Japan last month released its annual defense white paper with the aim of presenting a more confident and firm strategic posture. Since then, its strategic outlook, particularly its concerns about Taiwan’s strategic future, has caught the attention of international media and policy circles alike.
The first Japanese defense white paper was issued in 1970. Since 1976, it has released the paper annually to take stock of the nation’s security interests and anxieties, and share such systematic assessments with its people. Issuing white papers on “matters that matter”’ has become a key feature of Japanese polity — a feature worthy of emulation by fellow Asian democracies.
The “overall military balance between China and Taiwan is tilting in China’s favor, and the gap appears to be growing year by year,” this year’s white paper says, highlighting Taiwan’s growing security vulnerabilities. It suggests a range of trends and moves to address the Chinese challenge.
Contrary to popular belief, the apparently confident tone of this year’s defense paper is not the only signal Japan has sent to the Indo-Pacific region in general and to its major stakeholders — China and the US — in particular.
Statements by top Japanese leaders, including Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and his deputy, Taro Aso, as well as aid to Taiwan, the Philippines and Indonesia are in sync with Japan’s more than a decade-old policy of establishing a rules-based order and supporting the Indo-Pacific construct while also dealing with China’s predatory Belt and Road investments in Southeast Asia.
Japan is mincing no words while addressing its equation with China. For one, Aso recently stated that China-Japan relations have never been smooth.
Addressing the intricacies in its relations with Beijing is not the only thing Tokyo is doing openly. Japan has been pushing the boundaries with China at multiple fronts.
During his time as Japanese prime minister, Shinzo Abe always showed utmost care in dealing with China’s hegemonic postures and strategic threats emanating from its aggressive postures. Indeed, Abe played a pivotal role in reorienting Japan’s strategic priorities and policies. Japan has been persistent in persuading like-minded countries to form a concerted response to Beijing’s assertive postures.
In 2014, when the lower house of the Japanese parliament approved a legislative amendment to allow the Japan Self-Defense Forces to fight overseas, China was a major reason behind such a proactive move to safeguard its national interests and preserve regional stability. Japan’s revisionist policies have to be seen in connection with these developments. In 2013, Beijing unilaterally established an air defense identification zone over the disputed East China Sea. The change in Article 9 of the Japanese constitution was “to kill two birds with one stone.”
Furthermore, it was Abe who gave a landmark speech, “Confluence of the Two Seas” in the Indian parliament in 2007, where the concept of the Indo-Pacific construct made its way into the official discourse. In 2006, Aso, then the Japanese minister of foreign affairs, emphasized Japan’s “value-oriented diplomacy” and “the arc of freedom and prosperity.” It is no coincidence that today Japan has become a leading voice and arguably the most robust supporter of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) as a rules-based Indo-Pacific regional order.
Working toward greater institutionalization of the Quad and strengthening the Indo-Pacific are already in Japan’s key priorities, but Tokyo is also coming out in support of Taiwan, which was amply demonstrated in its defense paper. Japanese leadership has been consistently issuing statements that bear a direct reference to the security — or the lack of it — of Taiwan and the Taiwan Strait, as well as cross-strait relations.
Consider these: Japanese State Minister of Defense Yasuhide Nakayama recently hinted at the growing Chinese threat and its implications for Japan and the region, while Japanese Minister of Defense Nobuo Kishi directly referred to the importance of peace and stability of Taiwan for Japan. Aso went a step further and expressed Japan’s willingness to join US forces in the event of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan. He added that a Chinese attack on Taiwan might turn into an existential security threat for Japan.
That Japan is including Taiwan in its Indo-Pacific strategy and offering greater strategic clarity on this issue are also evident in the statements and developments coming out of Taiwan. Japan was the second country to donate vaccines to Taiwan when the latter faced a surge in the COVID-19 cases.
The white paper signals continuity and greater enthusiasm in Japan’s approach toward the Indo-Pacific region and its major stakeholders. It gives substantial importance to its allies and partners, especially the US. It is not something unusual considering that Washington is Tokyo’s most important strategic and defense partner.
China is covered extensively in the white paper, as are its recent aggressive moves. Japan has raised apprehensions about Beijing’s actions in the South and East China seas and the Southeast Asian region. China’s increasing militarization has become a major concern for Japan.
China’s People’s Liberation Army has the upper hand over many countries in the region and that is a cause for concern in Tokyo. The defense paper is an assessment of the rapidly changing strategic situation in the Indo-Pacific region. China is pushing Japan and other like-minded countries to form a coalition to address this issue. Japan is consistent in its objective of establishing a rules-based order.
While other countries keep changing their China policy based on how Beijing behaves toward them, Japan has shown great strategic maturity in dealing with China. It understands the reasons and resources behind China’s growing hegemonic ambitions. Japan is unlikely to change its China policy until it is assured its territorial integrity and sovereignty are unlikely to be compromised.
Japan has maintained this since the former administration of Abe, and the Suga administration is demonstrating continuity in Japan’s Indo-Pacific and China policy.
Japan’s more than 500-page white paper is another reminder of the grim strategic reality of the region. It highlights, yet again, that if major stakeholders in the Indo-Pacific region are interested in making the area robust and stronger, they have to work in tandem. This is crucial when the US-China rivalry is only becoming more bitter and intense, with Beijing showing no sign of willingness to improve ties with regional stakeholders.
The failed US-China talks in Alaska in March and in Tianjin last month clearly demonstrate that. They also signal that major Asian powers, such as Japan and India, have to devise their own policies and play a more proactive role in the region.
At the regional level, Japan is showing the way forward for other countries to form a more cohesive and uniform regional response to the uncertainties posed by China.
Rahul Mishra is a senior lecturer at the University of Malaya’s Asia-Europe Institute in Kuala Lumpur.
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