Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Why Japan Needs to Talk to Taiwan
Why Japan Needs to Talk to Taiwan

Why Japan Needs to Talk to Taiwan

With China’s 20th National Congress approaching, Xi Jinping is expected to extend his tenure by another five years, making him the country’s most powerful leader since Mao Zedong. Xi has stated that he will pursue reunification by 2049 as part of his vision for Chinese “rejuvenation.” If Xi achieves a third term, the question will likely no longer be if China will invade Taiwan, but when. Taiwan will need foreign support to enhance its self defense capabilities–it is time for Japan to join the United States in defending a fellow liberal democracy from Chinese expansionism.

Although Japan has committed itself to promoting “a free and open Indo-Pacific,” it has not clarified whether it would provide aid to Taiwan in the event of a Chinese attack. As a close neighbor of Taiwan, Japan is vulnerable to any Chinese attacks in the East China Sea. Moreover, Japan’s close military ties with the United States will likely implicate Tokyo in any conflict with Beijing. Thus, it is becoming increasingly clear that “Taiwan’s problem is also Japan’s problem.”

Japan should work with the United States and Taiwan to deter a Chinese attack on Taiwan and prepare a joint military response. However, this is easier said than done. While the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act permits the United States to support Taiwan’s military, no such law exists for Japan, making Japanese-Taiwanese military collaboration extremely difficult. With the growing threat of an attack from mainland China, Japan must find ways to conduct military coordination with Taiwan under existing policy limitations.

The Global Cooperation Training Framework (GCTF)—which consists of four core members, the United States, Taiwan, Japan, and Australia—provides one potential avenue for Japanese-Taiwanese military coordination. GCTF is a platform that encourages information-sharing and inter-state collaboration on humanitarian issues such as humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, women’s rights, public health, media literacy, and clean energy. By collaborating on humanitarian assistance and disaster relief efforts, Japan and Taiwan can more closely align their militaries and practice joint exercises without major policy changes that would alarm Beijing.

Japan Won’t Be Able to Stay Out of a Chinese War on Taiwan

Chinese attacks on Taiwan may also encroach on Japanese territory. Japan’s westernmost island, Yonagunijima, lies only 111 kilometers off Taiwan’s eastern shore. Thus, on August 4, 2022 the People’s Liberation Army launched “precision missile strikes” around Taiwan, five of which landed in Japan’s Exclusive Economic Zone. After the exercise, the People’s Liberation Army announced that “all missiles hit the target accurately,” suggesting that China may have intentionally targeted Japanese waters. Whether Japan becomes a direct target of Chinese attacks or is simply caught in the crossfire, a China-Taiwan conflict will inevitably threaten Japanese territory.

Second, the US Forces Japan, which consists of approximately 54,000 military personnel and forty bases throughout Japan, constitute an American stronghold in the Indo-Pacific. If China were to invade Taiwan and the United States decided to intervene militarily, Washingtons would require immediate access to these troops and bases to support Taiwan. A 1960 agreement states that the United States will engage in “prior consultation” with Japan before deploying US Forces Japan for regional combat operations. However, as the hub for US forces in the region, it will be difficult for Japan to deny the United States access. On another note, US Forces Japan bases could become a target of Chinese attacks, endangering mainland Japan.

Current Stance on Military Coordination

Unlike the United States, Japan does not support Taiwanese self-defense through arms sales. Additionally, Japan lacks any legal framework for future military collaboration with Taiwan. Since 1972, Japan has not recognized the Republic of China in Taiwan as a legitimate government. Japan’s official policy towards Taiwan is one of “working relations on a nongovernmental basis.” This approach makes it nearly impossible for Japan to coordinate a military response with Taiwan. On June 4, 2022, Japan decided to send its first ever active-duty military attaché to its representative office in Taiwan. Before this decision, Japan had only stationed retired military officers in Taipei. Although strategic ambiguity may have saved Japan from direct conflict with China on the question of Taiwan, it will not protect Japan from being caught in the crossfire of war.

Still, Japan can coordinate militarily with the United States and Taiwan without major, overt policy changes. To avoid aggravating tensions with mainland China, Tokyo’s military coordination with Taipei must be low-profile and involve no major policy changes. The GCTF  provides an existing communication channel that could be used for military coordination. GCTF was established by the United States and Taiwan in 2015, with the goal of “utiliz[ing] Taiwan’s strengths and expertise to address global issues of mutual concern.” Since 2015, Japan and Australia have joined GCTF as core partners and 108 countries have participated in GCTF workshops. Though the framework was initially intended for humanitarian uses, it could be for military coordination. Under the name of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief planning, the United States, Japan, and Taiwan can conduct joint military exercises without alarming Beijing.

Many countries in the Indo-Pacific are particularly prone to natural disasters such as earthquakes. Thus, a core focus of GCTF is on “developing disaster management practices and building a culture of disaster preparedness”. In October 2020, a study by the Global Taiwan Institute encouraged Taiwan and the United States to “undertake a plan to continue and enhance their sharing of ideas and information on emergency management to the benefit of both countries.” The study mentions using GCTF to coordinate disaster management and suggests in-person site visits to “conduct in depth discussions for mutual learning.” These recommendations can also apply to Japan, another core GCTF member.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.

Update: This article has been updated from its original version.