By Abhijitha Singh
The relations between Japan and Taiwan have traditionally been cordial in all areas of their bilateral relations. The outcome of the recent summit between Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and American President Joseph R. Biden offers yet another indication that Tokyo treats Taiwan’s defence and security as one of its topmost foreign policy priorities. It also indicates that Tokyo is determined to work with Washington to checkmate any potential Chinese aggression against Taiwan.
In his talk with the United States (US) President Joe Biden in Washington on 16 April, 2021, one of the central themes of Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga was to team up with the administration in Washington to preserve the security of Taiwan. The joint leaders’ statement included, amongst other issues, a reference to Taiwan—a first since 1969, when Tokyo normalised its ties with Beijing.
Challenges from China
During the meeting, President Biden stated that both the United States and Japan were “committed to working together to take on the challenges from China… to ensure a future of a free and open Indo-Pacific.” On his part, Prime Minister Suga also referred to an “agreed recognition over the importance of peace and stability of the Taiwan Straits between Japan and the United States.”
In the recent past, Tokyo has displayed its focus on Taiwan’s security on other fora as well. In a meeting with his US counterpart Lloyd Austin on March 16, 2021, Japan’s Defence Minister Kishi Nobuo underlined the need to study ways for the Japanese Self-Defense Forces to cooperate with the US Forces defending Taiwan in the event of a Chinese aggression. On the occasion, both defence ministers agreed to closely cooperate in the event of a military clash between China and Taiwan.
It may be recalled that in 2016, Kishi had urged for a stronger Japan-Taiwan-US ties. As then Japanese State Minister for Foreign Affairs, under his brother Shinzo Abe’s premiership, Kishi said, “As we bolster trilateral relations between Japan, US, and Taiwan, we also hope for the stable development of cross-strait relations.”
Besides, Tokyo has recently conducted studies on the viability of military action in case there is a conflict between US and China over Taiwan. Pertinently, Japan’s security laws do allow the SDF to provide logistical support to the US military and partners. The new draft of Japan’s white paper says that “the stability of the situation surrounding Taiwan is important for the security of Japan and the stability of the international community.”
Continuity with past
Significantly, there has always existed a close relationship between Japan and Taiwan in the area of defence and security. Way back in 1969, in his summit meeting with former American President Richard M Nixon in Washington, Japanese Prime Minister Sato Eisaku stated that the maintenance of peace and security in the Taiwan area was a very “important factor for the security of Japan.” On his part, President Nixon referred to upholding the treaty obligations of the United States towards Taiwan (Republic of China).
In 1972, with the Sino-US détente, Japan recognised the People’s Republic of China (PRC) as the sole representative of the Chinese nation. Subsequently, Japan had to sever diplomatic ties with Taiwan. However, Tokyo remained sensitive to Taiwan’s defence as an independent nation. Japan conducted its diplomacy in a way that fostered Taiwan’s “potential independence” (Kissinger, 2011, pp. 279) while diplomatically recognising mainland China and securing its economic interests therein.
In 1998, then Prime Minister Obuchi Keizo refused to endorse US President Bill Clinton’s ‘three no’s’policy” which stated that the US did not support independence for Taiwan, or “one China, one Taiwan”, or “two Chinas”, or its membership in any international bodies whose members are sovereign states.
Importantly, Japan is a democracy. Its government has to honour the public mood that is in favour of backing Taiwan’s security. According to a recent Nikkei and TV Tokyo poll, a large majority of Japan’s public today would like the government to engage in the pursuit of peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait. The poll says that a huge 74 percent of the Japanese support Tokyo’s engagement towards stability in the Taiwan Strait.
Decrease in incursions
One finds that the Suga-Biden security agreement on Taiwan is very meaningful. According to reports, in the wake of the summit, there has been a decrease in Beijing’s military activities near Taiwan. In contrast, before the summit, between January 1 and April 16 this year, China sent military jets into Taiwan’s Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) on 75 days. A total of 257 jets flew into Taiwan’s ADIZ during these incursions. A record 25 aircraft flew into the island’s ADIZ on April 12 alone.
According to a recent report, over 28 Chinese air force aircraft, including fighters and nuclear-capable bombers, entered Taiwan’s ADIZ on June 15. The latest Chinese mission involved 14 J-16 and six J-11 fighters, as well as four H-6 bombers, which can carry nuclear weapons, as well as various surveillance and early warning aircraft. Not much should, however, be read into these Chinese activities. This incident came after the Group of Seven leaders issued a joint statement scolding China for a series of issues and underscored the importance of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait. The pattern is China resorts to such military activities whenever the West is critical of its Taiwan policy.
China today is highly unlikely to take any steps aimed at annexing Taiwan. Beijing must be knowing that with the new Japanese commitment to Taiwan’s security, the US could be in a much more advantageous position to retaliate against any Chinese aggression against Taiwan. In the new scenario, Washington might use its Japanese bases and the Japanese Self Defence Forces’ (JSDF) could be a great force multiplier to a possible US-led operation in the region.
Needless to mention, as per the exchange of notes between former Japanese Prime Minister Kishi Nobusuke and then US Secretary of State Christian A. Herter on January 19, 1960, Washington is supposed to hold prior consultation with Tokyo whenever Japanese bases are to be used for its military expeditions. But given the nature of the defence relationship between Washington and Tokyo, this would be nothing but a mere formality.
In conclusion, with the new Japan-US understanding on Taiwan, Tokyo–Taipei ties have reached a new high in the area of security. Today, both Japan and Taiwan seem to fully appreciate their common need to work together and take all the necessary steps to checkmate any potential Chinese aggression in the region.
It should not be surprising if Japanese Prime Minister Suga and Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen come together to create a forum to discuss their security issues in the near future. Already, Taiwanese President Tsai’s declared aim is to build an alliance of democracies to defend against any “unilateral aggressive actions”. Not long ago, on February 28, 2019, Tsai said, “Taiwan and Japan are confronted with the same threats in the East Asian region.” She stressed security cooperation between the two, saying, “It is vital that talks be raised to the level of security cooperation.”
The views expressed above belong to the author(s).