Japanese Special Defense Force personnel marched in a parade in Asaka, Japan, in a file photo. Their role in any Taiwan Straits crisis is unknown. Image: AFP Forum via EPA

At a time when geopolitical storms are hammering Taiwan’s coast, Japan’s senior national security official met his Chinese opposite number for seven hours of talks in the Chinese city of Tianjin on Wednesday (August 17), Japan’s Kyodo News Wire reported.

The development comes amid a newly activist US stance on Taiwan, with two groups of US congresspersons – the first led by high-visibility House Speaker Nancy Pelosi – visiting the island. Today, bilateral talks got underway to upgrade Taiwan-US trade.

The US Congressional members’ maneuvers have hugely agitated China, which initiated blockade drills around the island.

Not only did the drills generate regional tensions, but they also presented America’s Northeast Asian allies Japan and South Korea, which are beholden to trade with China, with a wicked conundrum: Which way to jump on Taiwan – and how far?

Pow-wow in Tianjin

Yesterday’s meeting in Tianjin appears to have been a diplomatic initiative to defuse Beijing-Tokyo tensions. As part of Beijing’s Taiwan drills, test-fired Chinese missiles landed in Japan’s Economic Exclusion Zone.

According to Kyodo News, in seven hours of talks, Takeo Akiba, secretary general of Japan’s National Security Secretariat, protested to China’s foreign policy chief Yang Jiechi about the drills.

Yang, a member of the Chinese Communist Party’s Politburo, reportedly responded sternly. The Taiwan issue impacts “the political foundation of China-Japan relations and the basic trust and good faith between the two countries,” he told Akiba, according to Kyodo.

Yang also talked of the need to “eliminate internal and external interference, and work together to build a China-Japan relationship that meets the requirements of the new era.”

Beijing had canceled an earlier foreign ministers’ meeting with Japan set for August 4 after Japan criticized Beijing’s military drills around Taiwan.

By some readings, the Tianjin meeting indicates diplomatic waters are calmer now. A Japanese official told Kyodo that Akiba and Yang agreed that “multilayered communications” are needed going forward.

Perhaps ironically, this year marks the 50th anniversary of Beijing-Tokyo diplomatic ties, and the 30th anniversary of Beijing-Seoul relations. But Seoul and Tokyo have different postures toward Taiwan and toward China.

Both South Korea and Japan have separate security alliances with the US. And both countries also count China as their primary export consumer, albeit Korea is more exposed.

According to Santander, China (including Hong Kong) took 31.9% of South Korea’s exports in 2020 while the US consumed just 14.5%. In the same year. China (including Hong Kong) received 27% of Japan’s 2020 exports, while the US took 18.5%.

South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol declined to meet Pelosi, who arrived in his country immediately after visiting Taiwan, and just prior to a previously-agreed meeting in Qingdao between the Chinese and South Korean foreign ministers.

That apparent snub sent some global commentator’s eyebrows northward. An op-ed in The Hill, a specialist US political newspaper, “A sad reality of Pelosi’s visit: South Korean won’t help defend Taiwan” expressed shock that US ally Seoul evinces no interest in being dragged into a cross-Straits crisis.

That should have surprised nobody. South Korea is acutely sensitive to China’s political and economic heft and supports Beijing’s “One China” policy.

Since its bloody engagement in the Vietnam War, Seoul’s military has restricted its overseas military activities to non-kinetic operations while keeping the bulk of its forces deployed against North Korea. It has no doctrine in place for any defense of Taiwan, nor is there any community of politicians or defense pros arguing for a more robust stance.

The Seoul-Taipei relationship could not be described as tight. Seoul’s abrupt rupturing of official diplomatic ties in 1992, in favor of diplomatic recognition of China, generated bitterness in Taipei that festered for years.

There are, to this day, no especially amicable political connectivities despite the presence of a Seoul-Taipei congressional discussion group.

Taiwanese soldiers on an armored vehicle in Taipei during the National Day celebration. Photo: AFP / Ceng Shou Yi / NurPhoto

Compare and contrast that with Japan.

Unlike Yoon, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida met with Pelosi – reflective, perhaps of the fact that across Japan there is considerable public sympathy for Taiwan, a former colony. Not only are people-to-people and cultural exchanges thriving, but Japanese defense hawks, including sitting lawmakers, continue to agitate in favor of Taiwan.

A bipartisan group of Japanese parliamentarians, the Japan-ROC Diet Members Consultative Council, seeks to advance relations with Taiwan and includes a number of heavy hitters.

Defying current tensions, the group’s chairman, Keiji Furuya, plans a three-day visit to the island next week – the first such visit since 2020, Japanese media report. Sources said he told media that the visit would reaffirm the strength of ties despite the recent death of ex-Japanee Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, the group’s most prominent member.

Even so, Tokyo, disinclined to military adventurism and acutely aware of China’s economic significance, maintains an acute degree of strategic ambiguity over all matters related to Japan’s role in any defense of Taiwan in the event China were to launch an attack.

