The Japanese Government’s Shifting Rhetoric about Taiwan and Its Significance
As Kishida Fumio assumes the leadership of the LDP and the position of prime minister, one of the most pressing questions about the veteran foreign minister’s thinking toward Asia is how will he respond to the growing threat of a Sino-US confrontation over Taiwan. Already in 2021, analysts have been paying close attention to the remarks of Japanese politicians regarding Taiwan.
Many have expressed the view that the Japanese government has changed its policy toward Taiwan. In fact, the expression “peace and security in the Taiwan Strait” in the spring 2021 Japan-US Joint Declaration had not been used for 50 years since the late 1960s, in Sato Eisaku -Nixon summit’s joint statement. The Chinese side has been intensifying its alarm about this. Inside the ruling LDP too, centered on its defense committee and foreign affairs committee, voices have grown louder, pressing for preparations in case of a “Taiwan incident.” Strengthening this position, on August 27, for the first time a 2+2 meeting took place between the LDP and Taiwan’s ruling Democratic Progressive Party. The Chinese government strongly criticized this too. Then, beginning with Defense Minister Kishi Nobuo of the Suga administration, conservative politicians repeatedly spoke positively about Taiwan. There has definitely been a shift in tone, but I argue here, basic policy toward Taiwan reflects continued adherence to the “1972 system.”
The Japanese government has not changed its official policy on Taiwan since China declared, in accordance with the Japan-China Joint Declaration of 1972, that Taiwan is an indivisible part of the territory of the PRC, and Japan agreed to acknowledge the Chinese standpoint. Japan declared that it sufficiently understood the position of the PRC, respected it, adhered to a position based on the Potsdam Declaration’s 8th article, and pledged not to consciously act in violation of its contents. Bilateral relations were built on the Joint Declaration, among other things, and there exists the so-called 1972 system’s promise on Japan-China and Japan-Taiwan relations, but Japan does not think it has acted contrary to these. In the 50 years, prime ministers have not used the words “peace and security in the Taiwan Strait” at the summit level, but they were often used in meetings such as the Japan-US 2 + 2 of 2005 and conferences of Japan and US dignitaries, and on other occasions.1 Moreover, according to the foreign ministry, no new policy was adopted on the Taiwan issue. If relations have flourished between political parties, including the LDP and KMT, and between parliamentarians, these have occurred between legal entities proceeding outside of the diplomatic relationship between Japan and Taiwan. The stance of the LDP, with this distinction in mind, is to continue under the framework of the Japan-China Joint Declaration, i.e., under that of the ‘72 system, although the 2+2 meetings involving military affairs and diplomacy, can proceed along with other contacts deemed separate from any official diplomatic relationship.
This is a framework that can accommodate how Japan in the 2010s amended its policy through concluding various agreements with the Taiwanese side and other actions. Yet, amid the livelier discussion last year among politicians concerning a “Taiwan incident,” within the public arena discussion was sparked assuming such an incident. One might contend that simulations being considered constituted a shift in degree inside the government, but it falls short of a serious change in the official stance.
Adjustment of the Japanese Government’s Taiwan Policy in the 2010s
Admiral Philip Davidson of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command at a Senate hearing in March 2021 aroused a huge reaction in Japan by saying that China by 2027 could try to attack Taiwan. Suddenly, a lively discussion arose concerning a “Taiwan incident.”2 Against the background of heightening exchanges inside the LDP, the security policy of the Suga administration was not necessarily reacting at full force, and it was thought that both the prime minister’s office and the national security secretariat (NSS) did not have a vibrant enough response. Therefore, the legislative branch had to proceed, many concluded, leading to heightened interest in discussion of the issue.
