Japan’s Defence White Paper 2021: China Riled by Mention of Taiwan Strait
Prof Rajaram Panda

On 13 July 2021, Japan issued the 2021 Defense White Paper. One significant mention for the first time is the need to maintain stability in the Taiwan Strait, which is threatened by increasing Chinese military incursions on the Taiwanese waters. The White Paper observed: “China has further intensified military activities around Taiwan including Chinese aircrafts entering the south-western airspace of Taiwan. In the meantime, the United States has demonstrated a clear stance of supporting Taiwan in military aspects, such as transits by U.S. vessels through the Taiwan Strait and weapon sales. “Stabilizing the situation surrounding Taiwan is important for Japan’s security and the stability of the international community. Therefore, it is necessary that we pay close attention to the situation with a sense of crisis more than ever before.”

It goes further: “The overall military balance between China and Taiwan is tilting in China’s favour, and the gap appears to be growing year by year. Attention should be paid to trends such as the strengthening of Chinese and Taiwanese forces, the sale of weapons to Taiwan by the United States, and Taiwan’s own development of its main military equipment.”1

These are strong, powerful words. Earlier, Taiwan’s Defense Ministry had alleged that China had intensified military activities and had deployed 380 warplanes into its airspace.2 Taiwan’s Representative of Taipei Economic and Cultural Centre in India in October 2020, Baushuan Ger had alleged that China’s attempts to intimidate Taiwan militarily have never ceased. With an eye to integrate Taiwan with the mainland, China has been intimidating Taiwan by continuously dispatching military aircraft and vessels to circle Taiwan. Chinese military aircrafts have been regularly intruding into Taiwan’s air defence identification zone (ADIZ), and such intrusions have become very frequent.3 Japan’s Defense White Paper has cited similar figures.

Taiwan has been compelled to take countermeasures to defend its sovereignty as tensions have escalated. Taiwan’s Air Force scramble jets to chase off the intruding Chinese aircraft, issue radio warnings and mobilise air defence systems to monitor their movements. The United States remains committed to the defence of the island nation’s sovereignty.4 It has been selling defensive weapons to help Taiwan enhance its ability to maintain cross-strait peace and regional stability.5 Taiwan alone cannot stand up to Beijing’s might and therefore, seeks cooperation from those countries that share similar values with Taiwan.

These developments in its neighbourhood have unnerved Japan. Japan has its own dispute with China over the Senkaku islands.6 As a security alliance partner of the United States, it has compelling reasons to support Taiwan since regional security issues are at stake. With its muscular foreign policy stances in recent times, Beijing has stepped up the ante with other countries and regions such as in South China Sea, East China Sea, Taiwan and India with a view to correct what it perceived as historical wrong. Barring probably its all-weather friend North Korea and possibly Pakistan, it is seen as a threatening power in the rest of Asia. The mention of Taiwan Strait and need for peace and stability in Japan’s Defense White paper is therefore, not surprising. It mentioned that Chinese warships, including an aircraft carrier, sailed through the Bashi Channel, the waterway connecting the South China Sea with the Western Pacific Ocean, and conducted military drills in 2020.7 When asked why Taiwan stability was mentioned in the report, Defence Minister Nobuo Kishi said: “With military activities in the East and South China Seas and around Taiwan becoming more active, we need to pay more attention to the military trends of the two countries (the United States and China) in the Indo-Pacific region".

It may be recalled that the former US Indo-Pacific Command Chief Admiral Philip Davidson had said in March 2021 that China could try to invade Taiwan “in the next six years”. Since the days when Abe Shinzo became Japan’s Prime Minister, the government had shed some of its reluctance in getting involved in military conflict if the same directly affects Japan’s own security. His successor Yoshihide Suga is following Abe’s pro-active foreign policy as any regional conflict if it breaks out would also adversely impact Japan’s own national security interests. Japan can no longer afford to remain as a mute spectator in such cases. It also cannot be missed that Taiwan found mention in the Biden-Suga joint statement in April 2021, the first such reference in such a document in more than half a century.8

Since Taiwan split from the mainland China amid a civil war in 1949 and governed separately, Beijing has regarded Taiwan as a renegade province awaiting reunification by force if necessary. Chinese President Xi Jinping in a speech on the 100th anniversary of the ruling Communist Party’s founding committed to the “reunification” of Taiwan with the mainland. Beijing lost no time in expressing strong displeasure for the mention of Taiwan in the Defence White Paper. Expressing strong dissatisfaction, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian remarked Japan has “grossly interfered” in China’s internal affairs, “unreasonably condemned” China’s normal defence and military activities and “exaggerated the so-called Chinese threat”.

