The 2021 Defense White Paper and Japan’s Taiwan Policy
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The 2021 Defense White Paper and Japan’s Taiwan Policy

Interview with Yasuhiro Matsuda
December 23, 2021

Officials in Japan have signaled growing concern regarding potential tensions in the Taiwan Strait in recent months. For the first time, the Ministry of Defense explicitly framed stability surrounding Taiwan as important to Japan’s own security in the Defense of Japan 2021 white paper, released in July. Darlene Onuorah interviewed Yasuhiro Matsuda (University of Tokyo) to explore the incorporation of Taiwan in this year’s defense white paper, including the implications for Japan’s Taiwan policy, the U.S.-Japan alliance, and the new Kishida administration.

What exactly does this year’s white paper indicate regarding Japan’s view of Taiwan’s position in the regional security environment?

U.S. and Japanese leaders have referenced the importance of peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait since the 2+2 meeting in mid-March 2021 through the G-7 summit meeting in mid-July. That is a kind of usual usage in the diplomatic field, especially with regard to China’s concerns. Moreover, Japan’s 2021 defense white paper stated that “stabilizing the situation surrounding Taiwan is important for Japan’s security and the stability of the international community.” The meaning of this phrase is quite similar to the phrase “the importance of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait.” Also, this phrasing has already been used by the government officials in the Japanese Diet, so it is not a totally new phrase for the Japanese government.

If you take a look back at the defense white papers before 2021, there has been concern in Japan about the China-Taiwan military balance for years. Therefore, while the phrase is different, its meaning and significance have not evolved that greatly. Basically, it is a continuation of Japan’s concern over the Taiwan Strait and is not a strange or extreme phrase for the Japanese government to use. In addition to this phrase, Japanese political figures, such as Taro Aso and Yasuhide Nakayama, have spoken very bluntly about the “defense of Taiwan” or implied their concern.

This rhetoric and these changes do reflect a sense of crisis in Japan. This concern over cross-strait relations has emerged because China is pressuring Taiwan by using military means, such as sending military aircraft into air defense identification zone (ADIZ) and vessels into the water surrounding Taiwan, as well as using very hawkish language. However, the changes were not as major as is often believed, because they are a continuation of previous concerns.

Does this white paper pave the way for Japan to strengthen its security and defense-related ties with Taiwan? If so, to what extent?

This is a very important question because there are basically two different views on this issue in Japan. One is that Japan should strengthen its security ties and at least start a formal security dialogue with Taiwan. The other is that Japan would continue to recognize China’s position that Taiwan is an inalienable part of China, following the Japan-China Joint Statement of 1972. Some believe that since Japan has fully understood and respected China’s position, it should avoid any kind of formal security ties with Taiwan.

At the same time, Japan maintains an unofficial relationship with Taiwan, which mainly involves economic and cultural exchanges. Conservative newspaper outlets, such as the Sankei Shimbun, have supported a formal security dialogue, although the Japanese government has never made any promises. It is believed that Japanese defense officials sometimes, or regularly, meet Taiwanese officials on unofficial occasions or on the sidelines of other engagements. For example, there are some Track 2 conferences and meetings on national security issues, which are mainly held in Tokyo.

However, there is no real-time information-sharing mechanism between Japan and Taiwan, such as the General Security of Military Information Agreement between Japan and South Korea. Japan and Taiwan can conclude some agreements, but those agreements must be open, unofficial, nongovernmental agreements in principle. Under this system, military-related agreements cannot be applied. Both can decide to make a secret agreement, but the Japanese government does not usually do that because of its accountability to the Diet.

Therefore, Japan is unlikely to establish formal defense ties with Taiwan. However, there is room for further development of informal cooperation, particularly in two directions: increasing the number of Track 2 communications and promoting more real-time defense intelligence cooperation via the United States.

Legislation passed in 2015 set out Japan’s right to collective self-defense if an armed attack were to occur on a foreign country that would threaten the survival of Japan. Although Japan does not formally recognize Taiwan as a country, does the 2021 white paper shift Taiwan’s position within this framework by tying the island’s security situation to Japan’s own security?

The Japanese government’s answer is that collective self-defense can be exercised in response to an armed attack on a state important to Japan’s security. The state does not necessarily have to be a state that Japan formally recognizes, but it should be a state. Unless Japan defines Taiwan as a sovereign state, this possibility is largely that—a hypothesis. In the case of Taiwan, the Japanese government has deliberated on this question but does not have an official answer. It did not clearly exclude a Taiwan contingency as a case in which it may exercise the right of collective self-defense. If Japan exercises this right following an armed attack on Taiwan, it will contradict Japan’s 1972 statement with China. Therefore, it currently would be difficult for Japan to exercise collective self-defense in response to an armed attack on Taiwan.

Given this concern, I think that Japan to some extent would need to recognize Taiwan as a state directly, or at least make a kind of announcement that Taiwan is a state, before pursuing the right to collective self-defense in a cross-strait contingency. A much more practical issue is that if Japan indicated that it could exercise the right of collective self-defense in response to an armed attack by China on Taiwan, Beijing may consider this a kind of declaration of war against China, because its position is that Taiwan is a part of China. This may mean that China could attack Japan at any time, putting Japan in a very vulnerable position. Therefore, Japan should not make any kind of announcement like this, and instead, keep its position toward a cross-strait contingency ambiguous. Warning by words is relatively easy, but actual implementation is extremely difficult.

Similar to the United States, Japan maintains a certain level of ambiguity when it comes to being actively involved in a possible cross-strait conflict. Does the 2021 defense white paper’s mention of Taiwan add a sense of “strategic clarity” for Japan?

