The gloves are off. Japan would – in the case of an unprovoked Chinese attack against Taiwan – get involved defending Taiwan militarily, showcasing that there is no scenario in which Japan could avoid getting involved in a military conflict scenario in the Taiwan Strait.
It is no accident that Tokyo’s shift in its foreign policy posture coincides with the US’ growingly vocal commitment to defend Taiwan militarily, should Beijing decide to ‘re-unify’ Mainland China with Taiwan through military force. Officially, Washington applies the principle of what is referred to as ‘strategic ambiguity’, meaning it neither confirms nor denies that it would come to Taiwan’s rescue in the case of a Chinese attack. However, US President, Joe Biden, has over the last eighteen months made it very clear more than once (intentionally or unintentionally) that Washington would militarily intervene in a Taiwan crisis scenario, i.e. a Chinese attack against Taiwan to – as Chinese President Xi Jinping dreams – achieve Beijing’s ‘national rejuvenation’. On one occasion, in 2021 — when Biden confirmed that the US would react to Beijing attempting to re-unify the Mainland with an island that, in fact, it has never once ruled — Tokyo was also present and confirmed its commitment to contributing to “peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait”. Although at the time Tokyo did not outright specify that it would defend Taiwan militarily, it was implied to anyone reading between the lines.
As such, Beijing has reacted in kind. After US Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, decided not to cave in to Chinese pressure and visit Taiwan, the Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) and navy conducted a series of military exercises close to the Strait, likely assuming a mere tit-for-tat game between superpowers. The US and Japan, however, decided that Chinese military intimidation attempts are nothing to write home about and largely ignored Chinese propaganda and warnings fired off over Twitter.
Not so pacifist anymore
Back in the real world, Japan seems to be adding (much) more punch to its armed forces. Japan’s Self-Defence Forces (SDF) are equipped with a budget of roughly $50 billion — accounting for 1% of the country’s GDP. Since Japan is officially a pacifist country (codified through its Constitution’s war-renouncing Article, adopted in 1947), Tokyo decided in the mid-1970s to limit its defence expenditures to 1% of GDP. It is worth noting, however, that since Japan’s economy was the world’s second largest — until 2009, before Beijing worked its way to the second position — Japan’s defence budget had always ranked among the world’s ten largest. Currently, Japan features the world’s 8th biggest. This is admittedly a lot of money for a self-declaredly pacifist country. In light of China’s military sabre-rattling and threats, this could be bound to significantly increase in the years ahead. Although the Japanese government is yet to come up with concrete details and figures, there has already been official — and unofficial — talk about Tokyo scrapping the self-imposed ban to limit its defence expenditures to its traditional 1% of GDP. In line with other highly industrialized Western democracies (minus Germany, where the debate around increasing the defence budget is similar to Japan’s), Tokyo is considering extending it to as much as 2% of its GDP. If that were the case, only the US and China would be spending more on their armed forces worldwide.
Farewell to “strategic ambiguity”?
To be sure, Tokyo’s efforts to defend itself against China and help defending Taiwan have been ongoing for years; with 2021 marking the end of anything that might be defined as ‘strategic ambiguity.’
Japan’s defence white paper — called the “Defense of Japan”, published in July 2021 — is explicit about Tokyo’s interest and commitment to making – together with its ally, Washington – a contribution to keeping China from attacking and invading Taiwan. The paper mentions the Taiwan Strait several times and, among others, it points out that “China has further intensified military activities around Taiwan, including Chinese aircrafts entering the southwestern airspace of Taiwan. Stabilizing the situation surrounding Taiwan is important for Japan’s security and the stability of the international community”. Furthermore, the paper highlights theneed to continue equipping Taiwan with weapons and weapon technology to defend itself vis-à-vis China: “The overall military balance between China and Taiwan is tilting to China’s favour, and the gap appears to be growing year by year. Attention should be paid to trends such as the strengthening of Chinese and Taiwanese forces, the sale of weapons to Taiwan by the United States, and Taiwan’s own development of its main military equipment”, the paper reads. In 2014, Japan lifted its ban on exporting weapons and weapon technology. Since then, Japanese weapons contractors have been cooperating with the US, the UK, France, and Germany. Since lifting the ban, Japan has sold defence equipment to the Philippines, it signed a bilateral weapons export agreement with Vietnam in 2020, and it announced it would sell up to eight of its new Nogami-class stealth frigates to the Indonesian navy in April 2021.
While the Japanese defence white paper does not mention Japanese industries cooperating with Taiwanese weapons contractors, Tokyo and Taipei have recently started jointly thinking out loud about military exchanges and cooperation. During a meeting between lawmakers from the Japanese Liberal-Democratic Party (LDP) and Taiwan’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in August 2021, bilateral military exchanges were discussed, including cooperation between their coast guard forces. Consequently, it is not unrealistic to assume that Tokyo and Taiwan – either bilaterally or together with Washington – are engaged in off-the-record consultations on how to militarily cooperate in a Taiwan Strait crisis scenario. After all, this already occurred in 2019 when Japanese scientists were believed to have assisted Taiwan with the development of the country’s indigenous submarine programme. Furthermore, it cannot be excluded that – should China continue to increase military pressure onto Taiwan – Japan would join the US in exporting weapons and weapons technology to Taiwan.
Japan lifting the ban to export weapons and weapons technology in 2014 did not authorize Japanese contractors to export weapons to countries part of — or involved in — a military conflict. However, growing Chinese military pressure onto Taiwan and the aforementioned unlawful territorial expansionism in the East and South China Seas are likely to encourage Japanese policymakers in the future to join US counterparts in arming Taiwan. China, of course, does want it does best: threatening retaliation one way or the other and playing the victim of Western discrimination and containment. But again: nothing to write home about.