Nonetheless, the lively discussions on Taiwan in some sections of the LDP and statements of some politicians do not indicate that Japan’s Taiwan policy has necessarily shifted; in fact, this turning point occurred much earlier, on the occasion of the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake. Until that point, it was difficult to conclude that much had changed toward Taiwan. Then, in succession, were concluded an agreement for Japan-Taiwan cooperation on air transport (2011, open skies agreement), a Japan-Taiwan investment treaty (2011), a Japan-Taiwan fisheries agreement (2013), a Japan-Taiwan tax agreement (2015), etc. Of course, these were not state-to-state agreements, but limited to decisions by “civilian” organizations with the contents limited to economic activity. However, these agreements had effects with both actual and symbolic meaning. Through the aviation agreement, flights linking Taiwan and Japan rose dramatically and diversified, and through the taxation agreement, the problem of double taxation on both sides was, for the most part, resolved. Thus, just by concluding these and other agreements, the impression was left that Japan and Taiwan had systematically strengthened their relationship. It was important that the more than 20 billion yen in assistance of Taiwan to Japan in the Great East Japan Earthquake had greatly changed consciousness of Taiwan inside Japan. This phenomenon transcended political parties, and was shared by the government and civilians. This boosted positive policies toward Taiwan. The Japanese government by providing Astrazeneca vaccine to Taiwan in 2021 was trying to repay the kindness (ongaeshi) on the tenth anniversary of the earthquake. It should be noted, however, that behind these successive agreements was the Guomindang (KMT)’s Ma Ying-jeou administration (2008-16). The PRC did not try to go all out to hinder Ma’s foreign policy.
When in May 2016, the Tsai Ing-wen administration of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) was established, it was expected that relations between Taiwan and Japan’s Abe Shinzo administration would take a further leap forward. In October 2015, awaiting the general election, Tsai visited Japan, and on that occasion, she had a chance to meet with Prime Minister Abe. Abe’s brother and Diet member Kishi Nobuo personally attended Tsai during her visit, demonstrating that Abe valued Tsai. However, the Abe administration’s Taiwan policy did not advance as expected. It put two “conditions” on bringing into view the start of FTA negotiations with Taiwan, owing to the problem of imports from Fukushima. One was a change in the Taiwan position, which Ma had announced at the end of his administration, that Okinotorishima was not the starting point of an EEZ but a “shoal”; the other was the removal of the food import ban on Fukushima prefecture and surrounding areas. In March 2017, Akama Jiro, deputy minister of Internal Affairs and Communications, put pressure on the Taiwan side during an official visit. But Tsai, owing to domestic politics, could not manage the issue, and, at the end, as an article in the December 2018 referendum, the ban on imports was extended. In this way, systematic progress in Japan-Taiwan relations hit an unexpected obstacle.
An atmosphere resulted where if the Fukushima foodstuffs issue could not be resolved there could be no progress in relations. Breaking this impasse was the May 2019 Foreign Minister Kono Taro speech. While there was no progress on the Fukushima theme, he declared support for Taiwan entering the World Health Assembly (WHA) as an observer, which was turned into a sustained policy to support Taiwan entering the WHO when instructions for Japan’s continuous support for Taiwan’s participation was even included in the 2020 Diplomatic Bluebook.3 Supplying Astrazeneca to Taiwan in 2021, of course due to China’s tightening pressure on Taiwan and the Sino-US confrontation, among other reasons, Japan was essentially positioning itself once again within the context of the Taiwan policy it had launched in 2019.
China’s response was harsh. As the Sino-US confrontation intensified and China’s policy toward Hong Kong and other issues shifted, and as its position hardened beyond earlier levels toward the DPP administration, even on the previously unproblematic matter of parliamentary exchanges, strong criticisms mounted against “Taiwan independence.” Further, alarm was expressed toward the phrasing that entered the summit’s Joint Declaration of “peace and security of the Taiwan Strait.” Viewed from China, it was a matter of concern that mutual respect between Japan and Taiwan was building and that citizen-level exchanges had become so lively.
A Taiwan incident: What Can Japan Do?
As the pandemic spread, China intensified its military activity in border areas. Such activity was manifest on the Sino-Indian border, the Taiwan Strait, the South China Sea, the East China Sea, etc. Along with increasing the importance of the Quad for its members, alarm about China’s military actions and maritime advance concentrated the attention of some NATO countries. Inside Japan, a “Taiwan incident” started to be discussed. Yet, in the Abe and, later, Suga administrations, notably in the NSS, there was not necessarily a positive response regarding national security. Perhaps this was due to the fact these administrations had their hands full with dealing with the pandemic and the Olympics. With China’s maritime police law, the testimony before the Senate of Admiral Davidson in March 2021, and reports from the Japan-US 2+2 concerning the language to be used for the Taiwan Strait, the defense and foreign policy groups of the LDP enlivened their discussions of a “Taiwan incident.” Yet, even their activities could not be said to be representative of the LDP as a whole. For example, on the revision of Japan’s coast guard law, which the LDP defense group and others had advocated, the LDP’s Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism group was opposed. Therefore, in May 2021, the LDP proposals regarding the defense of the Senkakus and other matters lacked a clear position.4
Even so, from the LDP or the core of the government, statements about Taiwan continued to appear. Among them, what Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance Aso Taro said on July 5 in relation to a “Taiwan incident” had some significance. According to reports, he said if Taiwan were to experience a big problem, “it would not be too much to say that it could relate to a survival-threatening situation [for Japan],” and if that is so, Japan and the US must defend Taiwan together.5 He touched on the acknowledged possibility of an “existing crisis situation” in case of a Taiwan incident. This statement stirred a wide-ranging response.