Japan’s basic policy is strategic ambiguity, and there are no signs that this will change anytime soon. Political statements and media reports are implying that there may be some new changes because of the white paper’s language. However, based on the original text, I believe that Japan is still keeping its policy line of strategic ambiguity. The new phrases only reflect the immediate sense of crisis and concern over the Taiwan Strait; they do not indicate major policy changes will follow. Those should be derived from National Defense Program Guidelines, the U.S.-Japan Defense Guidelines, the budget, exercises, increase of actual exchanges with Taiwan, and so on.

There exists a wide range of appropriate actions that the United States can take within its policy of strategic ambiguity under the framework of the Taiwan Relations Act, including the use of force against China to defend Taiwan. For Japan, however, active military measures are not allowed, as its primary role will be to assist U.S. forces in noncombat areas. Japan has attempted to draw a line between international conflicts and assistance to U.S. forces because it does not want to be entangled in regional conflicts in the Taiwan Strait or on the Korean Peninsula, given that both China and North Korea have nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles that cover the entirety of Japan. Therefore, Japan does not want to make its policy clearer because strategic ambiguity is its effort to avoid entanglement.

Many conservatives in Japan think that it should defend Taiwan because defending Taiwan is the same as defending Japan. But in reality, the situation is the opposite—defending Japan is the same as defending Taiwan. In order for China to take over Taiwan and achieve unification by force, U.S. and Japanese forces stationed in Japan will naturally be attacked if the United States becomes involved. While the costs and risks associated with this maneuver would be very high for China, vulnerable defensive capabilities in Japan could increase China’s temptation to attack.

In fact, many of Japan’s defensive capabilities are already questionable for maintaining deterrence against China and protecting Japan. For example, the Japan Air Self-Defense Force lacks bunkers for its airbases in Okinawa and Kyushu, leaving them vulnerable to repeated ballistic missile attacks. This is in stark contrast with U.S. airbases in Japan, such as Kadena. While Japan is investing heavily in front-line assets, Japanese forces also lack sufficient fuel tank and ammunition reserves to assist U.S. forces during prolonged conflict. In addition, these limited reserves could be wiped out by China through precision-guided attacks. Japan should do more to bolster its own defense, and if it becomes more resilient against ballistic and cruise missile attacks, then the costs and risks of a prospective attack on Taiwan will rise. It is in this way that Japan’s defense eventually relates to Taiwan’s security, although adopting strategic clarity may jeopardize the defense of Japan.

What bilateral security policies could the United States and Japan consider adopting, or adapting, in order to enhance coordination in the event of a cross-strait conflict?

The greatest priority is whether Japan will allow U.S. forces to use bases on its territory under the U.S.-Japan Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security. That is a matter of prior consultation between Japan and the United States. Theoretically, Japan could say no, but it will basically allow the use of these bases because a Taiwan contingency is highly important for national security. A refusal would also put the U.S.-Japan alliance into serious question.

Another priority is whether Japan would give rear-area support to the United States. I believe that Japan would also permit this if the United States requires Japan to do so. In that situation, Japan would assist with supplying live ammunition and fuel, accepting wounded soldiers in its hospitals, and escorting U.S. forces, along with other activities within noncombat areas.

Beyond these procedures, what more could Japan and the United States do to enhance coordination on this issue? I believe that will depend on any changes in U.S. policy toward Taiwan’s defense. For example, there is no clear contingency plan or joint operations plan between the United States and Taiwan. However, if the United States and Taiwan decide to draft certain policies, such as allowing the U.S. military to land at airports or airbases to defend Taiwan or deploying U.S. forces stationed in South Korea to Taiwan, then Japan must participate. While Taiwan may want this kind of policy change, the United States has hesitated because it would represent an extreme provocation toward China.

Following the election of Fumio Kishida as leader of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), how do you anticipate that he will approach the issue of Taiwan’s security and the objective of maintaining cross-strait stability during his premiership?

Compared to the second through fourth Abe cabinets, which were formed with sufficient preparations, the Kishida cabinet seems to be poorly prepared to govern. In other words, there is a possibility that the cabinet will reach an impasse and weaken its administration at an early stage. The Kishida cabinet is likely to continue to be dependent on former prime minister Shinzo Abe and former deputy prime minister Taro Aso for the management of the government. Both LDP heavyweights will likely exert influence over the new administration’s policies. However, the structure of Japan-China relations is of importance, beyond the individual leader. As long as China continues to send ships into the waters surrounding the Senkaku Islands and exerts military pressure on Taiwan, Japan’s stern position toward China and support for Taiwan will remain the same, regardless of who is the prime minister.

Nevertheless, it is unlikely that Japan and Taiwan will reach new heights in security cooperation. Within Kishida’s cabinet, Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi is pro-Taiwan and has a strong sense of crisis, so the Ministry of Defense may establish some type of communication channel between Japan and Taiwan. In terms of personal factors, Prime Minister Kishida and Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno have weak personal ties with Taiwan. However, Matsuno was the secretary-general of the Seiwa-kai—the largest faction in the LDP—and has a close relationship with Abe. Therefore, influence from the former prime minister may sustain increased cooperation and communication with actions not necessarily related to defense but that are extremely supportive to Taiwan, such as Japan’s provision of Covid-19 vaccines.

Yasuhiro Matsuda is Professor of International Politics in the Institute for Advanced Studies on Asia at the University of Tokyo.

This interview was conducted by Darlene Onuorah, a project associate with the Political and Security Affairs group at NBR.