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Japan’s Evolving Approach to the Taiwan Strait

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Japan’s Evolving Approach to the Taiwan Strait

Comparing the current crisis to the Third Taiwan Strait Crisis from 1995-96, Japan’s attitude toward China, the U.S., and other like-minded countries has changed significantly.

Japan’s Evolving Approach to the Taiwan Strait

Japan Foreign Minister Hayashi Yoshimasa held a meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Washington, D.C., July 29, 2022.

Credit: Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs

The clarity of Japan’s rhetoric calling for peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait has entered a new phase after the Fourth Strait Crisis. Recent diplomatic exchanges may also imply that peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait are more vital security interests to Japan than the issue of its territorial dispute with China, involving the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea.

U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a senior member of the ruling Democratic Party, visited Taiwan on August 2 and 3. China criticized Pelosi in very strong tones even before her visit. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian stated at a regular press conference on August 1, “Those who play with fire will perish by it,” repeating a message President Xi Jinping had conveyed directly to his U.S. counterpart, Joe Biden.

After Pelosi’s visit, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) unilaterally announced that it would begin large-scale military exercises, including firing with live ammunition, surrounding Taiwan starting on August 4. The PLA launched nine ballistic missiles between around 15:00 and 16:00 on the 4th, and it is estimated that five of the missiles fell within Japan’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). This was the first time that China had fired missiles into Japan’s EEZ.

Meanwhile, the Japanese government, together with other G-7 members, issued the “G7 Foreign Ministers’ Statement on Maintaining Peace and Stability in the Taiwan Strait” on August 3. The statement points out that China should not use Pelosi’s visit as an excuse for aggressive military activities in the Taiwan Strait while also calling for the resolution of cross-strait differences by peaceful means. Furthermore, Japan, together with the U.S. and Australia, issued a joint statement condemning China’s military actions as “raising tension and destabilizing the region.”

These diplomatic gestures angered China and resulted in the cancellation of the foreign ministerial meeting between China and Japan, which was initially scheduled for August 4. Some might wonder why a G-7 statement matters so much to China. It is important because “the peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait” were only mentioned for the first time in the 2021 G-7 Summit in Cornwall and this latest foreign minister’s statement was the first statement specifically dedicated to the issue of Taiwan. Any G-7 statements need consent from all members of its group and it is clear that in recent years Japan has been either pushing the Taiwan issue into the G-7 agenda or accepting it to be included.

On the evening of August 4, Japanese Vice Foreign Minister Mori Takeo also held a telephone conversation with Chinese Ambassador to Japan Kong Xuanyou, strongly protesting and demanding “the immediate cessation of military training” after five PLA missiles hit the Japanese EEZ.

When comparing the current crisis over Taiwan, or the Fourth Taiwan Strait Crisis as some call it, and the Third Taiwan Strait Crisis that occurred between 1995 and 1996, it seems that Japan’s attitude toward China, the U.S., and other like-minded countries has changed significantly.

In the Third Taiwan Strait Crisis, China criticized Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui’s visit to the United States in 1995. In July of the same year, the PLA conducted military exercises in the waters near Taiwan, while the U.S. military twice sent an aircraft carrier, USS Nimitz, through the Taiwan Strait to check China.

Japan, which at the time did not openly criticize China, continued to publicly express its concerns cautiously. Prime Minister Hashimoto Ryutaro stated at the time that Japan would ask China to exercise “self-restraint” because the situation was taking “an unfortunate direction.” Foreign Minister Ikeda Yukihiko told Chinese Foreign Minister Qian Qichen that he did not approve of China’s war games and that Japan hoped the Taiwan issue would be resolved through dialogue.

The major differences between this time and the crisis of 1995-96 are threefold: 1) Japan strongly criticized China, even going so far as to change China-Japan relations; 2) Japan appealed for solidarity between the Japan-U.S. alliance, and 3) Japan pursued cooperation with like-minded countries.

First, while Japan only urged China to seek a peaceful resolution in the Third Taiwan Strait Crisis, in the ongoing fourth crisis, Japan has been calling for the immediate cessation of military exercises. Most noteworthy, however, is the rebuttal issued by Tarumi Hideo, who is the Japanese ambassador to China, after being summoned by Deng Xing, vice minister of the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, to protest the G-7 statement. In his rebuttal, Tarumi noted that ballistic missiles launched by China during a military exercise landed in Japan’s EEZ, and stated that “if that is the case, Japan can never accept such action and lodges a strong protest. Such development may significantly change the situation surrounding Japan-China relations.”

China has already repeatedly intruded into the territorial waters around the Japanese-administered Senkaku Islands, including 21 days in 2022 alone. However, the Japanese government has never issued a similar warning in response. No words of similar condemnation have so far come from the mouths of Prime Minister Kishida Fumio or Foreign Minister Hayashi Yoshimasa, but naturally, Tarumi’s remarks must have been approved by the Japanese government. This means that Japan takes potential contingencies in Taiwan more seriously than threats against the Senkaku Islands area.

Second, Japan signaled that Japan stands with the U.S. and Taiwan on the ongoing crisis. Kishida had a breakfast meeting with Pelosi during her visit to Japan, the last stop on her Asia-Pacific tour, and reaffirmed that the U.S. and Japan should continue to work closely together to maintain peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait. This is a completely different stance from that of South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol when Pelosi visited Seoul right after her time in Taiwan. Yoon only had a phone call with Pelosi and neither the Presidential Office nor the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Korea issued a press release or statement on the conversation. In contrast, despite Pelosi’s dramatic visit to Taiwan, Kishida met with the U.S. House speaker for an hour and a half in person. This must be a signal that Japan firmly stands with the U.S. on the issue of Taiwan and that any future Taiwan Strait contingency is a common security concern for the Japan-U.S. security alliance.

Lastly, during ASEAN-related meetings in Cambodia, Hayashi exchanged views on the situation surrounding Taiwan with the foreign ministers of Laos, Brunei, and Timor-Leste, as well as Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen. More specifically, at the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) Ministerial Meeting and the East Asia Summit (EAS) Foreign Ministers’ Meeting, Hayashi stated that the fall of a Chinese ballistic missile into the waters near Japan, including Japan’s EEZ, is a “grave incident concerning the security of Japan and safety of its people and its people,” and that Japan strongly condemns the actions of China. Hayashi also pointed out the importance of peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait and reiterated that China’s recent actions have a serious impact on the peace and stability of the region and the international community. He called for the immediate suspension of military drills.

Japan understands the cautious diplomatic stance of ASEAN countries toward China, and it is very unusual for Japan to condemn China in a meeting with ASEAN countries like this. In fact, Japan had never mentioned the importance of peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait at the EAS or the ARF in the past.

Before the Third Taiwan Strait Crisis, the Japanese government took a more non-interventionist approach toward the Taiwan Strait issue. However, Japan, which became increasingly concerned after the Third Taiwan Strait Crisis in 1996, has since clearly expressed its opposition to China’s use of force on a series of occasions and has called for restraint. The ongoing Fourth Taiwan Strait Crisis highlighted that peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait is a critical security interest for Japan, and Japan is willing to take a strong stance against China alone or in coordination with other like-minded countries – even at the expense of the China-Japan relationship.