s sovereignty, up to and including joining a military defense of the island against Chinese attack. This is likely giving Chinese Communist Party leaders and military planners much more short-term heartburn than the recently announced submarine and technology sharing deal between Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States.
Focusing language on “hope” for peaceful reconciliation
Ryan Ashley claims that until recently, Japan treaded far more carefully than the United States on Taiwan, focusing its language on “hope” for peaceful reconciliation between Beijing and Taipei. While, similarly to the United States, Japan never fully recognized China’s claims over Taiwan, Tokyo preferred to keep its official policies even more ambiguous than Washington’s through the Joint Communiqué of 1972. This document, which restored diplomatic ties between Tokyo and Beijing, contained a Japanese recognition that the “Government of the People’s Republic of China” is the “sole legal Government of China.” Furthermore, Japan never created its own version of America’s Taiwan Relations Act, which provided (and still provides) a baseline of unofficial recognition, engagement, and security guarantees from Washington to Taipei in the aftermath of the former’s recognition of the Chinese Communist Party-state.
Rather, in its dealings with China, Japan typically took an accommodating tone on the topic, repeatedly stating that it “fully respects and understands the stance” that Taiwan is an “inalienable part of the territory of the Peoples’ Republic of China,” while never clearly laying out its own stance. Moreover, while there is a history of stridently anti-Chinese Communist Party Japanese politicians, especially within the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, their efforts rarely impacted this delicate balance. Successive Japanese governments even actively worked to stifle any public statements of support for Taiwan within their ranks, prioritizing the growing economic relationship with China over geopolitics. For example, in November 1999, the Japanese Foreign Ministry publicly rebuked the governor of Tokyo, Ishihara Shintaro, for publicly referring to Taiwan as a “state,” denigrating him as a mere “local official” without the ability to speak on behalf of the government. During a 2017 visit to Taiwan by Japanese Deputy Minister for Internal Affairs and Communications Akama Jiro, the state broadcaster Nippon Hōsō Kyōkai (commonly known as NHK) stated that the visit did not represent a shift in the government’s views toward Taiwan, and the government instructed Akama to partially focus his visit on disagreements over Taiwanese claims to an exclusive economic zone in the East China Sea, in effect treating Taiwan as a partial proxy for equivalent Chinese claims.
“Importance for Japan’s Security and the Stability of the International community”
In addition, Ryan Ashley writes that now, Japan is unmistakably changing its approach. While official policies and legal authorities toward Taiwan have not changed and are unlikely to do so, the intent in, and signaling from, Tokyo is clearly different. Japan’s most recent defense white paper discussed Taiwan as “important for Japan’s security and the stability of the international community” and described cross-strait tensions as requiring a “sense of crisis.” Japan’s governing Liberal Democratic Party launched party-to-party talks in August with Taiwan’s Democratic Progressive Party involving discussions of security cooperation via joint coast guard exercises. In addition, Japanese politicians are making several once-unthinkable statements supporting Taiwan, like Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi’s assertion that “the peace and stability of Taiwan are directly connected to Japan.” The statement from the April 2021 meeting between then-Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide and U.S. President Joe Biden included a reference to “the importance of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait,” the first such reference to Taiwan in a U.S.-Japanese statement since 1969. Perhaps most strikingly, there are increasing calls within the Liberal Democratic Party for Japan to create its own version of a Taiwan Relations Act, which would provide a new basis for Japan’s informal recognition of Taipei and would represent both a legal and policy formalization of a political atmosphere that is increasingly willing to part with decades-old communiques.
In Tokyo, Japanese leaders are likely to continue to see manageable and limited downsides in continued outreach to Taiwan. Future areas of Tokyo-Taipei cooperation, such as Taiwan’s recent bid to join the rebooted Trans-Pacific Partnership and other international forums, are similarly agreeable in both Tokyo and Taipei. Discussions of security cooperation, like joint coast guard exercises, have a reasonable chance of bearing fruit. These meaningful developments can be contextualized within a larger internationalization of the Taiwan issue, giving Japan cover in its bilateral relationship with China. While such actions mean Japan can expect continued aggressive Chinese military actions near Japanese seas and airspace, Tokyo essentially perceives such provocations as inevitable regardless of Japan’s relations with Taiwan. Japan’s revolution on Taiwan affairs is likely to be lasting.