When Japanese Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso said on July 5 that Tokyo would come to Taiwan’s aid in the event of a Chinese invasion, Beijing’s backlash was predictable.
“We will never allow anyone to interfere in the Taiwan issue in any way,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said the day after Aso’s surprise remark.
“No one should underestimate the determination, will and ability of the Chinese people to defend their national sovereignty and territorial integrity. “
But Aso’s statement was not a slip of the tongue. A week later, on July 13, Japan released its annual defense report, which for the first time mentioned the importance of maintaining “stability” around Taiwan, as it “is important to the security of Japan.”
China’s response, once again, has been clear and immediate. Chinese Communist Party spokesperson Global Times published an op-ed saying “Japan ‘will lose sorely’ if it defends the secessionists in Taiwan.”
The article quoted an anonymous Beijing-based military analyst as saying, “Even the United States cannot militarily defeat China in the Western Pacific region now, so what makes Japan believe it can? to challenge China by force?
While the motivations behind recent Tokyo statements are unclear, Japan and Taiwan are openly on the same side in the intensification of the New Cold War in Asia, where an increasingly assertive and militarily powerful China is the one. obvious but generally unspoken adversary.
Japan and Taiwan do not share official diplomatic relations – Tokyo recognizes Beijing as China’s only legitimate government – but the two sides are known to share intelligence through roundabouts.
In May last year, as Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen entered her second term, then Cabinet Secretary-General, now Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said Japan was eager to expand its relations with Taiwan.
Japan’s annual foreign policy report, known as the Diplomatic Bluebook, describes Taiwan in its latest edition published on April 27 this year as an “important partner and friend.” He also said that Japan supports Taiwan’s campaign to attend the World Health Assembly, the decision-making body of the World Health Organization (WHO).
The Bluebook diplomatically said that Taiwan had successfully tackled the Covid-19 virus and “there should be no empty spaces on the world map.” China, which sees Taiwan as a renegade province that should be “reunited” with the mainland, firmly opposes Taiwan’s participation in any international forum.
The Bluebook also said that Japan will cooperate with “more countries” to promote freedom of navigation and the rule of law in the Asia-Pacific region. For questions of geostrategic importance, Japan is already working in close collaboration with the United States, India and Australia within the framework of the “Quad”.
Taiwan could be seen as a silent partner, or at least an ally, of the strategic grouping, as it is a vital link in the China-focused island defense chain that stretches from Japan’s main islands to Okinawa. , Taiwan, the Philippines and Malaysia. part of Borneo.
However, the bigger question remains: what exactly would Japan be prepared to do if China tries to invade Taiwan? Whatever the anonymous military analyst quoted in the Global Times thinks, Japan certainly has the means to militarily challenge China.
On December 21, 2020, the Japanese government approved the ninth consecutive increase in military spending, marking an all-time high of 5.34 trillion yen ($ 51.7 billion).
The Japanese Self-Defense Force (JSDF), as it is officially called, is made up of nearly 250,000 active members and 50,000 in reserve, and is equipped with the latest weapons and technology, mainly sourced from the United States.
The Japanese navy is considered by military analysts to be the most powerful in the region after that of the United States and therefore superior to the still underdeveloped but constantly growing Chinese naval forces. China now has two combat-ready aircraft carriers.
According to the Washington-based think tank, the Center for Strategic & International Studies, Beijing has made substantial progress in building a third known as Type 003, which “is destined to become the world’s greatest surface fighter. Chinese People’s Army Navy (PLAN) and dramatically improve China’s naval capabilities.
But the crux of the strategic issue is that Article 9 of Japan’s supposedly pacifist post-war constitution prohibits war as a means of settling international disputes, and its JSDF are therefore only legally allowed to defend the country if ‘he is under attack.
But Aso argued that Taiwan is located just 112 kilometers from some islands that are part of Okinawa Prefecture, and therefore a Chinese invasion could pose an “existential threat” to the security of Japan.
In this direction, the first aircraft carrier of the Japanese Navy since WWII is almost ready for deployment. It is designed to carry up to 28 light aircraft or 14 larger aircraft.
Jeffrey Hornung, a political scientist with the US-based Rand Corporation, wrote in a May 10 article that Japan would not need to become directly involved in a military conflict over Taiwan.
But, he suggests, if Washington sought to defend the democratic and autonomous island, “at a minimum, the United States would need access to its bases in Japan, which would carry out combat operations at, above and around Taiwan “.
The JSDF would thus act “as a force multiplier for any US-led operation.” This means that American demands for Japanese involvement would be almost certain. In other words, Japan’s involvement would be limited to “non-combatant rear zone support roles” in areas such as “supply, maintenance, transport, engineering and medical services” , writes Hornung.
Okinawa is close to Taiwan and the US base there is said to be at the forefront of any military action against China.
If China decided to attack Okinawa, or for the argument any base on Japanese territory, such an attack could be interpreted as an act of aggression and Japan would have the right to act in self-defense. .
But this scenario also raises another important question: Would the United States be prepared to step in and defend Taiwan? The United States and Taiwan, officially the Republic of China, shared a defense treaty before Washington established diplomatic relations with China on January 1, 1979.
On that day, the United States withdrew its recognition of the Republic of China and ended the 1955 “Sino-American Mutual Defense Treaty between the United States and the ROC”. Because one either party had to notify the other of the termination one year in advance, the treaty remained in force – at least nominally – until January 1, 1980.
The now null and void 1955 treaty, which stipulated that if one country was attacked the other would provide military support, was replaced in some ways by the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act.
By law, the United States was no longer obliged to defend Taiwan, the United States Embassy in Taiwan was closed, and relations were maintained through a nonprofit company registered in the district. of Columbia known as the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT), which functions as a de facto embassy.
The ambiguity of the relationship is evident in a clause in the Taiwan Relations Act which says that “the United States will make available to Taiwan such defense items and defense services as is necessary to enable Taiwan to maintain military capabilities. ‘sufficient self-defense’.
The intention of the law appears to be to deter Taiwan from declaring independence from China, while discouraging China from invading Taiwan. But all of this came into effect when Jimmy Carter was President of the United States and China was still a fairly poor country, not the regional superpower it has become today.
As Beijing celebrated the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party on July 1, President Xi Jinping reiterated his pledge to integrate Taiwan into the mainland.
“Solving the Taiwan question and achieving the complete reunification of the motherland are the unwavering historical tasks of the Chinese Communist Party and the common aspiration of all Chinese people,” Xi said in a speech.
All Chinese must work together, “resolutely breaking down any ‘Taiwan independence plot’,” the Chinese leader added. China has recently tightened its muscles in this direction with Air Force jets and bombers making frequent forays into Taiwan’s airspace.
In this new geopolitical environment, it would be impossible for the United States to remain inactive if Xi turned his harsh rhetoric into military action and actually sent forces to invade Taiwan.
In this scenario, Japan could and would not remain neutral.
True, Deputy Defense Minister Aso is known for his public blunders, which are often corrected or denied by the government after being pronounced.
But as Corey Wallace, a foreign policy expert at Kanagawa University in Yokohama was quoted in the July 12 issue of Foreign Policy, the shift this time around may have been deliberate and reflects what Japanese officials have said. long believed in private.
Either way, Xi is playing with some fire in talking about Taiwan’s “reunification” with the mainland. Even with China’s recent rise in military and naval power, Beijing still faces a formidable chance of invading Taiwan, which would almost inevitably lead to a larger conflict – a Japan would inevitably play a crucial military role.