Japan’s pro-Taiwan strategy: Ex-PM Taro Aso makes a rare visit to Taipei

Until a few years ago, Japan and its political leadership avoided playing pro-active role for Taiwan as Tokyo considered the self-ruling island too politically sensitive to speak about or support it publicly.

But such cautions appear to have been done away with and this is what ruling Liberal Democratic Party Vice President and former Prime Minister Taro Aso’s three-day visit to Taiwan suggests.

In fact, by landing in Taipei on August 7, the 82-year-old LDP leader became the first high- ranking party official to visit the self-ruling island since Japan severed diplomatic ties with it in 1972.

In the changed geo-political situation in the Indo-Pacific region, this reflects a shift in Tokyo’s stand towards Taiwan as it feels that if China attacks the democratically-ruled island, Japan will not be safe and hence, it should join the US in defending it.

“Like-minded countries, led by Japan, Taiwan and the United States, should be prepared to set a very powerful deterrence into motion,” Taro Aso was quoted by The Japan Times as saying in his keynote speech at the Ketagalan Forum Security Dialogue on August 8 in Taipei.

Giving an inkling to rapid changes in Japan’s strategy towards its security, the LDP leader said, “Although we are now in a period of peace…we are gradually tilting towards a time of emergency.” The Japanese leader also said that the Fumio Kishida government is concerned about a possible Chinese invasion of Taiwan.

This mirrors in the White Paper’s contents issued by Japan’s Ministry of Defence this year on July 28 wherein Tokyo has expressed worries about China’s growing military activities around Japan and Taiwan.

“China has been intensifying its activities across the entire region surrounding Japan, including the East China Sea, particularly the area around the Senkaku Islands, the Sea of Japan, and the western Pacific Ocean including areas around the Izu and Ogasawara Islands, extending beyond the so-called first island chain to the second island chain. It is increasing military pressure on Taiwan and continues to entrench its military foothold in the South China Sea,” the White Paper said.

Though Japan’s Ministry of Defence comes out with a White Paper every year since 2014, for the first time it has devoted an entire section exclusively on Taiwan, indicating Tokyo’s concern.

As around Taiwan alone, China has invested hugely in building up military strategy. The Chinese PLA sends fighter jets across the Taiwan Strait almost on a daily basis.

On August 9, when former Japanese Prime Minister Taro Aso was still on Taiwanese soil, 11 PLA aircraft and 5 PLA Navy vessels were detected around Taiwan by the self-ruling island’s armed forces, Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defence said in its tweet. Over the past three years, China has done everything possible to intimidate Taiwan.

In August 2022, China conducted large-scale military drills around Taiwan after then US House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited the self-ruling island. Infuriated over the US’s third highest official’s trip to Taiwan, Chinese used a significant part of its military might in conducting drills around the self-ruling island.

China even launched nine ballistic missiles over Taipei, five of which fell into Japan’s exclusive economic zone, including one only 80km from Okinawa Prefecture’s Yonaguni Island.

Japan saw it as a threat to its territory. Beijing once again carried out a big military exercise across the Taiwan Strait in April 2023, in retaliation, after the self-ruling island’s President Tsai Ing-wen met US House Speaker Kevin McCarthy in California.

In the three-day military exercise, China used eight warships and 42 fighter jets and some of the deployed craft had crossed the middle line of the Taiwan Strait that separates the self-ruling island from the mainland, said Taiwan defence ministry.

These developments impacted strategic thinkers and policy makers of Japan because Yonaguni Island of the East Asian country’s Okinawa Prefecture is just 100 km away from Taiwan and it is home to a key Self-Defence Force base.

Senior Japanese officials, including late former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe have said that a Chinese attack on democratic Taiwan—a key semiconductor maker that sits across shipping lanes that provide Japan with much of its energy—would represent an emergency for Tokyo, The Japan Times said.

Since 2013, Chinese President Xi Jinping has reiterated his call for unification of Taiwan. In his opening speech at the Chinese Communist Party’s National Congress in October 2022, he said, “We have strengthened our strategic initiative for China’s complete reunification and consolidated commitment to the one-China principle within the international community…We have put our national interests first, focused on internal political concerns, and maintained firm strategic resolve. We have shown a fighting spirit and a firm determination to never yield to coercive power.”

Experts say China’s PLA has started waging a ‘grey zone campaign’; it is increasing its presence closer to Taiwan one step at a time, yet all the while remaining below the threshold of full war. There is a fear that the ‘salami-slicing tactics’ that China is employing, are slowly by slowly changing the status quo—one small step at a time, and then finally robbing Taiwan of its ability to defend itself. In this view, some experts are of opinion that the US and its allies should, instead of fully focusing their plan in deterring China from direct invasion of Taiwan, undertake move that could checkmate Beijing from turning its ‘salami-slicing tactics’ around the self-ruling island into an action to deprive it of its ability to defend itself.