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A deliberately opaque corner of Japanese security policy is this country’s relationship with Taiwan. Taiwan is vital to Japanese national security and, to put it delicately, a government in Taipei that makes its own decisions well serves Tokyo (as long as it doesn’t go too far).

At the same time, however, Japan has long sought a positive, cooperative relationship with China; and support for Taipei makes that much more difficult.

China-Taiwan relations have deteriorated in recent years and Trump administration policies have magnified tensions. Frictions are unlikely to diminish in a Biden administration.

In a recent virtual discussion among U.S. and Chinese scholars and experts, mainland participants warned that only days before there had been “a real crisis” that could have erupted in conflict. It will be increasingly difficult for Tokyo to navigate between Taipei, Washington and Beijing; and policy toward Taiwan will have to become more visible and transparent.

Geography makes Taiwan a top Japanese security concern. A mere 180 km separates the island from the mainland, although 70-plus years of rule by noncommunist governments in Taipei has done more to distance the two than any body of water.

The island is 394 km long, making it a central link in the first island chain off the coast of the Asian mainland. The recently declassified “U.S. Strategic Framework for the Indo-Pacific” argues that dominance of the area within that chain and defending its component parts are critical to deterring and if necessary defeating China in a conflict. In addition, Taiwan’s position in the middle of the sea lanes that transport much of Japan’s energy supplies and trade makes it a priority concern for Japan’s military planners.

The island is vital in other ways. It is a vibrant democracy, explicit repudiation of any claim that Chinese society and democracy are mutually exclusive ideas. It is one of the largest industrial economies (the rank depends on who is making the list; it’s usually within the top 20) and has the world’s most advanced semiconductor makers. It is an invaluable partner in the promotion of a free and prosperous region, despite the many handicaps that it faces.

The largest obstacle to Taiwan’s future is Beijing’s determination to reunify the island with the mainland. That goal means that other governments must be creative if they wish to maintain ties with the island and enjoy the considerable benefits of doing business with China.

Diplomatic fig leaves abound: Tokyo uses “the Japan-Taiwan Exchange Association,” a nonofficial entity through which most diplomatic traffic is channeled, rather than an embassy.

The Trump administration’s disdain for the polite fictions of diplomacy and its belief that the United States and China are locked in a great power competition, one in which pre-eminence in Asia is at stake, prompted it to expand ties with Taiwan, regardless of how provocative the act. Other administrations sold arms to Taiwan and tried to expand ties with the island; but none were as blatant or as contemptuous of Chinese concerns as the Trump administration’s behavior.

China has been infuriated by the moves. Government spokespersons repeatedly denounced U.S. policy and politicians; former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was given especially brutal treatment. In the virtual conversations last month, Chinese participants warned that a Pompeo visit to the island, along with that of the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations — both mooted and then canceled — were “very dangerous steps” and China felt “almost cornered.”

Those weren’t empty words. After a high-ranking State Department official visited Taiwan last year, Chinese jets crossed the median line in the Taiwan Strait, the unofficial dividing line.

Shortly after Joe Biden’s inauguration, China sent dozens of aircraft, fighters and bombers among them, into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone for two consecutive days, and the incursions have continued on a near-daily basis. Taiwan scrambled its jets in response and the possibility of an accident or miscalculation makes a crisis a very real contingency. There are also fears that Beijing is losing patience, will give up on persuasion and attempt to unify the island by force.

China is putting down a marker and making plain to the Biden team that the forging of closer ties with Taiwan must stop and be rolled back.

Biden is not intimidated. Hsiao Bi-khim, Taiwan’s envoy to the United States, was invited to his inauguration, the first time since 1979 that the official Taiwan representative has attended. The USS Theodore Roosevelt aircraft carrier group entered the South China Sea the weekend after the inauguration to “ensure freedom of the seas.” And State Department spokesperson Ned Price issued a statement denouncing China’s military pressure against Taiwan and called the U.S. commitment to Taiwan “rock-solid.”

Japan is debating its response. Japan prefers a quiet policy toward Taiwan, refraining from blunt or direct statements that might inflame China or encourage independence activists on the island. With government-to-government contacts prohibited, unofficial dialogues fill the gap. There is a robust conversation among former officials and experts (“track-two meetings”) and parliamentarians regularly meet as a group or as individuals. There is widespread recognition that more needs to be done, though.

Members of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party last week formed a Taiwan project team to consider policies toward the island. One option is a Japanese version of the Taiwan Relations Act, the U.S. law that commits Washington to ensure that Taiwan can defend itself (through arms sales or the deployment of U.S. forces). Some members prefer a regular meeting of foreign and defense ministers from the two governments (a “2+2 meeting”).

There are also calls for intelligence sharing, coordination among coast guards and the exchange of military liaison officers. (A maritime cooperation dialogue already addresses issues like fisheries and research, as well as some forms of coast guard cooperation).

Since Taiwan and Japan both face ballistic missile threats, some experts have endorsed Taiwan’s inclusion in a missile defense network; in track-two meetings, Chinese experts and officials bluntly warn that that would be an intolerable provocation. Committing to the defense of Taiwan is one thing; integrating the island into a regional security architecture is quite another.

In fact since 1996, Japan has had a role in defending Taiwan even though it was never explicitly identified as such. That year, Tokyo and Washington agreed to new guidelines for bilateral defense cooperation. That document artfully referred to “situations in areas surrounding Japan,” a reference to, among other things, a Taiwan contingency (although that name isn’t in the document).

In those cases, Japan should be prepared to provide humanitarian assistance, noncombatant evacuations, search and rescue help, and the use of facilities to support U.S. forces fighting in the region, among other things.

Here, too, there is a call for more overt action by Japan. Advocates insist that China has ignored Japan’s measured approach and Tokyo must do more to check Beijing’s increasingly assertive behavior.

Ben Self, vice president of the Mike and Maureen Mansfield Foundation, counters that “overt steps by Tokyo to defend Taipei will produce a reflexive and even neuralgic response” in Beijing. While he concedes that this may look like appeasement, it is in fact “an acceptance of the reality that this issue is one of critical national importance to the CCP and its regime stability.”

That doesn’t mean abandoning the island. Instead, Self argues, Japan should “significantly increase interoperability with the United States, while maintaining current levels of sub rosa contact with Taiwan’s defense establishment.”

Even that will be difficult. Any effort to strengthen ties with Taiwan must overcome the powerful opposition of political and business forces in Tokyo that prioritize smooth relations with Beijing.

Yoji Koda, former Maritime Self-Defense Force fleet commander, laments that “overdependence on China’s market and too-deep interdependence really impede efforts to promote and improve Japan-Taiwan relations.”

He believes the government is similarly inclined to overweight Beijing’s concerns. Weak leadership “that does not want to create complicated issues with China prevents Japan from taking active actions and maneuvers to help Taiwan.” Nothing will change, he warns, until something serious happens between Japan and China or Taiwan and China. That possibility grows more likely daily.

Brad Glosserman is deputy director of and visiting professor at the Center for Rule Making Strategies at Tama University as well as senior advisor (nonresident) at Pacific Forum. He is the author of “Peak Japan: The End of Great Ambitions” (Georgetown University Press, 2019).

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