Japanese marines on the march. The rise of the Japan Innovation Party adds muscle to the right wing in the Diet – which could lead to an increased national focus on the military. Photo: AFP / Richard Atrero de Guzman / NurPhoto

“The Chinese people will never allow any outside forces to bully, oppress or enslave us,” President Xi Jinping declared to roaring crowds in Beijing on Thursday, the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party.

In an address overflown by warplanes, including stealth fighters, Xi continued, “Anyone who tries to do so will be crushed to death before the Great Wall of steel built with the flesh and blood of over 1.4 billion Chinese people.”

Predictably, Xi restated the CCP’s long-held ambitions for the “complete reunification of the motherland” – vowing to crush anyone who opposed unification with Taiwan.

The island is a hyper-sensitive issue for Beijing.

In 1948, the Nationalist forces of Chiang Kai-shek, having fought and lost the Chinese Civil War to Mao Zedong’s communists, retreated to the island. The island has since become a full-fledged democracy, but remains a flashpoint in regional relations.

Xi’s strong words were likely aimed – at least in part – toward Japan, for high-profile figures in Tokyo have in recent weeks been talking up support for Taipei.

The latest to raise Beijing’s hackles is Deputy Defense Minister Yashuhide Nakayama.

Speaking to conservative US think tank the Hudson Institute on June 28, Nakayama said, “We have to protect Taiwan as a democratic country.”

Referring to the fact that, during the Cold War, the wider world had accepted that Taiwan would eventually be reunited with mainland China, he pondered, “Was it right? … I don’t know.”

Crowds gather to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party at Tiananmen Square in Beijing on July 1. Photo: AFP / The Yomiuri Shimbun / Koki Kataoka

Beijing lost no time in shooting back.

“We deplore the erroneous remarks by the senior official of the Japanese government, and we have lodged solemn representations,” said Beijing’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin. “This is highly sinister, dangerous and irresponsible. ”

Under Beijing’s “One China” policy, Taiwan is a renegade province, not a country. In this vein, Wang said, “This politician also openly called Taiwan a country.”

 Wang called that statement a serious violation of Beijing-Tokyo agreements.

In Japan, Nakayama – who also warned his US audience of a somewhat improbable joint China-Russian attack on Pearl Harbor – is seen as something of a loose cannon. But from Beijing’s perspective, a worrisome pattern may appear to be forming.

Earlier in June, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga called Taiwan a “country” while referring to nations, including Australia and New Zealand, that had taken strict action in combating Covid-19.

That short reference also drew a diplomatic protest from Beijing. But while Chinese officialdom may be shaking with anger, it should not be shivering in its boots.

Few believe that these statements represent actual policy direction for Tokyo. Moreover, even if Japanese officials talk the talk, their country is unprepared to walk the walk. Tokyo is neither constitutionally, politically or strategically postured to defend Taiwan.

Chinese President Xi Jinping, on screen, delivers a speech during the celebrations of the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Communist Party of China at Tiananmen Square in Beijing on July 1. Photo: AFP / Wang Zhao

Hereditary politician, loose cannon

Nakayama dwells on the right, but not the extreme right, of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) – a machine that is largely conservative but has historically encompassed a broad range of political opinion.

Nakayama springs from a political dynasty, like several key LDP players, including former prime minister Shinzo Abe and Nakayama’s current boss, Defense Secretary Nobuo Kishi. Abe and Kishi are both descended from a key player in Japan’s conquest of Manchuria who was accused but not found guilty of war crimes.

His grandmother was Japan’s first female minister, while his uncle was a foreign minister who was highly regarded and wielded real clout.

In the Judeo-Christian-inspired democracies of the West, the sons are not blamed for the sins of the fathers. Matters are different in the East. In South Korea, which was colonized by Japan between 1910-1945, Abe’s image as prime minister was battered by his association with his maternal grandfather.

