Japan’s official stance on its ‘one-China policy’ has not changed, and it still clearly wishes to obviate any Sino-Japanese tensions or unnecessary entanglement in a Taiwan Straits conflict. Nevertheless, in recent years, on the back of observing China’s more assertive irredentist stance towards Taiwan and territorial disputes with Japan, along with Chinese military modernisation, Japanese policymakers have concluded that they need to send increasingly strong diplomatic signals and to strengthen national and alliance capabilities to deter any attempts to change the status quo by force.
Hence, strikingly, the US-Japan alliance’s Security Consultative Committee’s (SCC) joint statement in March 2021 referred explicitly to the importance of peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait. The summit between Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide and Jo Biden in April of the same year and the accompanying Joint Statement reiterated these positions and pledged to accelerate the strengthening of the alliance and a ‘global partnership for a new era’. Japan then supported the US to push similar phraseology regarding Taiwan in other international fora in 2021 such as the G7. The January 2022 US-Japan SCC statement again underscored explicitly the importance of peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait.
Taiwan makes a comeback on Japan’s defence policy agenda
Japan’s preparedness to identify openly the importance of Taiwan’s security has been a relatively new departure, given that the last US-Japan discussion of the issue at summit level was the 1969 joint communique between President Richard Nixon and Prime Minister Satō Eisaku that noted Taiwan was ‘a most important factor for Japan’s security’. Japan in the revised 1997 Defence Guidelines obfuscated the issue of whether US-Japan alliance cooperation included a Taiwan contingency. The February 2005 SCC did specify a peaceful resolution of issues relating to Taiwan as a ‘common strategic objective’ but thereafter the alliance for a decade and half avoided explicit mention of the topic. Suga’s willingness to highlight the Taiwan issue, given its extreme sensitivity for China and the possibility of feeding Sino-US conflict, thus represented growing US-Japan strategic convergence. Other Japanese policymakers are increasingly indicating that Japan may need to line up more openly with the US in relation to the defence of Taiwan. Nakayama Yasuhide, then State Minister for Defence, attracted international attention in February 2021 when he publicly termed Taiwan as a ‘red line’ for Japan’s security; Asō Tarō as Deputy Prime Minister remarked in June 2021 that an incident over Taiwan would be a threat to Japan’s ‘survival’, evoking the language of the 2015 collective self-defence legislation, and thus Japan and the US should work together to defend Taiwan; and Kishida Fumio during his successful run for the premiership noted in September 2021 that the situation in the Taiwan Strait was a ‘big problem’ for Japan. Former prime minister Abe upped the ante by stating in December 2021 that a ‘Taiwan emergency is a Japanese emergency, and therefore an emergency for the Japan-US alliance’.
In turn, Japan has backed up its diplomatic signalling with the strengthening of the Japan Self Defence Force’s (JSDF) role within the US-Japan alliance to prevent China taking Taiwan back by force. Japan’s capabilities and doctrine for the defence of its own southwestern islands, located close to Taiwan, appear increasingly designed to integrate with and proactively support US regional military strategy for first island chain defence and including the defence of Taiwan. Japan’s principal role in supporting the US in a regional contingency remains to provide bases for US power projection and logistical rear area support. But many Japanese policymakers, even if wishing to obfuscate the reality and maintain a degree of strategic ambiguity and hedging, have long known that the US’s use of its bases in Japan to defend Taiwan would inevitably mean China seeking to strike these to hamper the US freedom of action and so draw Japan into a conflict. More recently, as noted above, Japanese policymakers have acknowledged that China’s growing military potential to dominate Taiwan, and, by extension, the maritime space around Japan and even threaten its southwestern islands, mean that Japan can no longer distance itself from a conflict over Taiwan and is in effect in the very frontline along with the US.
Action speaks louder than words
JSDF deployments have thus now started to match this new calculation and to work in tandem with US strategy and deployments. The US’s 2018 National Defence Strategy and 2019 Indo-Pacific Strategy seek to negate China’s area denial weapon (A2/AD) approach and attempt to impose fait accompli control on the first island chain in the Asia-Pacific through realigning certain US forward-deployed forces to the second island chain. This approach enhances their survivability and enables long-range counter-strikes and force surges to then prevail in any conflict. At the same time, these strategies advocate maintaining sufficient forces in the first island chain for contact with, blunting, degrading, and thus denying, any rapid advances of Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) forces. The expectation is that such US forces may prove sufficiently resilient to endure an initial Chinese A2/AD assault but will also involve deployments from and greater interoperability with the forces of regional allies. Japan is clearly expected in US thinking, as the key bilateral ally in the region, with the most capable military, and interests in Taiwan’s security, to anchor the topmost end of the first island chain for the US. In turn, it appears that the Japanese Ground Self-Defence Force’s (GSDF) southwestern island deployments, or ‘wall strategy’, emphasising survivability, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, the ability to close off surrounding sea passages to PLAN vessels, and to then call for further support from the GSDF’s Amphibious Rapid Deployment Brigade, Maritime Self-Defence Force, Air Self-Defence Force, and US forces, is in practice an integral part of this larger US first island chain and Taiwan defence strategy. Japan and the US were reported in late 2021 to be working on a joint operational plan to enable the US Marine Corps to establish an attack base in the southwest islands in a Taiwan contingency and to be supported by the JSDF. The US-Japan SCC in 2022 went some way to explicitly acknowledging this convergence of US and Japanese operational planning and forces for a Taiwan contingency, stating that the two states were making:
‘robust progress…on bilateral planning for contingencies…to increase/joint shared use of US and Japanese facilities, including efforts to strengthen JSDF posture in areas including its southwestern islands’.
Japan’s genuine hope is that this enhanced diplomatic and military deterrence signalling will continue to obviate conflict with China. But China’s recent military exercises around Taiwan in reaction to US House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to the island, that resulted in several missiles landing in Japanese EEZs close to Taiwan, have only confirmed for many Japanese the risks involved with China’s assertive intent. Hence, Japan will continue to gird its strength for involvement in a potential conflict and to bolster US-Japan alliance ties, and indicate to China that Japanese willingness to defend national interests should not be underestimated.
Chris’s work on Japanese defence policy, including analysis of Japan’s role in a Taiwan contingency is available in a new book entitled Japan as a Global Military Power: New Capabilities, Alliance Integration, Bilateralism-Plus, published by Cambridge University Press, and available permanently for full and free PDF download here.