Vice President Kamala Harris shows Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga the view from the balcony of her ceremonial office in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building at the White House, Friday, April 16, 2021. (Official White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson)
Tokyo hikes defense, but is mindful of independence in US-China competition

Taiwan has increasingly become a test, though Japan’s interest in strengthening its security goes beyond Taipei.

Being the first foreign leader to meet with President Biden at the White House earlier this year was a coup for Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga.

For one, the April meeting boosted his bona fides on the international stage, having only come into office nine months earlier. Coupled with the fact that he will have to call an election by October, the summit meeting bolstered Suga’s visibility at home and abroad, not to mention highlighting the premium the Biden administration is placing in maintaining solid relations with Japan. There is, however, a price to be paid for Washington’s commitment to Tokyo, with taking a stance regarding Taiwan being one of the highest costs Japan may be paying.

Following the bilateral summit, the two countries agreed for the first time since 1969 to declare publicly their mutual interest in preserving “peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait and encourag[ing] the peaceful resolution of cross-Strait issues.” A similar commitment to support Taipei was underscored in the G7 statement in June, while Japan and the European Union also affirmed the importance of Taiwan the previous month. As a result, the world’s wealthiest nations are now united not only in their growing concerns about China’s disregard of established rules of international engagement, they now have a united front on challenging Beijing’s unyielding determination to see reunification with Taiwan as a core national interest. 

There are two broad questions that loom over the horizon. First, what the United States, EU, and Japan are willing to do to protect the Taiwanese government, and how Beijing might respond to the growing challenge.

For Japan, the risk of China’s wrath is particularly acute both from an economic as well as a security perspective. Like the majority of Asian countries, it is China and not the United States that is Japan’s single biggest trading partner. Pre-pandemic, Tokyo’s focus had been to ensure that it could balance strong relations with both Beijing and Washington without antagonizing one side or another. 

Under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Tokyo had navigated that slippery slope quite well. Abe had not only been able to cultivate solid ties with then-President Trump as much as any world leader could, whilst also benefiting from the fact that China looked to hedge its risks from growing trade tensions with the United States by reaching out to Tokyo.

In fact, relations between Tokyo and Beijing had improved significantly since the Japanese nationalized the Senkaku Islands in 2012, which at the time led to government-sanctioned as well as grassroot protests against Japan across China. In fact, relations between the two countries had improved to the extent that Xi Jingping was planning a visit to Tokyo in April 2020, only to be canceled because of the pandemic.

That thawing of relations between the two Asian powers, however, has turned cold with the increase in the number of Chinese incursions into the East China Sea. A change in China’s Coast Guard Law earlier this year, ostensibly to patrol the East China Sea by enabling the coast guard to act more like a second navy, has been especially unsettling for Tokyo as it sees the move as a direct confrontation and deliberate move to intimidate Japan.

China’s growing willingness to exert itself militarily and expand its reach across land and air as well as sea has pushed Tokyo to reassess its relations with Beijing, and also push it closer together to Washington even as Japan seeks to enhance its own defense capabilities moving forward. Simply put, Tokyo’s willingness to take a stance in defense of Taiwan is not about Japan changing its position regarding Taipei, but rather a response to Beijing’s increased actions and attitude threatening the regional status quo. 

The China threat, however, is hardly just about challenging military security. Beijing has not shied away from exerting pressure economically across the region as well, most notably against Australia over the past year as Canberra continues to struggle against the weight of Chinese economic coercion in the form of tariffs and boycotts against Australian goods. South Korea’s economy was battered when Beijing retaliated by imposing sanctions and tariffs following Seoul’s decision to allow the U.S. Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system on South Korean soil in 2016. 

So far, China has not taken any retaliatory action against Japan for its very public commitment to Taiwan. The fact that Japan is not only a significantly larger economy compared to South Korea or Australia, coupled with the likelihood of Tokyo embracing Washington even further, may be staving Beijing off from taking a punitive response for now. Nevertheless, there is growing concern within Japan regarding Tokyo’s commitment to Taiwan from both an economic and security perspective. 

Japanese legislators including Toshihiro Nikai, secretary-general of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, as well as powerful business groups such as Keidanren, have remained hesitant from taking an aggressive stance on issues that could provoke China, including Taiwan, and instead have looked to position Japan so that it maintains solid relations with both Beijing and Washington. Meanwhile, the prospect of Japanese troops being pushed to come to Taiwan’s defense physically has been of concern to policymakers and voters alike, as was made clear in a Japanese Diet session days after Prime Minister Suga’s return from Washington. At a plenary meeting of the House of Representatives, Suga argued that bilateral commitment to Taiwan “does not presuppose military involvement at all.” 

But it is clear that Washington needs the full support of Japan to ensure that its efforts to maintain the status quo in cross-Strait relations are not simply a unilateral endeavor. That means the United States will be looking for Japan to commit to Taiwan’s defense not only militarily, but also economically and politically as well. In short, ensuring the future of Taiwan will loom ever larger on the agenda of U.S.-Japan relations and will test the resilience of the alliance in East Asia.  

With former Obama chief of staff Rahm Emmanuel recently nominated to be the U.S. ambassador to Japan, there’s a new opportunity to refocus as well as deepen bilateral ties. Japan’s unease about the future of the U.S. security umbrella will persist, and the former Chicago mayor may not mince his words about Washington’s expectations for further commitment from Tokyo to strengthen regional security.  

Nevertheless, Tokyo is already looking to assess the future of the U.S.-Japan alliance beyond the Biden administration and also seeking to be better equipped to defend as well as articulate its own interests. Not only is the Japanese defense ministry requesting the highest national defense budget on record for the upcoming fiscal year, but it is seeking to spend beyond the 1 percent of GDP cap that had hitherto been implemented in order to deal with any potential fallout of conflict between Beijing and Taipei.

At the same time, Japan is also looking to continue promoting itself as a global stabilizer beyond the Indo-Pacific, not least in the Persian Gulf. Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi’s visit to Iraq this week — the first by a Japanese foreign minister in 15 years — certainly highlights Japan’s own interests not only in the safe passage of vessels in the Persian Gulf, but also in securing energy supply from the region. 

One of the biggest wild cards, though, is leadership within Japan itself. As the ruling Liberal Democratic Party plans to hold party elections, Prime Minister Suga will struggle to hold on to his position and the country will be more focused on internal politics rather than foreign policy. The window for Japan to take on a greater role in defining its own security as well as economic strategy is clear now, but the question remains whether or not Tokyo is willing and able to embrace that opportunity. For Washington, a stable Japan that remains not only its most trusted partner in the region that is able to articulate shared bilateral interests across the Indo-Pacific and beyond, remains of paramount interest.

More from