“In Japan they have these districts where they elect members and then elect sons of members so it feels almost like a feudal domain,” said Shin Hee-seok, a South Korean legal expert at Seoul’s Yonsei University who is campaigning to put the “comfort women’ issue before the International Court of Justice. “We are a Confucian culture, so family and heritage matters a lot.”

Following Beijing’s complaint about Nakayama’s statements, Tokyo’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato said he believed Nakayama was simply delivering his personal views.

That may sound like Tokyo is flying diplomatic cover. The LDP has gained notoriety for its two-faced approach to political and historical issues.

In neighboring South Korea, many are unwilling to accept Japan’s official apologies and remuneration due to contradictory actions such as the whitewashing of school textbooks and politicians’ visits to Yasukuni Shrine, where Japan’s millions of war dead – including war criminals – are commemorated. 

Japanese politicians’ visits to the Yasukuni Shrine still rankle in Korea. Photo: Tom Coyner

Adding to the distrust is Japan’s legalistic approach.

“These things are emotional, but Japanese are legalistic,” said Shin. “There are these technicalities that they say means Japan did not commit war crimes… that is the unspoken stance of the Japanese government.”

Even so in Nakayama’s case, Tokyo may have been playing it straight. He has spoken out of school before.

In May, overlooking Japan’s official policy of neutrality between Israel and Palestine, he took to Twitter to call Palestinian militants “terrorists,” further stating that “our hearts are with Israel.”

Following a diplomatic uproar and questions in the Diet, Nakayama deleted his tweet. For these reasons, pundits were prepared to give Tokyo a pass on Nakayama’s statements.

“I would say there is no deep meaning in this,” said Tosh Minohara, chairman of Japan’s Research Institute for Indo-Pacific Affairs. He noted that in the subsequent brouhaha, a senior official had appeared on state broadcaster NHK saying policy is not to work just with the US, but also to work with China.

“It is quite a common technique that Japanese officials use to obfuscate,” added Alex Neill, a security consultant based in Singapore. “Speaking at a think tank and stating that it was in a personal capacity gives cover for possible policy indicators.”

Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato believes Yashuhide Nakayama was speaking in a personal capacity. Photo: AFP / The Yomiuri Shimbun / Masanori Genko

Yet even hardcore hawks on the Taiwan issue are not convinced that Nakayama’s words are a policy indicator – nor that it represents mainstream political opinion.

Grant Newsham, a retired US Marine colonel who was formerly a US liaison officer in Tokyo, called Nakayama’s statement “terribly significant” and praised him for using “language that was unusually direct for a Japanese official.”

But Newsham accepted that Nakayama represents  “a minority of the LDP that realizes Japan needs to do more, defense-wise, and that understands how important Taiwan is.”   

Moreover,  U-turns are not a customary feature of Japanese politics.

“He represents just one chunk of the political class,” Newsham said. “They have their position, and he stated it very clearly – but I don’t know that in Japan you get sea changes.”

What, then of Prime Minister’s Suga’s statement just weeks earlier?

Given that it was made in the context of a list of countries, and was not part of a strategic discussion, it was “most probably a slip of the tongue,” said Haruko Satoh of the Osaka School of International Public Policy.

China’s first modern military attack helicopter, the Z-10. Sources say a massive new helicopter base threatens Taiwan and US forces in the region. Credit: PLAAF.

Even so, both Satoh and Minohara believe Nakayama personally believes in what he said. And Japan’s defense establishment, led by Kishi and Nakayama, is pushing for a more hawkish policy, such as the recent decision to lift defense spending above the customary 1% of GDP.

But they are not the only players in town.

LDP divided

A policy cleavage exists between factions of the LDP – those who are hawkish and those who are dovish toward Beijing. And Tokyo has long been compelled to walk a tightrope between Washington and Beijing, taking care not to seriously irk either its only ally or its leading trade partner.

Still, many believe that the current leadership of the party, backed by the nationwide force of Nihon Kagi (“Japan Conference”) which unites nationalists in all fields – politics, business, defense and academia – has swung too far into the blue.