In light of the current law, in the event of a Taiwan incident, there are various possibilities for the SDF to respond. Of course, if we take a sober look and only for the sake of interest, there are three possibilities for some kind of involvement. First, there is a response to a “significant impact situation.” If this were left unattended, the situation could have a major impact on peace and security of Japan, even arousing fear of an armed attack against Japan; and in that case, based on law on a situation of significant impact, there would be logistics support and search and rescue activity in support of US armed forces. Second, there is the prospect of a “situations posing threats to survival,” as Aso just mentioned. In that case, where an armed attack against Japan and other countries with which it has close relations transpired—threatening the existence of Japan and placing in danger the lives and rights of its citizens—it is assumed that the right of collective self-defense would be invoked, based on the SDF law, leading to a counterattack using military force in response to the attack against the US military and others. Aso was referring to cooperation with US forces, not assuming cooperative action with Taiwanese forces. Third, in a “armed attack situation,” an armed attack occurs against Japan, pointing to an urgent situation of clear danger that has occurred. In that case, there would be a counterattack against those who had attacked Japan, based on the discrete right of self-defense.
Regarding these three types of situations, if they included a “Taiwan incident,” the cabinet would judge which type is applicable and ask if it is necessary to seek the consent of the Diet or, in an emergency, it would be all right to postpone that until ex post facto. In the case of a cabinet decision, what would matter would be a meeting of nine ministers, including the deputy prime minister, of which a meeting of just four ministers—the prime minister, the foreign and defense ministers, and the chief cabinet secretary—would be especially important. In the most urgent situation, the prime minister and the chief cabinet secretary and the ministers designated in advance by the prime minister would be organized into an emergency situation ministerial meeting. In case of a Taiwan incident, leading to a discussion of whether recognition of an urgent situation was appropriate and uncertainty about whether an urgent situation cabinet meeting should be organized, Aso would at least be one of the nine members of the larger ministerial group, but not a member of the 4-person ministerial group.
On July 6, the day after his remarks, at the post cabinet meeting press conference, Aso, along with saying that the Japanese government “has to consider a lot of things,” avoided a clear statement, claiming he had not said it is difficult to decide what kinds of situation are ones “posing threats to survival”.6 At the same time, Kato Katsunobu, the cabinet secretary in the Suga administration, at a press conference after the same cabinet discussion, avoided a clear answer on whether a “Taiwan incident” would or would not constitute a “situation posing threats to survival.” He stated, “in general, it is difficult to say,” explaining that whether any situation fits that characterization, a judgment has to be made drawing together various information objectively and rationally. Because this explanation is in accord with past ones, he emphasized that there was no change in the government’s intentions. Kato avoided comment on Aso’s remarks. He also treated as just a “hypothetical question” whether the government’s view and Aso’s remarks were at odds.7 From this exchange, one understood that the Japanese government would not acknowledge a course change or course correction regarding a “Taiwan incident.”
There is another interpretation of Aso’s remarks. This is the point Aso made about the Japanese government having to consider various things. This shows that there had not been sufficient simulations regarding a Taiwan incident. In July and August, the Olympics were underway, and in light of Suga’s remarks that he would not enter the race to be a candidate for LDP president and other factors, it may be that inside the government such simulations were not occurring. Yet, it is certain that at the core of the government there no longer was any alternative but to begin a discussion based on a “Taiwan incident.”
