Japan Wants Both Taiwanese Security and Chinese Trade

Since Lai Ching-te from the independence-minded Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) won the Taiwanese presidential election on Jan. 13, pro-Taiwanese lawmakers in Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) have wasted no time suggesting parliamentary security talks that would also include their U.S. counterparts. The offer demonstrates the growing support for Taiwan by Japan’s political leaders as the government tries to confront China’s strategic ambitions without provoking economic retaliation.

The sensitivities are clear. Japan has announced plans to raise its already substantial defense budget and related spending to 2 percent of GDP, an increase of 65 percent by 2027. If carried out, this will make it the third-largest defense budget in the world, after the United States and China—no small feat for a country that does not even have formal armed forces under its postwar pacificist constitution. Japan has also been beckoning allies far and wide, forging deals with Australia, offering aid to Southeast Asian countries sparring with China over the South China Sea, and even discussing hosting a NATO office in Tokyo.

So far, it has been a winning strategy—and Beijing has failed to retaliate with any concrete measures. That does not mean China is happy with what it is seeing.

Japan’s congratulatory message to Taiwan over the election was, in good diplomatic tradition, largely a copy of its statement when President Tsai Ing-wen, under whom Lai served as vice president, won reelection in 2020. There were two notable changes, however. In the new statement, Taiwan went from being an “important partner” to an “extremely crucial partner.” In relation to the vexed issue of a “One China policy,” the statement dropped the usual wording that the issue should be solved by the “concerned parties”—phrasing that was meant to express Japan’s view that it would not try to play any part in such talks. With that thrown overboard, the new signal is that Japan, and others, should be involved.

This has been a slowly evolving policy stance by an ever-cautious Japanese bureaucracy over the past decade. In 2021, Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso said any conflict between Taiwan and China would inevitably drag in Japan. The remark was widely condemned at the time as another misstep by the gaffe-prone Aso. But the view has now become mainstream, taken up by Shinzo Abe after he left office as prime minister in 2020 (only to be assassinated two years later) and now discussed by foreign policy and defense experts.

China offered its own inadvertent confirmation of the idea in August 2022, when its forces undertook extensive military exercises to protest a visit to Taiwan by then-U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. During the exercises, five Chinese missiles landed in waters within Japan’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ). China was unabashed by this, with a spokesperson saying the waters were also near Taiwan, and therefore sovereign Chinese territory, so Japan could not claim them as part of its EEZ.

Aso, now vice president of the LDP, has meanwhile hardened his line, telling Japanese reporters on a trip to Washington in early January that in the event of a Chinese assault on Taiwan, “there is an extremely strong possibility that the government will conclude Japan’s very existence is at stake.”

Dealing with the “Taiwan contingency,” as it is termed, is one of the goals of the pro-Taiwan parliamentarians, an influential group within the right wing of the LDP. Meetings of the group have taken place twice since 2021, with attendees including Abe and U.S. Sen. Bill Hagerty, who was ambassador to Japan under the Trump administration. “With the DPP remaining in power, we can continue to coordinate with the U.S. and Europe to respond to pressure against Taiwan from China,” said Keiji Furuya of the LDP, who heads the Japan-Taiwan consultative council in the Japanese parliament.

But Japan’s policies are not all pointing in the same direction. China remains the country’s largest trading partner with a complementary trading pattern in which Japanese machinery and high-tech industrial components help drive China’s industrial base to produce products with Japanese brand names.

Even as Japan has forged anti-China alliances in everything but name and arms itself, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and Chinese President Xi Jinping held a long-delayed summit on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in San Francisco last November, where the diplomatic speak was about upholding principles and promoting a mutually beneficial relationship.

Behind the communiques, there was less enthusiasm. The Yomiuri newspaper, generally supportive of the LDP, quoted an official traveling with Kishida as cautioning that “it is likely that China aims at remaking the international order into a China-led system. We must not be taken in.” The general feeling among the Japanese delegation, the reporters wrote, was that China had kenneled the “wolf warriors” in the face of an increasingly serious economic downturn, unwilling to rock the boat with its economic partners. The last thing China needs is a new front in its war against recession.

Japan has therefore avoided the dressing down that China gave Australia in 2020, when Canberra suggested that there should be an international investigation into the origins of COVID-19. China struck back with economic sanctions against a range of Australian exports, including wine and barley but notably excluding the iron ore that was needed by Chinese steelmakers.

Japan would, of course, see a blow to its export-driven economy if there were broad measures by Beijing. Despite a downturn, combined exports to China and Hong Kong in 2023 made them Japan’s largest market.

This has kept the “pro-China” wing of the LDP busy in helping to avoid any rise in tensions. Instead of Aso-style threats about China’s actions, the language tends to be more about economic cooperation and understanding. One of the most prominent figures in keeping relations on track is Toshihiro Nikai, one of the kingpins within the ruling party, having served as LDP secretary-general (the No. 2 post after the party leader/prime minister) for five years, a record-long period. Nikai, who heads the Japan-China Friendship Parliamentarians’ Union, has been praised by Chinese officials as someone special to China.

But Nikai’s influence is itself under threat. He has been dragged into an ongoing scandal involving fundraising by LDP lawmakers. He has been forced to dissolve the 38-member parliament faction that he led. The scandal has no apparent connection to Nikai’s support for a more pro-China policy, but the origins of such scandals, and the motives of those who leak the information, are never clear. Another victim in the scandal is the so-called Abe faction, which has been a center of support for Taiwan.

Party politics aside, Japanese business also seems to be getting cold feet about ties with China. A survey released in November by Japan’s trade promotion body JETRO of 710 Japanese companies doing business in China found that just 28 percent were planning to expand their operations. That is down from over 40 percent just two years ago and 54 percent a decade before.

Another viewpoint in Japan is that the Taiwanese election was not the crucial one. More important, it is said, will be the U.S. election. With its security inextricably interwoven with U.S. military protection, Japan’s approach to Taiwan will be guided by what comes out of Washington, especially in the case of any Chinese military action that could require the deployment of U.S. forces based in Japan.

“The underlying factor is the Biden administration’s foreign policy, which is seeking the involvement of surrounding allies and comrades in dealing with challenges,” Madoka Fukuda, a professor of Taiwan-China relations at Hosei University in Tokyo, told the Asahi newspaper. “If there is a change of administration in the United States, this structure may change. At that time, we will need to think more seriously about how our involvement in Taiwan will benefit Japan’s national interests and act accordingly.”

The uncertainty over this was underscored by a comment last July from Republican front-runner Donald Trump. When asked on Fox News if he would support Taiwan in the event of an invasion, Trump said he shouldn’t give a concrete answer but then said that “Taiwan did take all of our chip business. We used to make all of our own chips—now they’re made in Taiwan.”

In any case, Japan’s broad policy goal is straightforward: to try to stop China from any military action rather than try to figure out what to do if it happens. “Instead of acting out of the fear of damaging our economic dependence on China, we should act in concert with the United States, Taiwan, and other allies and friends to persuade the Chinese that a war on Taiwan could wreck the Chinese economy and endanger the Communist Party rule of China,” said Sadaaki Numata, a former senior Japanese diplomat.

This article was originally published by a foreignpolicy.com . Read the Original article here. .