These days, Tokyo has been uncharacteristically explicit in its comments regarding Taiwan.
When Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga visited Washington in April, the U.S. and Japan made a clear-cut mention of “the importance of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait,” and encouraged the “peaceful resolution of cross-strait issues.” In late May, the EU-Japan summit elicited a similar joint statement.
Furthermore, the Group of Seven foreign ministers in May issued a communique that included a statement “supporting Taiwan’s meaningful participation in World Health Organization forums and the World Health Assembly. The international community should be able to benefit from the experience of all partners, including Taiwan’s successful contribution to the tackling of the COVID-19 pandemic.”
The statement is significant, as it shows the G7 leaders see Taiwan’s handling of the pandemic as something that the world should learn from, despite Beijing’s opposition. It also indicates that the G7 is growing more willing to view China and Taiwan as distinct entities, which need to be included in international institutions while not deviating in principle from the One-China policy as Beijing demands.
These statements should not be seen in isolation. For instance, Japanese Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi has asserted that the security of Taiwan was directly linked with that of Japan. Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso has reinforced that view, saying that Japan “would have to defend Taiwan” with the United States if the island is invaded by mainland China. Aso’s statement was the first time a Cabinet member stated a clear scenario that would constitute a threat to the survival of the nation.
What has changed with regards to Taiwan that has made Tokyo so much more blunt about its support for Taiwan?
The answer to this question is threefold.
First, Taiwan’s geographic position demands Japan prioritize peace and stability in cross-strait relations. Xi Jinping’s China has become increasingly assertive throughout the Indo-Pacific region and towards Taiwan, raising concerns about what friction or conflict would mean for Japan.
On the geographic front, Taiwan straddles critical sea lines of communication connecting the South China and East China Seas. Friction in the straits could disrupt or alter the transport of goods and energy through these critical sea lanes that could negatively impact the Japanese economy, its security and the lives of ordinary citizens.
Friction in the straits, or a potential forced reunification of Taiwan by Beijing, would immediately raise concerns about Chinese intentions for Japan’s peripheral territories such as Yonaguni, Ishigaki and the Senkaku Islands. These islands are part of first island chain, a series of islands that stretch from the Philippines through Taiwan, the Japanese archipelago to the Sakhalin Islands and are commonly seen as an important line of control in the East China Sea.
This scenario is not so farfetched. In the 1980s, the then-commander of the PLA Navy, Adm. Liu Huaqing, explicitly mentioned command of the seas out past the first island chain as part of his active defense strategy.
With the first island chain that links Okinawa Prefecture, Taiwan and the Philippines under Chinese control, the active defense strategy stressed the importance of seeking to establish control of waters within the second island chain that links the Ogasawara island chain, Guam and Indonesia with the goal of ending U.S. military dominance in the Indo-Pacific.
A reunification of Taiwan with the mainland and the extension of Chinese maritime power in the region would also raise concerns about the durability of U.S. security commitments to Japan and the region.
Second, while the security concerns involving Taiwan are serious, so is its position in the technological supply chain. Home to the Taiwan Semi-Conductor Manufacturing Company, the island is a vital link in the production and export of top tier semiconductor chips.
These chips are found in civilian and military grade technologies such as Apple’s iPhone chips, Nvidia’s AI chips and semiconductors used in the cutting-edge F-35 stealth fighter jets. They are also found in automobiles produced by Japanese car manufacturers. This means that a disruption in chip production would negatively impact some of Japan’s largest corporations.
The semiconductor risk associated with Taiwan is further complicated by mainland China’s efforts to catch up and eventually dominate the technological space that includes AI, quantum computing, 5G, 6G and more. All require first-tier chipmaking capabilities but not necessarily a transparent and accountable legal system.
This push for technology dominance by authoritarian China is a risk. Japan needs to ensure that its industries and defense capabilities continue to have access to top-tier semiconductors that are produced by trusted partners.
Third, Japan is increasingly concerned about the fate that awaits Taiwan after the implementation of the Chinese National Security Law (NSL) in Hong Kong and seeing the tightening of authoritarian power at home. Both actions by Beijing raise sober questions as to China’s intentions in the region and the ability of Japan and like-minded countries to preserve their free and open Indo-Pacific vision based on a rules-based order.
In just two years, Hong Kong’s freedom of the press rating has significantly dropped, civil gatherings and protests aimed at keeping the city government accountable have nearly disappeared and scholars at Hong Kong Universities now self-censor or have changed their course content for fear of being charged with a violation of the NSL.
Why this matters for Japan-Taiwan relations is that what happened in Hong Kong is the likely scenario for a mainland driven reunification with Taiwan. A Taiwan that is not free and open, a Taiwan that is not wedded to a rules-based order is a serious security concern for Japan — and should be for other countries as well.
Japan’s unequivocal position on Taiwan at the international and domestic level has not gone unnoticed by Beijing. In fact, on July 11th, the military commentary channel Liujun Taolue released a video in which the narrator calls for nuclear attacks against Japan if it attempts to defend Taiwan from a Chinese attack under the banner of the “Japan Exception Theory.”
What is clear is that Taiwan remains a critical point of disjuncture between Japan, like-minded countries and China. Tokyo sees the island as critical to its national and technological security. Beijing, by contrast, places the island front and center in its active defense strategy and maintains it is vital to its efforts to achieve the dream of a unified and rejuvenated China.
Japan has yet to cross the Rubicon of abandoning the One-China policy by formally recognizing Taiwan as an independent nation state. It has, however, continued to deepen its relations with Taiwanese citizens, businesses and other organizations.
Taiwan’s importance to Japan’s national and technological security suggests that Tokyo will continue to encourage Beijing and Taipei to maintain the status quo. Too much support for Taiwan may encourage a strengthening of an independence movement that would only bring the wrath of the current mainland government. On the other hand, too little support may embolden the leadership in Beijing.
Tokyo’s options are limited, but getting more buy-in for a free and open Indo-Pacific based on a rules-based order may help Japan and Taiwan navigate an increasingly complicated relationship.
Dr. Stephen Nagy is a senior associate professor at the International Christian University in Tokyo, a fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute and a visiting fellow with the Japan Institute for International Affairs.
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