In a rare move, Kishi wrote the preface for the White Paper, saying Japan would collaborate with such countries as Australia, Britain, Canada, France, Germany, India, New Zealand and the United States that share the same values to promote a free and open Indo-Pacific, an initiative apparently aimed at countering China's rising assertiveness.9 Subsequently, he spoke in a press conference his “determination as Defence Minister to protect the country, including values" such as freedom, democracy, the rule of law and respect for fundamental human rights. The mention of Taiwan in the White Paper was a reconfirmation of concern first mentioned officially at the Suga-Biden joint statement.

It also harshly criticised China’s "unilateral attempts to change the status quo by coercion" near the Japanese-controlled Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea. Japan has objected the presence of Chinese coast guard vessels frequently near the islets, representing “a violation of international law”. Japan is also concerned that China implemented a new maritime law in February 2021, allowing its coast guard to use weapons against foreign vessels it views as illegally entering its waters. The paper observed that the law "includes problematic provisions in terms of inconsistency with international law".

Even earlier in July, Japan’s Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso drew Chinese anger by saying that Japan and the US would have to defend Taiwan in the event of a serious contingency.10 This marked some of the highest-level comments from Tokyo on the sensitive subject. Aso said an invasion of Taiwan by China could be seen as an existential threat, allowing Japan to exercise the right to collective self-defence. Like China’s reactions to the White paper, Zhao Lijian reacted to Aso’s comments by saying China saw the comments as “extremely wrong and dangerous”. Warning Japan, he continued: “We will never allow any country in any way to interfere in the Taiwan question and nobody should underestimate the Chinese people’s strong determination, will and ability to safeguard national sovereignty.”11

In its latest demonstration of belligerence, the Chinese Communist Party aired a video in which it threatened Japan with a nuclear response and “full scale war” if Japan interfered in China’s handling of Taiwan. Beijing also wants unconditional surrender of Japan.12 These are disturbing signals.

Xi too struck a defiant tone on the issue in his speech during the Communist Party’s 100th anniversary, calling China’s quest to gain control of Taiwan a “historic mission” and warned the country’s adversaries to avoid standing in the way of his government. Like Aso and Kishi, Japan’s Vice Defense Minister Yasuhide Nakayama, too said in a presentation Washington think tank in June that China presented a growing threat, and it was necessary to protect Taiwan as a “democratic country”. In a damage-control move of sort, Japanese government spokesman Kato clarified, saying that Nakayama’s comments represented a personal view and Kishi endorsed Japan’s support for the “one China” policy, under which Taiwan is not treated as a country. Did it mean Japan’s capitulation to China’s strong disapproval of the controversial remarks? In political gamesmanship, such a simplistic view cannot stand scrutiny. It is possible that Japan does not want at this point of time to escalate tensions from its side but would wait to strike back by joining others if such a need arises in the future.

In the prevailing security dynamics in the region, it remains undisputed that Japan stands committed to Taiwan’s defence. It demonstrated support for Taiwan by donating about two million doses of COVID-19 even as Taipei blamed Beijing for its difficulty in sourcing its own supplies of the shots. The second shipment of donated vaccines took place days after the release of the Defense White Paper.

Though China has done its best to internationally isolate Taiwan by drawing many of Taiwan’s diplomatic allies by signing long-term agreements and promising economic benefits from trade, investment and economic cooperation, it still feels that the intended measures would be relatively mild. Since 1996, China has convinced more than a dozen countries to switch their diplomatic recognition to Beijing, leaving Taiwan with only 15 remaining allies.13 But Taiwan is not friendless. Even in the absence of formal diplomatic ties with many big powers, including the US, it has their support because of the values it stands for in contrast to Beijing, which is almost friendless with the sole exception of North Korea and Pakistan.

As expected, North Korea criticised Japan’s Defence White Paper and its military build-up, though the White Paper focussed more on China’s missile defence than on North Korea. North Korean researchers accused Japan of militarising itself and “poking its nose ... into the internal affairs” of North Korea and other countries.14

True, Japan’s pacifist constitution limits the scope of its military, but it is not a pigmy in its military capability. Its three wings of Self Defense Forces are considerably equipped with modern weapon systems. Their combined ability to deter or fight an enemy should not be underestimated. A 2015 reinterpretation of the Constitution allows Japan to send troops to overseas conflicts in some circumstances.15 If a conflict breaks out between the US and China over the Taiwan issue, Japan most likely shall join the conflict to fight jointly with the US against China and defend Taiwan.

Though China is Japan’s biggest trading partner, Japan has generally avoided offending China to not jeopardise its economic interests. However, if Beijing crosses the red-line, it needs to be prepared to face the opposition from the democratic world. Beijing is, therefore, best advised to tone down its military posturing and pursue an accommodative approach in its foreign policy. Taiwan too is a very important economic partner to many countries in the world despite its tiny size.

