Increasing Tensions on the Taiwan issue and the Taiwan Strait: The U.S., Japan and China

by Sami Burgaz
By: Safiye Ergun

Recently, the Taiwan issue came to global agenda one more time due to expressions of authorities from Japan and China. The former Prime Minister of Japan Tarō Asō who is currently the deputy prime minister and also a member of Japan’s National Security Council gave a speech on July 5, 2021. He said that Japan would defend the island of Taiwan together with the U.S. if a war erupts across the Taiwan Straits. Asō also said that “an invasion of Taiwan by China could be seen as an existential threat, allowing Japan to exercise the right to collective self-defence.”

As a response to Asō’s expression, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said, “Those remarks are extremely wrong and dangerous, as they severely violate the principles set out in the four political documents between China and Japan, and undermine the political foundation of China-Japan relations.” In addition, according to the South China Morning Post’s (SCMP) report, an American anti-submarine patrol aircraft crossed the Taiwan Strait from north to south for the first time. In light of this current news, the Taiwan issue seems to occupy the international agenda for a while. The Taiwan issue, in fact, has not only an importance for the contentious relations of China and the U.S., but also have a significant place in the security of the South and East China Sea.

In order to provide an analytical depth on this issue The Asia Today Editorial Board has consulted numerous experts for their valuable comments.

Dr. Satoru Nagao (Hudson Institute)

Dr. Nagao evaluated the issue mostly from the Japanese perspective. He pointed out that the statements about Taiwan in Japan were not limited to Asō, the State Minister of Defence of Japan Yasuhide Nakayama also said “we have to protect Taiwan as a democratic country” at an online seminar held in the Hudson Institute in Washington D.C. on June 28, 2021. Dr. Nagao also drew attention to why Taiwan is important for Japan and explained it under three main aspects.

The first reason according to him is that “Taiwan is located off the coast of China, the core area of the Chinese economy, and is a strategic location for deterring Chinese aggression.” He explained the second reason from the geographical proximity of Japan and Taiwan and said, “in case of China’s invasion of Taiwan, it is nearly impossible for Japan to escape from any conflicts, geographically. There are merely 111 km between the west-end of Japan (Yonaguni Island) and Taiwan, and the Senkaku Islands of Japan is located 170 km away from Taiwan. China did not claim the Senkaku Islands before 1971. Since then, however, China’s attitude has changed, because the Senkaku Islands are in a strategic location in order to pressure Taiwan. When the U.S. supports Taiwan, Japan’s southwestern island chains will be the supply route.”

Lastly, Dr. Nagao underlined the imminence of military conflict and stated that, “China’s rapid military modernization is changing the military balances with Taiwan, as well as provoking Taiwan militarily. Chinese military aircrafts have repeatedly entered Taiwan’s air space. On June 15, 2021, within only that single day, 28 Chinese military aircrafts entered Taiwan’s Air Identification Zone.[1] Also, its activities on the Pacific side of Taiwan, where a Chinese aircrafts and submarines made repeated visits, are of particular concern. If Chinese armed forces deploy there permanently, it would cut Taiwan off from Japan and the US. In addition, the US Indo-Pacific commander Adm. Philip Davidson recently warned that China could invade Taiwan within six years.”

He concluded his remarks by mentioning the collaboration between the US, Japan and Taiwan: “Therefore, recently, Japan and U.S. have been conducting joint military exercises in preparation for a possible conflict with China over Taiwan.[2] The more China escalates the situation, the more the defence collaboration of Japan, US and Taiwan will be institutionalized in the Indo-Pacific.”

Assoc. Prof. Dr. Chong Ja Ian (National University of Singapore)

Dr. Chong Ja Ian started his remarks by mentioning Japan’s eagerness to involve Taiwan not only today but for a long time. He said, “There have always been some elements or possibilities for Japan to be involved in the region. (…) The news today is just clearer statements of the officials; for part of the reason of course is China’s increasing assertiveness, its military aircraft and naval vessels in the waters around Taiwan.”

He summarised the importance of Taiwan in the sense of Japan by as follows: “It is correct to say that Japan has important strategic interests in Taiwan because if you look at Japan as being a trading nation, and Taiwan sits right Japan’s sea links to go to South Asia, to the Northern and the Eastern Europe as well. Here, Taiwan is somewhere that has a potential to disrupt Japan’s trade. That is why Japan is clearer about Taiwan than it was in the past. These statements are also turning Japanese public opinion against China. Here, in fact, Japan does not only target Taiwan, but also the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea which is the reason for the dispute between Japan and China.”

After highlighting the importance of Taiwan for Japan, he shared his comments on Chinese side. He said that “we are facing a changing world environment, and China is more willing to push its claims whether on Taiwan or anywhere else.” Then he mentioned the difference between ‘One China principle’ and ‘One China policy.’