The rightward swift happened under the stewardship of Abe, whose second term as prime minister ran from 2012-2020, and has continued under his protege, Suga.

“I think Japan is in a difficult place at the moment, and this has to do with the internal dynamics of the LDP,’ said Satoh. “There are more moderate people, who are not necessarily security dunces, who were sidelined under Abe.”

Former Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe dragged the LDP rightward. Photo: AFP / Yomiuri Shimbun

The so-called “iron triangle” of vested interests – business, the bureaucracy and politics – that had been the key to managing the hugely successful Japan of the 1970s and 80s has largely been dismantled, Satoh said. But there remains intra-party friction between ideologues and pragmatic middle-of-the-roaders.

 “The main thing we need to focus on is how the LDP regenerates itself as the broad church that it used to be,” she said.

But even those critical of the LDP’s rightward swing believe Japan’s China policy needs a public airing.

“Japan’s stance toward China is obviously opaque. It is not based on the values stuff that the Western governments sign on to,” Satoh said.

“Given the salami-slicing tactics of China in spreading its influence in other countries, we can go to some extent in defending China’s concerns vis a vis the harsh rhetoric of the West but I think Japan needs to make clear that it can’t mess with democracies.”

Tokyo-Taipei lovefest

Any policy clarity is still in the future. But in the public sphere, China’s ongoing crackdown in Hong Kong has won few fans in Japan, and beyond the corridors of power sentiment leans heavily toward Taiwan.

“I would say Taiwan is Japan’s only genuine friend in Asia,” said Minohara. “That is not public diplomacy, that is the colonial legacy.”

While Japan’s 1910-45 colonization of Korea is widely painted as the worst disaster in Korean history, and Tokyo’s murderous 1937-45 war of conquest  in China is remembered with fury, there are unusual (perhaps unique) positive colonial memories in Taiwan.

“When I am with Japanese and Taiwanese, Japanese say, ‘We did so much for you,’” Minohara said. “And the Taiwanese respond, ‘That is right. You did so much.”

Minohara noted that when he visits colleagues in Taipei, they are proud to show relics of the colonial past – a stark contrast to South Korea, where most have been bulldozed.

Much of Taiwanese goodwill is seen as a backlash against the occupation by Chiang’s forces, who behaved with brutality toward the local population while establishing their governance over the island.

Meanwhile, Japanese culture – both traditional and popular – is wildly popular in Taiwan. Moreover, the two countries support each other during natural disasters, with Tokyo sending mass shipments of Covid-19 vaccines to Taipei.

“Japanese see Taiwanese in a very positive light, like brothers,” Minohara said. “We should not underestimate public support for Taiwan.”

He noted that a recent slogan of uncertain origins –“War in Taiwan is Japan’s war” (it is catchier in Japanese) – is being widely aired.  “This is new, I see it a lot in the press,” he said. “It is slowly molding Japan.”

Yet if the nightmare scenario – a Chinese assault on Taiwan – did eventuate, Japan is in no military position to intervene.

Soldiers wearing face masks to guard against Covid-19 listen to an address by Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen during her visit to a military base in Tainan, southern Taiwan, on April 9. Photo: AFP / Sam Yeh

There is no question but that Japan is a critical US ally.

Courtesy of its offshore position in the Western Pacific, and its first island chain, it is perfectly positioned to both monitor and counter the naval outreach of continental power China – the US’s top strategic rival. It also provides an “unsinkable aircraft carrier” for US forces in the region.

However, unlike US allies such as the UK, Australia, France, NATO countries and South Korea, post-1945 Japan has never fought a battle alongside GIs. It is an ally that has never been tested, and that is where the doubt is,” said Minohara.

Experts point to the Self Defense Force’s problems with recruitment and its weakness at joint operations.

Minohara also pointed to a recent political irony. “During the Cold War, Japan bitched and moaned about being dragged into a war with the USSR,” he said. “Now Japan is asking whether America will protect us.”