China’s Concern about the Advancing Japan-Taiwan Relationship
As reported above, the Japanese government had no intention of greatly changing its Taiwan policy; it intended to operate under the previous 1972 system. Even so, when there was finally a discussion in the public sphere raising the matter of a “Taiwan incident,” it seemed that change was evidently under way. Relations had intensified, centering on the institutionalization of Japan-Taiwan relations advancing in the 2010s, the complications that ensued from 2016, the gradually stagnating atmosphere between the two governments, the new movement that had begun from 2019, and the recent exchanges between Diet members.
In this way, the Japanese side’s intentions were not necessarily to make a big shift in the existing Taiwan policy, but even inside Taiwan they came to interpret Japan as having made such a shift, and it was the PRC that reacted most strongly. For example, on September 9, 2021, Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian protested the remarks by Japan’s deputy defense minister Nakayama Yasuhide in an online conference at America’s Hudson Institute. Nakayama’s remarks referred to Japan and Taiwan as geographically close as the distance between the eyes and the nose—in other words very close to one another—and if anything were to occur, it would not be somebody else’s affair but one’ own.8 Concerning this, Zhao said “this language on Taiwan by Japan’s politicians is extremely irresponsible, the Chinese side is deeply dissatisfied with this and resolutely opposed, and we called for strict talks with the Japanese side.”
Then, Zhao said Japan in the past had used excuses such as “geographically close” to justify when Japanese militaristic elements launched aggressive foreign wars. Even in today’s 21st century, some Japanese forces are beating the drums of this logic. Zhao cast this as a very dangerous tendency and added, especially in regard to the Taiwan issue, that Japan must proceed with caution in its words and deeds because it bears guilt historically against the Chinese people. He also said Japan must stop interfering in China’s internal affairs.9
If we consider Taiwan matters from the Japan side, when relations were advancing in the 2010s, the Chinese side registered almost no opposition. China, when talking about foreign policy and military affairs, accepted exchanges through non-governmental relations, and relations between governments it recognized as “routine work,” particularly economic and cultural relations. It is true, as seen from China, the remarks by politicians about a “Taiwan incident” may be viewed as challenges, but it could judge that at the government level, there has been no big change. However, China, greatly alarmed that the DPP has an independence orientation, and given the shift in China’s Hong Kong policy and the clash with the US over it, has grown more sensitive about the situation in Taiwan. As a result, there is not only alarm about movement in support of Taiwan independence as seen in the words and actions of Japanese politicians, but also about the way this issue plays into the historical problem.
China is trying to nourish within Taiwan society “patriotic unity forces.” The Xi Jinping administration in January 2019 included wording that it would not be adverse even to a military invasion of Taiwan. It issued what are called Xi’s five points. Then when the pandemic spread, it intensified military activity in the Taiwan Strait and around Pratas Island. And, apart from this, it pressed integration policies with Taiwan through Fujian province; and through this, it had in mind policies, using hybrid methods, to foster “patriotic unity forces” penetrating Taiwanese society and companies. Now that the KMT is no longer the CCP’s main partner regarding unification, nourishing forces within Taiwan society desiring unification with China has become the main way for the CCP to advance unification. Of course, this is no easy matter. After Xi’s five point were issued, within Taiwan support for Tsai’s tough stance toward China rose, and afterwards, the Hong Kong situation and the question of a charter flight to Taiwan from Wuhan when the pandemic was spreading, led to sharply worsening feelings in Taiwan toward China.
Therefore, one can suppose that from China’s perspective, Japan’s provision of Astrazeneca to Taiwan and the considerable goodwill this generated in Taiwanese society has further raised alarm.10 China had earlier offered to supply Taiwan with Chinese manufactured vaccines, but having rejected that offer, it accepted vaccines from Japan. When Chinese media reported this issue, it stuck in the consciousness inside China along with the message that in Taiwan China’s propaganda policies are not necessarily penetrating. Seen from China, the Japanese vaccine supply to Taiwan and the tightening of Japan-Taiwan ties owing to it, as well as the remarks about a “Taiwan incident” by Japanese politicians, may be seen as one connected phenomenon.
