Diplomats fog their minefields with blandness. A “joint leaders’ statement” can even put an insomniac to sleep: “We underscore the importance of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait, and encourage the peaceful resolution of cross-strait issues.” Zzz.
Wake up. One word in that affirmation by Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and U.S. President Joe Biden makes last month’s summit historic: Taiwan. It hadn’t figured in a comparable context since 1969.
Japan faces an agonizing dilemma — two, rather: commerce versus politics; security versus freedom. Taiwan, boldly defiant of China’s threats to swallow it, is free but hardly secure. Japan, democratic and professing human rights, naturally wants to be and be seen in the camp of the free powers, which look askance at China’s one-party rule and concomitant truculence toward adversaries at home and abroad — and Taiwan, in China’s view, is “home.”
On the other hand, China is Japan’s biggest trade partner. That’s important too — as is, of course, the proximity of the military threat the rising superpower is widely thought to represent. What, then, is a democratic, commercial and non-belligerent country like Japan to do? Lining up with the United States in support of Taiwan risks souring China. Declining to do so in deference to China risks souring its most important ally and the democratic world generally.
How likely is China to invade Taiwan? It could happen within six years, says Shukan Post magazine this month, citing recent speculative congressional testimony by a U.S. defense expert. China’s increasingly harsh tone — rising in stridency as its economic growth slows — is suggestive rather than conclusive, but alarmingly so, as some see it. The only claim to popular support an unelected government has, other than rising prosperity, is national pride. Taiwan and Hong Kong, democratic outposts of a motherland officially and popularly viewed as integral, must pay the price — as must, though differently, the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, of which more in a moment.
A Chinese attack on Taiwan would rattle Japan profoundly, Shukan Post says. Oil Japan imports from the Middle East passes through the Taiwan Strait. Alternate routes are possible but costly. Japanese citizens in Taiwan — numbering over 25,000 in 2019 — would have to be evacuated. It’s seen as a major operation, involving Osprey aircraft and C2 transport planes. Could Japan pull it off, under a Chinese missile barrage?
What would Japan’s alliance with the United States commit it to, assuming American defense of Taiwan? If to back up military support, how would China respond? Would a China buoyed by victory in Taiwan advance northeastward? To the China-claimed, Japan-ruled Senkaku Islands? To Okinawa?
Never mind. “Let us be clear,” writes Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi in this month’s Bungei Shunju magazine. “Japan will not give way when it comes to universal values upheld by the international community — respect for basic human rights, rule of law, freedom of the seas, and so on.”
A sidebar to Shukan Post’s main story bears a headline in stark contradiction to Motegi’s bold words: “33 China-dependent Japanese companies that can’t say ‘no’ to China.” Why can’t they say no? Fear of Chinese wrath. Bolder companies in other parts of the world — American sportswear manufacturer Nike and Swedish fashion retailer H&M are the ones cited — found China’s vast market virtually shut in their faces for their spurning of Xinjiang cotton picked by Uyghurs and others under conditions described as slave labor.
Japan’s Fast Retailing, parent company of clothing giant Uniqlo, took note and treads softly. “I will refrain from commenting as it’s not so much a human rights issue as a political one,” said Fast Retailing CEO Tadashi Yanai. “We want to be politically neutral.”
It’s understandable, or at least explicable — China, including Taiwan and Hong Kong, accounts for 20 percent of Fast Retailing’s sales. A Chinese boycott would be devastating. Shukan Post’s 33 companies include electronics maker TDK (53% “China-dependent”), electronic component maker Murata Manufacturing (52.8%), toilet maker Toto (14.1%), Sony (10.2%), Panasonic (10.1%), Hitachi (9.9%) and so on — household names, all.
The magazine acknowledges an honorable exception: tomato ketchup and juice maker Kagome. Last month, it suspended imports of tomato paste produced in Xinjiang. China’s media, official and social, lashed back, striking an official-social harmony rarely seen elsewhere, either in democracies where diversity of opinion is a matter of course, or in dictatorships where social media sow rebellion and defiance. China’s state-run media charged Kagome with lending itself to efforts to divert attention from Japan’s contamination of the seas with radioactive waste water from the Tokyo Electric Power Company’s stricken Fukushima nuclear reactors. “Ban Kagome!” chimed in Weibo, China’s equivalent of Twitter.
So Kagome’s gesture takes its toll — a relatively small one. However, Shukan Post notes in passing: China accounts for a mere 0.4% of Kagome’s sales.
Chinese and Japanese — remarkably, in view of the vastly different political systems they live under — share, or seem to, an attitude toward politics charitably describable as satisfaction with the status quo. Euphemism aside: apathy. In China, of course, there’s the additional element of fear.
Mass uprisings against dictatorships and autocracies in Myanmar, Hong Kong, Russia, Belarus, Venezuela and elsewhere are in stark contrast with quiescent China, no less autocratic. Democratic Japan is equally quiet, neither protesting nor voting against a virtually one-party government awash in scandals.
“I worry about Japan’s democracy,” Tokyo University professor Tomoko Ako told the Asahi Shimbun in an interview published last month. She does research among Hong Kong activists putting their lives on the line for the very democracy the Japanese seem to take for granted to the point of indifference. She quotes Hong Kong protest leader Agnes Chow, currently serving a 10-month prison sentence under China’s new Hong Kong national security law: “Will I be alive next year?” Japan’s political passivity must mystify Chow, Japanophile and anime fan though she is.
Big in Japan is a weekly column that focuses on issues being discussed by domestic media organizations. Michael Hoffman’s latest book is “Cipangu, Golden Cipangu: Essays in Japanese History.”
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