When it comes to use of force, Tokyo is walled in by two factors: A population with no appetite for military adventures and constitutional constraints. Abe, despite his long-term and considerable political capital, was unable to ditch Japan’s peace constitution.

Only in “a situation in which the fate of the nation is at stake can Japan can take action without direct attack,” said Minohara, citing a minor constitutional revision Abe achieved in 2015.

Though that is subject to prime ministerial interpretation, it seems unlikely that Chinese pressure on Taiwan would put Japan’s national fate at stake.

Given all these liabilities, it is important to differentiate between Tokyo’s talk and its walk. One under-reported aspect of Nakayama’s comments at Hudson was his inability, on the day, to back up his position with actual policy recommendations.

A fighter jet taxis at a military airport in south China. China is threatening Taiwan but has not carried out the military exercises needed for invasion planning. Photo; Chinese military / Fan Yishu

When his US interlocutor asked the Japanese official “to say some concrete things on how to do it,” he got no response, Newsham recalled. “This has not translated into action,” the ex-Marine continued. “Japan is talking tough, but has a ways to go.”

Case in point: Newsham cited a recent refusal by the Japanese Diet to pass a resolution condemning Chinese human rights violations.

Still, Japan and Taiwan are both facing increasing Chinese pressure, with Beijing’s warplanes probing the blind spots between Taiwan and Japan’s southern Ryukyu chain.

Are these provocations emblematic of a more forceful Chinese posture – perhaps preceding the nightmare scenario being discussed with considerable hysteria in multiple forums: An all-out Chinese storm on Taiwan?

Security pros see no imminent threat.

“China has dialed up the number of incursions and intimidation tactics, with a record number of bombers and fighters a few weeks ago, but that is just what it is: an irritant,” said Neill, an expert on China’s People’s Liberation Army. “It does not necessarily demonstrate a strategic Chinese capability to take over the island.”

Amphibious and airborne operations are high risk. By the time the Western Allies undertook the greatest amphibious invasions of World War II – Normandy and Okinawa – they had built wide experience with combined operations, from the Mediterranean to the Pacific.

China lacks any such experience and is not drilling the required capabilities.

“What we have not seen is large-scale joint capabilities being exercised, doing scenarios related to Taiwan,” Neill said. Those scenarios would need to combine command and control, naval, marine, airborne, ballistic missile and cyber assets.

Currently heated sensitivities over Taiwan stem from both Beijing’s and Washington’s postures, Neill said.

“I think it is broadly indicative of the ratcheted pressure on Taiwan by the Biden administration,  a continuation of what the Trump administration did,” he said. “I think China is incensed that there is bipartisan unity of vision on this.”

US military F-16s prepare for takeoff at Kadena Air Base on Okinawa. Credit: Deana Heitzman, USAF.

Non-kinetic steps

Given the multiple restraints on Tokyo, what non-kinetic steps could it and Washington feasibly take to pressure an assertive China?

Neill suggests a legal-logistical agreement that would grant US troops in Japan depot and logistical facilities to intervene in Taiwan, and offer Taiwanese assets access to US bases in Japan.

A model exists: The multinational US-led UN Command, designed to defend South Korea has legal and logistical agreements with Japan, as well as depots in the country.

Newsham believes such an arrangement would be too politically aggressive, as well as being complicated and largely unnecessary.

Tactically, he suggested expanding interoperability between Japan’s Maritime Self Defense Force – which boasts world-class anti-mine, submarine, anti-submarine and surface combat capabilities – with the US 7th Fleet.

In terms of command and control, he suggested the establishment of a joint headquarters in the Ryukyu Islands. That would plan the defense of Japan’s southern islands, and could extend to cover Taiwan.

“That is something you could do in a weekend if you put some captains and majors on to it,” he said. “Just take existing resources and reorganize them a bit.”

As Japan’s defense posture stands currently, “I doubt the Chinese are sweating too much,” Newsham said. “But if they had a joint HQ, they would have to take it seriously.”