Change comes slowly in Japan—especially when it involves national defense. But sometimes, something happens that causes one to raise an eyebrow.
On Aug. 27, two Japanese Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) politicians, both defense specialists, held virtual “security” discussions with two counterparts from Taiwan’s ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).
This was a first—and an eyebrow-raiser.
The following commentary discusses the significance of the talks and possible future developments in the Japan–Taiwan defense relationship.
How Important Are Japan–Taiwan Security Talks?
The fact those talks took place is important in its own right. Japan is showing a backbone, as such talks would have been unthinkable five years ago. Tokyo has had basically no security relationship with Taiwan—for fear of angering China. But now, Japanese LDP politicians are meeting (even if virtually) with Taiwanese counterparts to talk security and national defense. And the Japanese government was very public about it and made no effort to hide or to downplay the talks.
Also, there was no public opposition in Japan. Indeed, earlier opinion polling on regional defense topics (including Taiwan and China) suggests that the Japanese public would regard the Japan–Taiwan talks as necessary, if not commonsensical.
But might one say that “it’s just a couple of LDP politicians” and not real diplomats talking? That’s true. But they still had approval from the Suga administration and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which has always had a “pro-China” faction. And Japanese industry and business interests—notoriously willing to placate China to assure market access—couldn’t stop the talks either. In fact, there are signs that Japanese officials might be prioritizing security interests over economic and commercial interests.
What’s Motivating the Japanese Side?
Japan is afraid. And at long last, there’s a broad enough realization in official and political circles that Taiwan’s defense is Japan’s defense. If Taiwan comes under Chinese control, Japan’s defenses will be “outflanked.” And China’s naval and air forces operating from Taiwan will be able to cover Japan’s eastern approaches—effectively surrounding Japan.
Also, Chinese forces can cut the South China Sea sea lanes through which much of Japan’s commercial traffic (including energy supplies) flows. In early September, Beijing announced that certain classes of foreign ships entering Chinese waters will come under direct Chinese supervision. Beijing claims most of the South China Sea (and the East China Sea) as its own. And one day, Beijing will enforce the “law”—as Tokyo well knows.