Taiwan is where Japan draws the line

Tokyo Review
Date: July 25, 2020
By: Andrea A. Fischetti and Antoine Roth

Welcome to installment XIX (July 2020) of Sino-Japanese Review, a monthly column on major developments in relations between China and Japan that provides a running commentary on the evolution of this important relationship and helps to put current events in perspective. Previous installments may be found here.

Japan’s foreign policy operates under a dualism when it comes to China. Tokyo has recognized the need to build some semblance of diplomatic comity while at the same time firmly opposing China’s maritime advances. In official exchanges, more emphasis has been placed on mutual gains, especially economic ones, rather than on confrontation. Yet Tokyo has never softened its stance when it comes to security disputes or geopolitical competition. 

As we noted in our last column, China’s imposition of a harsh new national security law on Hong Kong does not yet appear to have derailed Japan’s dual track approach. However, as China seeks to strangle the pro-democracy movement in the once semi-autonomous city, fears are rising that Taiwan will be the next target of Beijing’s belligerence. If China were to try and force reunification on the island, Japan’s reaction would certainly be more vocal.  Unlike Hong Kong, whose fate does not directly affect Japan’s security interests, Taiwan is indeed considered a crucial national defense matter.  A crisis surrounding the island would probably push Japan to switch forcefully toward confrontation in its relations with Beijing.

Unlike Hong Kong, Taiwan is considered a crucial national defense matter

Historically, Japan’s official position on Taiwan has been much less clear than the American one. Unlike Washington, Tokyo never explicitly endorsed the “one China principle”. In the first official diplomatic document between the PRC and Japan – the joint communique of 1972, the latter only expressed its “full understanding and respect” for China’s position. That stance was never altered, and Taiwan repeatedly arose as a topic of contention in the post Cold War era when Japan and the U.S. sought to redefine the scope of their security cooperation.

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