By his words: “They sound very similar but they are quite different. Sometimes China tries to complete the two.” Then, he continued with defining these terms: “The One China principle basically says that there is one China in the world and Taiwan is the part of that China and that China is the People’s Republic of China (PRC) ruled by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). [On the other hand,] the One China policy that many countries abide to is of course a variation but essentially comes down to they will acknowledge the existence of the One China principle, whether they agree or disagree. For a long period of time, China was willing to live with this fiction. But [once] it has become more powerful, I think, it has been more willing to push its own position to try to make a line between the One China policy and to make people think that it seems as the One China principle.”

Finally, when asked whether he foresees a war in Taiwan in the near future or not, he said that the war is unlikely to happen, but some war-like activities could happen. By his own statements, “(…) disrupting or harassing the ships and aircrafts [etc.] could happen. Legally [this] is an act of war, but the way you operate can create some [grounds] to give you some legal cover. (…) The war is unlikely to happen but it is probably useful to be vary out of the [war-like] activities that can be highly destabilizing.”

He concluded with an emphasis on China’s assertiveness in international politics: “Beijing has a lot of initiatives, because they are the ones who want to change the status quo. (…) And I think, including Taiwan, China will be provocative with those all initiatives.”

Dr. Hu Bo (Maritime strategist & the Director of the SCSPI)

When we asked the Director of the South China Sea Strategic Situation Probing Initiative (SCSPI) Dr. Hu Bo, answered the question mostly from the Chinese perspective and stated that; “The situation of Taiwan Strait is indeed in great tensions. From the Chinese perspective, the US and Japan have gradually changed the One China policy, at the same time accusing Chinese Mainland of coercing Taiwan, which worsen cross-straits relations as well as Sino-US and Sino-Japan relations.” 

Mentioning that China’s policies on the coastal seas have been stable in recent years, he expressed his concerns for the future of the East China Sea with the following words: “The situation of the South China Sea is better and softer than that of last year, although contradictions and uncertainties remain high. Of which, the biggest challenges are US anti-China’s policy and changes of domestic politics in the Philippines. China’s policy towards the East China Sea has not changed in recent years while Japan is more and more overreacting and overanxious. Thus, I’m not optimistic about situation of the East China Sea in the near future.”

Dr. Altay Atlı (Lecturer at the Asian Studies program of Boğaziçi University)

Dr. Atlı evaluated Taro Aso’s expressions as a surprise and made his comments with an emphasis on the Japanese laws: “(…) many were surprised by these statements, not only because his words were unprecedentedly harsh—compared with the traditionally cautious remarks used by Japanese leaders on regional security issues—but also and mainly because under its constitution, Japan is prohibited from the use of military force except for self-defence. Taro also said that an invasion of Taiwan by China could be seen as “an existential threat”, which actually explains it all: Such an invasion would be a threat against Japan, and use of military force would be justified because it would fall under self-defence.”

Drawing attentions to Aso’s official duty, Dr.Atlı said, “Taro Aso is a currently deputy prime minister and his words are binding for the Japanese government. Japan has indeed an increasingly assertive posture in regional security issues.” He interpreted this change on political statements of Japan from two dynamics: “The first is related to the alliance between the United States in Japan, which forms the backbone of the security architecture in the Asia-Pacific region. Under the Trump Administration, the utility of the alliance of Japan for American interests was deeply questioned, which harmed the confidence and trust between the two allies. President Biden, in contrast, has started his term by making significant efforts to restore trust with allies, both in Europe and Asia. He has even explicitly mentioned his administration’s will to counter Chinese actions and doing so in close cooperation with allies. The Japanese government is responding to Biden’s efforts, placing a special emphasis on the value of the US-Japan alliance, and how far Japan is willing to go to honor the alliance: hence Taro’s statement of ‘defend(ing) the island of Taiwan together with the United States.’ The second dynamic here is related to Japan’s domestic politics, and efforts started under the previous government to amend the constitution of the country so that Japan’s armed forces could be used proactively to secure the country’s interests, not only strictly for self-defense. Under the previous government the initial objective was to make it possible for Japanese armed forces to be deployed in support for the US military actions in third countries. Currently, we can see how this approach is now taking shape in concrete terms. On July 13, 2021, Japan released its annual defense white paper, which for the first time took up the issue of stability around Taiwan. Stabilizing the situation surrounding Taiwan, the paper said, was important not only for Japan’s security but also the stability of the international community. In other words, Japan is moving towards an amendment of the constitution and a ‘normalized’ way of using its armed forces. As it does so, increasing threat perceptions related to China will be at the center stage.” He concluded his speech by mentioning the increasing tensions in the region and said, “Japan’s increasingly active stance can further complicate the security environment in the South China Sea as well. As China continues to claim 90 percent of the maritime territory, and the United States responds by conducting FONOPs in what it considers as international waters, one can see Japan is getting more involved in this region as well. The Japanese government has recently expressed its ‘grave concern’ against unilateral attempts by China to change the status quo in the South China Sea as well as in the East China Sea. An active deployment of Japanese warships in the area, possibly joining the operations of the US Navy, would escalate the tensions that are already high.” 

Opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of The Asia Today.


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