The Taiwan issue looms over Japan as Kishida begins his tenure. In his victory speech he vowed to tackle “important issues related to Japan’s future” through a vision of “a free and open Indo-Pacific” that counters China’s assertiveness in the region. He promised to stand up to China in tensions over Taiwan and over Beijing’s crackdown on Hong Kong. An early test of Kishida’s thinking may be how he responds to the late September application of Taiwan—just after the PRC—to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP). If that issue is postponed, it may be harder to delay responding to the growing unease that Japan is not yet prepared to take a stance should a confrontation over Taiwan occur in the near future.11
In Japanese society, interest in Taiwan has risen much more than before. For that, one should not overlook the series of advances in Japan-Taiwan relations, from the support from Taiwan to Japan at the time of the 2011 earthquake, to the systematic progress in Japan-Taiwan ties of the 2010s, to Japan’s support for Taiwan to enter the World Health Assembly of the WHO as an observer. This has built momentum for a serious review of Japan’s options in case of a “Taiwan incident.” Yet, one should not make judgements based only on paying attention to Taiwan under the rubric of the recent Sino-US confrontation or even on the basis of remarks by some politicians. The Japanese government is continuing to proceed through the existing framework of the 1972 system.
As a long-serving foreign minister, Kishida is unusually well-prepared to lead in the discussions surrounding a “Taiwan contingency.” It may be slow-going, however, unless external events leave Japan no option but to clarify its position. Meanwhile, the Japanese people will be watching closely how Biden and Xi prepare to meet and decide if they can find a way to lower tensions, including over Taiwan.
1. At the US-Japan 2+2 meeting in 2005, the phrase “peace and security in the Taiwan Strait” was used. See “The Chart of US-Japan 2+2 joint statement,” Japanese ministry of foreign affairs, February 19, 2005, https://www.mofa.go.jp/mofaj/area/usa/hosho/2_2_05_03.html. MOFA’s Blue Book that year records the 2+2 meeting with that phrase: https://www.mofa.go.jp/mofaj/gaiko/bluebook/2005/html/chuu.html. Moreover, the record of “the summary on US-Japan Foreign Ministers meeting and meeting with PM Koizumi during US secretary of state Rice’s stay in Japan,” shows that they used “peace and security in the Taiwan Strait.” See https://www.mofa.go.jp/mofaj/area/usa/kaidan_050323.html.
2. “Statement of Admiral Philip S. Davidson, U.S. Navy Commander, U.S. Indo-Pacific Command before the Senate Armed Services Committee on U.S. Indo-Pacific Command Posture,” March 9, 2021,” https://www.armed-services.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/Davidson_03-09-21.pdf.
3. “Taiwan no WHO sanka Ikkanshite shiji Gaiko Seisho ni meiki,” Nikkei Shimbun, May 19, 2020,
4. “Senkaku boei no teigen tamamushi hyogen ni: Taiosaku tonai no ondosa rotei- Jimin,” Jiji-com, April 11, 2021, https://www.jiji.com/jc/article?k=2021041000441&g=pol.
5. “Taiwan yuji de shudanteki jiei kenkoshi mo, Asoshi,” jiji.com, July 5, 2021,
6. “Taiwan yuji samazamana sotei hitsuyo to Asoshi sonritsu kiki jitai wa meigen sakeru,” Reuters, July 6, 2021, https://jp.reuters.com/article/taro-aso-tax-idJPKCN2EC08R.
7. “Sonritsu kiki jitai ichigaini Ienai, kanbochokan Taiwan yuji de,” Nikkei Shimbun, July 6, 2021, https://www.nikkei.com/article/DGXZQOUA063S90W1A700C2000000/.
8. “Taiwan yuji wa Nihon yuji, Jimin Sato Masahisashi, Nichibeitai no wakugumi kochiku o yobikake,” Focus Taiwan, September 8, 2021, https://japan.cna.com.tw/news/apol/202109080004.aspx?q=.
9. “2021 nian 9 yue 9 ri waijiaobu fayanren Zhao Lijian zhuchi lixing jizhehui,” Chinese MOFA website, September 9,2021, https://www.fmprc.gov.cn/web/fyrbt_673021/t1905828.shtml.
10. “Waijiaobu, Guotaiban huiying Riben xiang Taiwan yuanzhu yimiao,” Website of China Youth Daily, June 4, 2021, https://baijiahao.baidu.com/s?id=1701632248538413758&wfr=spider&for=pc）.
11. Shin Kawashima, “Japan’s Position on the CPTPP Applications of China and Taiwan: With some bold yet skillful diplomacy, Japan’s next government has a real diplomatic opportunity,” The Diplomat, October 3, 2021. https://thediplomat.com/2021/10/japans-position.