Strategic ambiguity

Even the conservative ruling Liberal Democratic Party is torn. Prime Minister Kishida was widely seen as less hawkish than his two predecessors when he took office but has proven tougher than expected.

He has signaled a major increase in defense spending, inked defense deals with European and Indo-Pacific nations, talked up the “Quad” and repeatedly said that “Ukraine today could be East Asia tomorrow.” In his keynote address at this year’s Shangri-La Forum, Kishida said, “Peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait….is [of] extreme importance.”

His foreign minister, Yoshimasa Hayashi, is widely seen as a China dove and Kishida replaced hawkish former Defense Minister Nobuo Kishida – a notable pro-Taiwan voice – this month. But his new Economic Security Minister Sanae Takaichi is a known hardliner.

And in the days around August 15, the anniversary of Japan’s 1945 surrender, three of Kishida’s cabinet members – Takaichi as well as the minister of reconstruction and minister of trade, economy and industry – paid respects at the controversial Yasukuni Shrine. There, Japan’s millions of war dead, including a handful of war criminals, are enshrined.

Despite firebombing Tokyo and dropping two atomic bombs on Japan, the US is today a staunch ally. For decades, it has guaranteed Japan’s security.

Some 50,000 US troops based in Japan and Okinawa would be key players in the event China and the US ever clashed over Taiwan. And in recent years, Japan has been quietly building up over-the-horizon capabilities – notably the conversion of helicopter carriers to light aircraft carriers and the standing up of marine units.

But it is far from clear what role Japanese troops would play, not just in combat, but even in assisting the Americans – with approvals to base operations from Japanese soil or even with logistics, medical and other backup support.

Though a 2014 revision to Japan’s US-penned Pacifist Constitution enables the “collective defense” support of allies if they are attacked, Taiwan was only mentioned in Japan’s Defense White Paper for the first time in 2021.

If China restricted its hypothetical attack on Taiwan and did not strike any Japanese territories or assets, Tokyo’s response would be problematized and Beijing most certainly knows this.

Even Japan’s pollsters tie themselves in knots over the Taiwan question.

A 2021 poll found that 74% of Japanese support “engagement toward stability in the Taiwan Strait.” What that means is likely to have even the most experienced military men scratching their heads.

However, the Japan-based GIs place Tokyo in a ticklish ethical position. Not only are they pre-positioned for regional crises, they also provide a security guarantee for Japanese territory: The Tokyo-administered, Beijing-claimed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands.

Soldiers of the 74th Army Group of the People’s Liberation Army take part in a battle drill in a coastal area of Guangdong province on June 1, 2020. Photo: Xinhua

Japan’s dilemma

All this makes US-provoked Taiwan tensions a thumping headache for Tokyo’s power players and opinion formers.

Despite Yang’s warning linking Taiwan to the “credibility” of China-Japan relations, the right-wing Sankei Shimbun, in a report on the Taiwan meeting, suggested that Beijing feels compelled to be restrained in its approach toward Tokyo

“China is increasingly opposed to Japan’s increasing pressure on China in cooperation with the United States and its increasing involvement in the Taiwan issue,” the newspaper wrote. “On the other hand, given that the US-China confrontation is expected to continue for a long time, it has also shown a willingness to control its relationship with Japan so that it does not deteriorate too much.”

That is one view. But behind closed Tokyo doors, there is probably a “limit to the elasticity” of Japanese tolerance for American plays in Taiwan, one expert opined.

“There are so-called pro-Chinese factions in the LDP and many of them will be lobbying to not rock the boat too hard,” said Alex Neill, a Singapore-based security consultant. “Japan has quite rightly assessed that Taiwan is a national security issue but there would be alarm if the boat is rocked much further.”

The center-left Mainichi Shimbun fretted that “the struggle for supremacy between the US and China is shaking the foundations of [regional] prosperity” and warned that Japan is in a particularly tricky position, “as the Japan-US alliance serves as the axis of Japanese foreign policy.”

Given a widely anticipated continued rise of Chinese power, the newspaper suggested Tokyo adopt a more expansive foreign policy. “As the United States’ power is becoming less robust, Japan is urged to adopt an omnidirectional diplomacy as its own national power wanes” – one that would encompass the US, Europe and the rest of Asia.

That latter suggestion may, in fact, have been pre-empted by reality: Kishida has inked defense deals with Australia, Thailand and the UK.

But for now, it is unclear what foundation the Tianjin meeting has laid in terms of resolving crises.

“China and its might is a permanent fixture in Japan’s back door and the need for keeping channels open is a token gesture: You have to establish what it actually means,” Neill said. “Does the Japanese NSA have somebody in the Chinese politburo on speed dial, or is it a perfunctory hotline?”

Still, Neill guessed that in Tianjin Japan may have pre-positioned itself as a possible go-between.

“The question of keeping lines of communications open at a time when China has said it had cut off communications with the US underlines Japan’s role in brokering dialogue in times of tensions,” he said.

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