Why Japan decides to defend Taiwan

July 05, 2021 09:07
Photo: Taiwan Ministry of National Defense/ Reuters

In a major change of policy, Japan has decided to defend Taiwan in the event of an attack by China. This reverses a policy of 49 years, since Tokyo recognised Beijing and cut its diplomatic ties with Taipei.

This change has been years in the making but has become official due to the increasing military threat that the People’s Liberation Army has posed to Taiwan during the last two years.

“Democratic nations have to protect Taiwan as a democratic country,” said Yasuhide Nakayama, Japan’s Deputy Defence Minister.

“Washington and Tokyo should boost technological collaboration in the face of closer Chinese and Russian co-operation.

“Under the leadership of President Xi Jinping, China had aggressive thought and will. So wake up. We have to wake up. Japan needs to spend more on weapons, including missiles.”

On July 1, the Financial Times reported that the U.S. and Japan had been conducting war games and joint military exercises in the event of a conflict with Japan. Military officers from the two sides began serious planning for a possible conflict in the final year of the Trump era. They include joint exercises in the South China and East China Sea.

In 2017, the two countries and Taiwan agreed to share military aircraft codes to help identify friendly aircraft.

On June 15, 28 Chinese military planes flew into Taiwan's Air Defence Identification Zones (ADIZ), the largest incursion since the self-ruled island began regularly reporting such actions last year, according to Taiwan's Ministry of Defence. They included fighter jets, bombers, and anti-submarine and early warning aircraft. The number exceeded the previous peak of 25 planes on April 12.

In his speech to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Communist Party, President Xi Jinping said reunification of Taiwan was a historical duty of the party. “We will maintain the one-China principle and the 1992 consensus, to promote the peaceful reunification of the motherland and resolutely oppose any plot to make Taiwan independent.”

But no major party in Taiwan accepts the 1992 consensus nor the ‘one country, two systems’ model, because of what has happened in Hong Kong. There have been no official talks between Beijing and Taipei since the Democratic Progressive Party took power in 2016. So a military conflict looks increasingly likely.

That is the reason for Japan’s change of policy. The eighth most populated nation in the world, Japan has almost no raw materials. It is almost completely dependent on imports – for food, oil, coal, iron ore, copper, aluminium and wood.

It pays for these by exports, which stood at US$660 billion in 2020. A majority of these imports and exports come from the south, through the East China and South China Seas and the waters of Southeast Asia.

If China controlled Taiwan, then its navy would control the Taiwan Straits and much of these southern waters. This is not acceptable to the Japanese government and persuaded it to change its policy.

Under its pacifist constitution, its Self-Defence Forces (SDF) cannot engage in conflict overseas. But, in 2015, the government of Shintaro Abe amended this to allow Japan to defend allies that came under attack.

In a war over Taiwan, the U.S. would rely on air bases in Japan. They could then be targeted by PLA missiles and bombing raids, as well as the bases of the SDF itself. Involvement in a war would put at risk the tens of thousands of Japanese who live in the mainland and their investments there, worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

Among Japanese, there is strong public support for Taiwan. In 2019, more than two million Japanese, a record, visited Taiwan because they feel especially welcome. Many Taiwan people speak Japanese and treasure their links to the country. They love Japanese food, magazines, fashion, film and culture.

There is none of the anti-Japanese sentiment found in other countries occupied during World War Two. North of Taipei city, Peitou is an area of hot springs developed by Japanese during their rule from 1985-1945.

Japanese love to visit Peitou; many buildings and streets are as they were during the colonial area. It has a Hot Springs Museum which records a visit in 1921 by Prince (later Emperor) Hirohito – unimaginable anywhere else in Asia.

As support for Taiwan remains constant, so that for China has fallen.
A Pew Research Centre survey published last October found that 85 per cent of Japanese have a negative view of China, the highest in the world. A war to support Taiwan would therefore have strong public support.

The hope of Deputy Minister Nakayama is, of course, that this promise to defend Taiwan will deter Beijing from military action.

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A Hong Kong-based writer, teacher and speaker.