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Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso has signaled that Tokyo would consider a Chinese invasion of Taiwan an existential threat to its security, allowing Japan to help defend the self-ruled island with the United States.

“If a major incident happened (over Taiwan), it’s safe to say it would be related to a situation threatening the survival (of Japan). If that is the case, Japan and the U.S. must defend Taiwan together,” local media quoted Aso as saying during a speech in Tokyo on Monday.

With the remarks, Aso became the most senior government official to state a clear scenario in which the Self-Defense Forces would be deployed to help defend another country or region.

Although Japan’s war-renouncing Constitution limits the use of its SDF, security laws passed in 2015 allow for its deployment outside of the country, including aiding an ally or friendly nation in the event of an attack that threatens Tokyo’s own security, a concept known as collective self-defense.

Aso, who serves concurrently as finance minister and also sits on the country’s National Security Council, is known for his outspokenness, and it is unclear how much weight his remarks carried.

Asked about Japan’s stance on the cross-strait issue at a news conference Tuesday, Aso said any contingency over Taiwan should be best resolved through dialogue, adding that Japan was closely monitoring the situation.

At a separate news conference the same day, Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato, the government’s top spokesman, refrained from directly commenting on Aso’s remarks, calling a Taiwan contingency a “hypothetical situation,” while stressing the importance of a peaceful resolution to the issue.

Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi speaks during an interview in Tokyo on June 24. | BLOOMBERG
Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi speaks during an interview in Tokyo on June 24. | BLOOMBERG

Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi, meanwhile, told reporters Tuesday that Japan would make a comprehensive judgment whether a situation threatened Japan’s survival and the exercise of collective self-defense was necessary “based on the specific situation and information collected.”

Japan has watched with apprehension as China has ramped up its military and diplomatic pressure on Taiwan in recent months. This included China’s dispatch last month of a record 28 warplanes into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone just days after Group of Seven leaders mentioned the island in a joint statement for the first time ever, urging “the peaceful resolution of cross-Strait issues.”

Beijing views Taiwan as an inherent part of its territory and sees it as a renegade province that must be brought back into the fold — by force if necessary.

Later Tuesday, China’s Foreign Ministry said that Aso’s remarks “harmed the political foundation of Sino-Japan relations,” and that they were “resolutely opposed” by Beijing.

“No one should underestimate the Chinese people’s staunch resolve, firm will, and formidable ability to defend national sovereignty,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said at a regular news conference.

Chinese President Xi Jinping has refused to tamp down speculation among some observers that China could invade Taiwan, highlighting Beijing’s “unshakeable commitment” to reunification in a speech last week marking the 100th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party’s founding.

“No one should underestimate the resolve, the will and the ability of the Chinese people to defend their national sovereignty and territorial integrity,” Xi said.

Not wanting to upset China, Tokyo had long taken a quiet stance on the Taiwan issue, but has embarked on a bolder approach recently, with Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga earlier this year mentioning it in a joint statement with U.S. President Joe Biden — the first such reference since 1969.

Japan has also highlighted its support for Taiwan through the donation and pledged donation of more than 2 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines, much to the chagrin of China.

State Defense Minister Yasuhide Nakayama speaks at the State Department in Washington in 2015. | REUTERS
State Defense Minister Yasuhide Nakayama speaks at the State Department in Washington in 2015. | REUTERS

Last week, the Financial Times reported that Japan and the U.S. have discreetly been conducting war games and joint military exercises focusing on a potential conflict with China over Taiwan.

The report, which cited unidentified sources, said the planning for a possible conflict had begun in the final year of U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration and carried over into the Biden White House.

Japan’s Defense Ministry is also expected to mention the importance of stability around Taiwan for the first time in its annual white paper, which is due to be released soon.

But the Suga-Biden statement was what appeared to open the floodgates in Tokyo, prompting a raft of high-level officials, including Aso, to weigh in on the government’s concerns over Taiwan’s fate.

Late last month, Kishi was quoted as saying that the peace and stability of Taiwan “are directly connected to Japan,” while his No. 2, State Minister of Defense Yasuhide Nakayama, echoed this and questioned whether the United States’ and Japan’s “One China” policies would be able to stand the test of time.

Both officials have pointed to the fact that shipping and trade routes near Taiwan are crucial for Japan’s economy.

Nakayama, who in the past called the island’s safety a “red line,” said it was time for all parties concerned to “wake up” and “protect Taiwan as a democratic country.” He specifically noted Japan’s geographic proximity to Taiwan — the island of Yonaguni sits just 110 kilometers away — saying that if a contingency occurred, it would surely impact Okinawa Prefecture.

On Monday, Aso also noted the concerns over Okinawa, home to the bulk of U.S. forces in the country.

“Okinawa … is said to be the most important keystone, geographically and geopolitically,” Aso was quoted as saying. “Its defense is extremely important.”

Information from Reuters added

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