Consensus in Japan’s ruling LDP turns against China

September 23, 2021 06:00
Photo: Reuters

On September 29, Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) will choose a new leader to replace Yoshihide Suga. Whoever wins will favour a strong military line against China and support for Taiwan if it was attacked.

Taro Kono, a former Foreign and Defence Minister and a leading candidate to succeed Suga, said that Tokyo had to partner with its allies to address China’s military expansion. “We very much welcome that the UK is once again turning its eyes to the Pacific region. It is extremely important for Japan to work closely with these three countries.” He was referring to the AUKUS defence agreement announced by Australia, Britain and the U.S.

This support for Taiwan represents a historic change in Japanese policy. After it recognised the PRC in September 1972, its Prime Ministers were extremely careful in their public statements on Taiwan and deferred to Beijing’s sensitivity on the issue.

Within the LDP, there were pro-Beijing and pro-Taipei factions. But the government maintained a public policy in favour of Beijing and never spoke of diplomatic or military help for Taiwan in the event of a conflict.

All that changed in April this year when Suga and President Joe Biden affirmed the “importance of peace and stability of the Taiwan Straits” – the first mention of Taiwan in such a joint statement since the 1970s.

Akihisa Nagashima, a former vice Defence Minister and member of the LDP, said the change was caused by China’s attitude. “Until now, we expected China to have good intentions, so we did not say provocative things.”

In late July, former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told a video meeting with lawmakers from the U.S. and Taiwan that Japan could not allow what happened in Hong Kong to befall Taiwan.

Also in July, Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso told the Japanese Parliament that a military crisis across the Taiwan Strait would threaten Japan’s survival.

Last week Japan’s Ground Self-Defence Force began its largest military drill in nearly 30 years, which will last until November and involve 100,000 personnel. They are training in Kyushu in the southwest, close to where a conflict in the Taiwan Strait would be fought.

What has caused this change is the aggressive behaviour of the People’s Liberation Army, which regularly sends air planes and warships around Taiwan, and threats by China’s leaders of military action against the island.

A country with negligible natural resources, Japan is almost completely dependent on trade for imports and exports. The South China Sea is the most important waterway for this trade; it carries one third of global shipping. If it occupied Taiwan, China would be able to control Japan’s maritime trade.

The decision to support Taiwan is part of an official policy to disengage from China. From last year, Tokyo has been subsidising firms to leave China.

In July 2020, the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry said that it was paying more than US$536 million to 87 companies to move operations from China to Japan, Vietnam, Myanmar, Thailand and other Southeast Asian countries.

China has lost the support of not only the LDP but also the Japanese public. In a Pew Research poll published in June this year, 88 per cent of Japanese had a negative view of China, the highest of any country polled. They dislike President Xi Jinping and China’s human rights record and handling of the Covid-19 epidemic.

Anti-Japanese propaganda in the mainland is unrelenting, with war films, documentaries and giant memorial events held. Earlier this month, the government closed Tang Little Kyoto in Dalian, just two weeks after it opened. Construction of the largest Japan-theme commercial complex in China on a plot of 630,000 square metres began in 2019 and was due to be completed in 2024, at a cost of six billion yuan. This followed many protests on social media.

Over the next few months, Tokyo will consult with the U.S. about which bases and facilities in Japan will be available to American forces in the event of a conflict: under what circumstances would its Self-Defence Forces take part: and what the SDF must do to defend Japan.

All this is uncharted territory for Japan’s leaders. Since 1945, they have overseen an economic miracle under the defence umbrella of the U.S.; it has guaranteed peace in East Asia. They have been able to avoid the difficult decisions faced by other leaders in the region.

From every aspect – economic, human, diplomatic and political – a military conflict over Taiwan would be a catastrophe for Japan. So its leaders hope that, by an alliance with Taiwan, the U.S. and its allies, they can deter all the parties from such a conflict.

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A Hong Kong-based writer, teacher and speaker.