Navigating in Dangerous Waters: Japan´s Response to the US-China Taiwan Standoff

Erlend Heier is a 2nd year War Studies & History student, currently undertaking his year abroad in Tokyo which has made him interested in Asian geopolitics and Japan’s significance in the global order. 

A US-China Taiwan conflict seems increasingly inevitable. China claims sovereignty over Taiwan and insists the island must reunite with the motherland, whereas Taiwan swears for independence. Being officially supported by China´s rival, the United States, a conflict over Taiwan may have global implications, and the standoff already shapes security and stability in the Indo-Pacific. Larger regional states, such as VietnamIndonesia, and the Philippines are increasingly adjusting their security arrangements to meet repercussions from the standoff, as a potential outbreak would have severe global consequences. 

How can a crisis in the Taiwan strait prompt Japan to rethink its current security approach? China´s assertive policies and advanced territorial claims can be seen as a threat not only to Taiwan but to most states in the Indo-Pacific. Japan´s security and strategic interests are at stake, such as with the Senkaku / Diaoyu Islands and their strategic position in the South China Sea. These are a few of the many islands China claims, despite being under other states´ jurisdiction. If a crisis arises, it may have unpredictable effects on economic and social stability, by creating uncertain trade routes and influxes of refugees in the entire region. Japan may then feel obligated to assert its sovereignty and defend its national interests. Furthermore, if the United States is drawn into combat, the Japanese are believed to support them either indirectly by facilitating expeditionary operations out of Japan – or directly by assisting military operations with logistics, intelligence, or even combat capabilities. Today, Japan´s current security approach to the US-China Taiwan crisis is grounded in its 1960 Security Treaty with the United States. After the previous Prime Minister Shinzo Abe´s 2015 revision of the pacifist post-war Constitution, Japan is limited to collective self-defence in case of conflict. Therefore, Japan is currently restrained by its constitutional legislation to only use its military capabilities in case of self-defence. However, if the United States becomes engaged in conflict in Taiwan, Tokyo could choose to invoke the right of collective self-defence to use military force to support the United States in conflict with China. Towards the end of 2022, Japanese Prime Minister Kishida announced that Japan will double its military budget within 2027, reaching two percent of GDP, and aligning it with NATO members. There are already talks between Tokyo and Washington regarding the acquisition of American Tomahawk long-range missiles and F-35 jet fighters, improving Japan´s ability to operate more seamlessly with US forces, and reinforcing the states´ combat readiness. The unprecedented boost in national spending, as well as Japan´s improved interoperability with the World´s biggest military superpower, may signify a more ambitious Japanese security approach. In case of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan, Japan´s military may better address the potential for an unpredictable spillover that threatens Japanese territory and interests as well. 

Pursuing a more active role in Indo-Pacific security is a likely consequence of the new militaristic shift. By asserting itself as a military power in the region, Japan will – together with US forces operating out of Yokota, Misawa, Iwakuni, Yokosuka, Atsugi, and Sasebo – demonstrate deterrence towards Chinese aggression. Lately, there have been several joint military exercises between the two nations. Additionally, the 2022 operation Keen Sword included capabilities from Australia, Canada, and Great Britain, signalling their emphasis on multinational cooperation and commitment to security and readiness in case of threats and Chinese territorial expansion. This recent emphasis on combined military exercises is an example of how Japan is committing to a more assertive role in the region. Such operations, either binational or multinational, foster closer cooperation and interoperability between the participating parties, as well as providing credible deterrence to counter potential aggressors. In the end, this approach to regional security enables Japan to both promote stability, as well as securing and maintaining its national interests. 

Nevertheless, it is critical to examine what factors are shaping Japan´s response to the US-China Taiwan crisis, which is dependent on China’s actions. In the case of aggressive Chinese expansion, Japan will more likely respond by increasing its military capabilities and even helping Taiwan militarily. However, if China remains within its existing territory, Japan and its allies are likely to attempt diplomatic solutions. Nonetheless, Japan will also have to consider its stance based on the United States. President Biden and Washington have significant influence over Prime Minister Kishida and Tokyo through the Security Treaty and their economic ties. Japan is free to take decisions on its own, yet its policies are greatly affected by American wishes, in exchange for security guarantees and trade agreements. 

In conclusion, there are three ways in which Sino-American relations on Taiwan influence Japan’s regional security approach. Firstly, a conflict over Taiwan would pose a significant threat to Japan´s economic stability because trade routes could be destabilised. In addition, numerous refugees may challenge the existing anti-immigration policy in Japan; stirring domestic instability as political fractions may polarise the political landscape. Secondly, by aligning itself with the United States, Japan has taken on a more active role in regional security, doubled its military budget, and started acquiring new defensive capabilities – all factors contributing to more credible deterrence towards China. Alongside military exercises and operations with other countries, Japan shows readiness and improved cooperation with its allies. However, Japan is constrained by its pacifist Constitution, only allowing collective self-defence in case of conflict and when the nation´s survival is at stake. As it seems today, this would be invoked so to support the United States over the potential conflict. Thirdly, there are several factors influencing Japan´s approach. On the one hand, there are Beijing´s actions. On the other, there are Washington´s decisions. As for now, it seems like Japan compels American policies to credibly deter China. This new approach to foreign policy is a consequence of the ever-changing regional geopolitical situation, and Japan´s decision signals readiness and commitment to preserving stability and security in the region.

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