Japan struggles to match rhetoric, policy on defending Taiwan

Japan struggles to match rhetoric, policy on defending Taiwan

SEOUL, South Korea — On perhaps the burning foreign policy question of the day — What would Japan do in the event of a Chinese military move against Taiwan? — the rhetoric and the reality remain far apart in Tokyo.

While right-wing Japanese parliamentarians demand the country adopt a far more assertive stance toward the defense of Taiwan, senior officials are far less forthcoming.

And even as political debate waxes and wanes, Japan is fortifying its southwestern island chain — the very chain that Chinese military flotillas would have to break through if they sought to blockade Taiwan.

But some analysts are warning that the military moves and the new weaponry, instead of deterring Chinese naval operations northeast of Taiwan, are likely encouraging Chinese units to beef up their own electronic and cyber capabilities in preparation for a possible future clash over the island democracy that Beijing has vowed to bring under its control.

In the charged atmosphere, every hint at Japan‘s intentions and resolve is getting extra scrutiny. Former Japanese Prime Minister Taro Aso caused ripples earlier this week when he told a conference in Taipei that the U.S., Japan and Taiwan needed to come together strongly to deter any Chinese military move.

“I believe that now is the time for Japan, Taiwan, the United States and other like-minded countries to be prepared to put into action very strong deterrence,” he said. “It’s the resolve to fight.”

Mr. Aso added that it was “important to make clear to the opponent that we will use those capabilities for the defense of Taiwan, for the stability of the Taiwan Strait. As Taiwan is a very close neighbor of Japan, we should be the very first one to express our attitude and also to make that message clear to the international community, including China.”

China’s Foreign Ministry immediately denounced Mr. Aso’s statements as “irresponsible,” saying, “What makes this Japanese politician think he is in a position or has the confidence to make such unwarranted remarks on Taiwan?” 

The following day, a Japanese lawmaker doubled down, insisting Mr. Aso, vice president of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, was accurately reflecting the government’s official stance.

“The comment was not lawmaker Taro Aso’s personal remark, but a result of arrangements with government insiders,” LDP Lawmaker Keisuke Suzuki, who joined Mr. Aso’s trip to Taipei, told a TV talk show in Japan, the Reuters news agency reported. “I think the Japanese government clearly regards this as the official line.”

The conservative LDP is a broad political church, and Mr. Aso, 82, a veteran of Japan‘s internal wars over defense policy, champions its right wing. Outspoken and controversial, he has since 2021 urged a more assertive stance on Taiwan’s defense.

While lawmakers have leeway in their statements, the government of Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has chosen its words far more carefully, even as it has pushed for a major boost in defense spending.

Tokyo’s leading government spokesperson, Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno, asked Wednesday whether Japan would deploy forces to Taiwan in a Chinese attack, declined to answer the “hypothetical” question.

Earlier, a senior defense official appeared to rule out a combat role.

“If people all over the world have the will to support Taiwan, similar to the way they supported Ukraine, then it would be very possible that we will provide some kind of support,” Secretary of State for Defense Ino Toshiro told Britain’s Sunday Telegraph newspaper last month. “I am not sure at this juncture whether it is going to be defense equipment support or whether it is going to be logistics support.”

But far from the political back-and-forth in Tokyo, in the southern Ryukyu Islands, Japan‘s military is digging in deep.

Fortress Ryukyus

For decades, the U.S. troop presence on Okinawa, the largest of the Ryukyus, was the dominant military reality in the region. Now, native Japanese Ground Self-Defense Force bases are rising on the formerly overlooked smaller islands in the chain that dominates the strategic stretch of the Pacific between Japan and Taiwan.

The bulking up in the south represents a shift away from deterring the dwindling Russian army threat toward confronting China’s burgeoning naval presence in the region.

“It’s part of a strategic shift that’s been going on for more than 15 years,” said Alex Neill, a security specialist with think tank Pacific Forum. “From the mass of armored brigades in Hokkaido in the north, the strategic focus has shifted toward the southwest of the Japanese islands, and less emphasis on the Cold War stance.”

The increasingly muscular People’s Liberation Army Navy enables Chinese commanders to envision an operation far more ambitious than a risky cross-strait assault upon Taiwan. The PLAN now has the ships and the resources for a potential pincer attack that would surround and blockade the island, confronting reinforcing U.S. military units west of the island.

The northern pincer of any such Chinese naval blockade would pass through, or close to the Ryukyus, most likely in the strategic Miyako Strait. But the Japanese base that has newly risen on Miyako does not necessarily prevent a PLAN breakthrough, Mr. Neill said.

“I think the PLA calculation has always been to neutralize U.S. basing in the Ryukyu chain, so I don’t think [new Japanese bases] are a game-changer,” he said, referring to the radar, early-warning sensors and phased-array missile defenses being installed by the Japanese at the site.

The Ukraine conflict has demonstrated how deadly land-based drones and missiles are to warships: Russia’s Black Sea fleet has been unable to operate close to Ukraine’s Black Sea shoreline. But Mr. Neill said China has ways to challenge the Ryukyu defenses, including electronic warfare jamming and cyber countermeasures.

Mr. Neill questioned whether the hawkish turn in the LDP is shared by the majority of Japanese citizens.