Taiwan is a key producer of the semiconductors needed to advance Japan’s economy, and the Luzon Strait to the south is an important shipping lane for the energy tankers resource-poor Japan relies on to power its factories and homes. Japan realises that the Biden administration shall support Taiwan in a military sense, which is why it has stepped up its own support for Taiwan. The Defense White Paper clearly mentions that the possibility of a confrontation between the US and China is likely soon and it is getting ready to stand together with the US and other friends of Taiwan to defend its sovereignty. Japan is only 110 kilometres (70 miles) from Taiwan at its closest point and therefore it is reasonable for Japan to worry about its own security if China invades Taiwan. Aso was right in remarking that China remains as an existential threat. It appears that Japan for the first time has taken a clearer stance over the Taiwan issue. Therefore, the mention of Taiwan Strait in the Defence White Paper for the first time assumes significance.

  1. https://www.mod.go.jp/en/publ/w_paper/wp2021/DOJ2021_Digest_EN.pdf
  2. https://english.kyodonews.net/news/2021/07/43e571ef9341-japan-takes-up-taiwan-strait-stability-in-defense-report-for-1st-time.html
  3. “Our ‘Go South’ policy blends with India’s ‘Act East’: Taiwan’s representative tells HT”, Hindustan Times, 30 November 2020, https://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/our-go-south-policy-blends-with-india-s-act-east-taiwan-s-representative-tells-ht/story-4eEEQhDuUuv03V6HLkQ4DP.html
  4. https://www.mod.go.jp/en/publ/w_paper/wp2021/DOJ2021_Digest_EN.pdf
  5. https://www.mod.go.jp/en/publ/w_paper/wp2021/DOJ2021_Digest_EN.pdf
  6. Bill Hayton, “Tiny islands key to ownership of South China Sea”, 3 May 2015, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-29560533
  7. “Japan takes up Taiwan Strait stability defense report for 1st time”, Mainichi Daily News, 13 July 2021, https://mainichi.jp/english/articles/20210713/p2g/00m/0na/029000c; https://english.kyodonews.net/news/2021/07/43e571ef9341-japan-takes-up-taiwan-strait-stability-in-defense-report-for-1st-time.html
  8. See, Rajaram Panda, “Explained: Suga-Biden Summit – Strengthening Alliance”, 26 April 2021, https://www.vifindia.org/article/2021/april/26/explained-suga-biden-summit-strengthening-alliance
  9. https://english.kyodonews.net/news/2021/07/43e571ef9341-japan-takes-up-taiwan-strait-stability-in-defense-report-for-1st-time.html
  10. Oleg Burunov, “Tokyo, Washington Should Protect Taiwan Against 'Existential Threat', Japanese Deputy PM Says”, 6 July 2021, https://www.globalsecurity.org/wmd/library/news/taiwan/2021/taiwan-210706-sputnik01.htm?_m=3n%2e002a%2e3111%2eon0ao069c5%2e2vpr; Isabel Reynolds, “Japan’s Aso Draws China Anger for Comments on Defending Taiwan”, 6 July 2021, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2021-07-06/japan-u-s-must-defend-taiwan-together-deputy-premier-aso-says
  11. “Japan, US will defend Taiwan: Aso”, The Taipei Times, 7 July 2021, https://taipeitimes.com/News/front/archives/2021/07/07/2003760422
  12. “China threatens to nuke Japan over possible Taiwan intervention”, 20 July 2021, https://in.news.yahoo.com/china-threatens-nuke-japan-over-110540192.html
  13. Oriana Skylar Mastro, “The Taiwan Temptation: Why Beijing Might Resort to Force”, Foreign Affairs, July/August 2021, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/china/2021-06-03/china-taiwan-war-temptation?utm_medium=promo_email&utm_source=pre_release&utm_campaign=mktg_prospects_will_beijing_invade_taiwan&utm_content=20210603&utm_term=promo-email-prospects. See also, Rajaram Panda,“Taiwan’s International Isolation Continued”, The Pioneer Sunday Edition, 25 June 2017.
  14. Won-Gi Jung, “North Korea bashes Japan’s new defense white paper and its military ‘build-up’”, 15 July 2021, https://www.nknews.org/2021/07/north-korea-bashes-japans-new-defense-white-paper-and-its-military-build-up/
  15. See, Rajaram Panda, “Debate on Collective Self-Defence and Constitutional Revision in Japan”, Reitaku Journal of Interdisciplinary Studies, vol. 26, 2018, pp. 1-19.

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>

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