US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is greeted by Japanese Premier Fumio Kishida in Tokyo, August 5, 2022. Photo: Pool

US House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi was today in Japan, where she met Prime Minister Fumio Kishida on the final leg of her controversial Asia tour.

That controversy swiftly mutated into ongoing military tensions – though so far, it is not US assets that are in Chinese gunsights.

Ten Chinese ships and 20 warplanes today crossed the flashpoint Median Line in the Taiwan Strait, Taipei reported. Chinese forces are currently conducting live-fire exercises at six points around Taiwan; the drills will continue through August 7, according to reports in Taiwanese media.

Five test-fired Chinese ballistic missiles yesterday landed in Japan’s exclusive economic zone, a move that Japan’s conservative Sankei Shimbun newspaper claimed was likely a practice drill to take out Japanese defense radars.

“This is a grave issue that concerns our country’s national security and the safety of the people,” Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi told a press conference.

While the above makes for alarming news copy, it is important to point out that there have been no actual clashes, let alone fatalities, among Chinese or Taiwanese forces.

And Japan’s violated “exclusive economic zone” – a body which denotes sovereign rights to undersea resource extraction – extends a full 200 kilometers out from Japanese shores. The missiles apparently fell in waters off Hateruma Island, south of Okinawa and Japan’s southernmost inhabited point.

Unlike South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol, who declined to meet Pelosi when she flew into South Korea immediately after visiting Taiwan, Kishida deployed customary diplomatic niceties and typical Japanese politeness toward the visiting US House speaker.

“We confirmed that we will work together to make sure peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait are maintained,” Kishida told reporters after his meeting with Pelosi, according to Kyodo News Agency. “China’s behavior has a serious impact on the peace and stability of the region and the world and I explained that we called for an immediate halt to the [Chinese]  exercises.”

Pelosi has won plaudits among anti-China hawks, but has also earned condemnation from moderate voices for her Taiwan visit – a move that was guaranteed to raise Beijing’s ire.

“The Chinese made their strikes, probably using our visit as an excuse,” Pelosi admitted in a press conference in Japan. She added: “Our representation here is not about changing the status quo here in Asia.”

Perhaps not, but Pelosi’s flying visit has left dangerously roiled waters in her wake – waters that America’s regional allies are now forced to swim in.

For any Japanese premier – well armed with an increasingly muscular and expeditionary Maritime Self Defense Force, but hamstrung by a lack of political strategy or military doctrine toward Taiwan, and further trammeled by a Pacifist constitution and a public with little taste for military adventurism – cross-Strait tensions are an unwelcome conundrum.

China launched unprecedented missile tests around Taiwan in response to US House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Image: Twitter

America, Japan and China

In East Asia, Japan is the closest and most important US partner at a time when Washington is locked in a multi-faceted regional competition with Beijing.

While former US president Donald Trump considered America’s defense of Japan an expense for the US, its strategic geography makes it a hugely useful base for Washington.  

Some 50,000 GIs are garrisoned in Japan, and bases in Okinawa are strategically sited as jumping-off points for any defense of Taiwan. Japan is also well placed to monitor or interdict Chinese naval units moving into the open Pacific, and provides a de facto forward operating base for any echeloned defense of the US mainland – naval defense, air defense, missile defense.

The arrangement, of course, also offers huge benefits for the island nation: The 1960  Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security between the United States and Japan underwrites the country’s defense. And when it comes to cross-Pacific alignments, many in Kishida’s Liberal Democratic Party are, like Pelosi, wary of China’s rising power and sympathetic toward Taiwan.  

Yet no Japanese policymaker can ignore the fact that Japan Inc is deeply dependent upon China’s huge market.

According to Statista, in 2021, China took the single largest share of Japan’s exports, 21.6%, with Hong Kong taking another 4.7% for a combined total of 26%. By contrast, the United States took 17.9%.

Hence, Tokyo has little choice but to tread lightly around Beijing, which is why Tokyo’s posture on Taiwan is so ambiguous.

Kishida, who hails from Hiroshima, is a conviction anti-nuclear weapons politician. He is not seen as being nearly as hawkish as his predecessor, Yoshihide Suga, or Suga’s mentor, the late Shinzo Abe.

Yet growing tensions – which are stoking regional arms race – demand action.

Kishida has surprised some by promoting a rise in Japanese defense spending. Yesterday, the Defense Ministry proposed a record 5.5 trillion yen ($41 billion) budget for 2023. He has also spoken out strongly against Russia’s status-quo smashing invasion of Ukraine and its possible ramifications for the region – i.e., a possible Chinese storm upon Taiwan.

There is no indication that doomsday scenario is about to play out. But if Pelosi’s visit results in a long-term uptick in Taiwan Strait tensions, Kishida’s duties are not going to be made easier.

US Marines conduct a fire mission with a High Mobility Artillery Rocket System during an Expeditionary Advance Base Operation exercise at the Northern Training Area in Okinawa, Japan, on June 18, 2020. Photo: US Marine Corps / Corporal Donovan Massieperez

Tokyo’s Taiwan dilemma

Compared to Beijing’s cast-iron determination on the Taiwan question, Tokyo is torn over what – if anything – to do. It is a gnawing political dilemma.    

“Perceived weakness over China’s incursions towards the [disputed] Senkaku Islands was used as a cudgel against the Democratic Party of Japan government in 2010-2012, and the hypothetical fall of Taiwan would be even more damaging to whichever government is at the helm,” wrote researcher Paul Nadeau in an August 5 analysis for Tokyo Review. 

“A slow, incremental process of Chinese coercion toward Taiwan would become a political nightmare scenario, with a slow-burning habitual crisis smoldering within sight of Japan – a crisis to which no easy or decisive solution is available.”

Divisions in public thought on the matter reflect the ambiguous political posture toward the Taiwan issue.

“There’s clearly an unmet demand among the public to support Taiwan, but they would still be extremely uncomfortable with direct military involvement, and many would insist on a nonviolent response regardless of the circumstances,” Nadeau, a researcher at the University of Tokyo’s Institute for Future Initiatives, added.

Japan’s 2021 Defense White Paper, with its cover illustration of a grim samurai horseman, made headlines simply by mentioning the Taiwan issue. At the same Abe – by then, freed from the premiership and so able to speak his mind – and other hawks were agitating for Japan to take a stance in the defense of its former colony.

Experts believe options include opening military channels of communication between Tokyo and Taipei; establishing official liaison/support arrangements in Japan for US forces who might intervene in any Taiwan crisis; or permitting US forces to drill – even, perhaps, conduct joint drills – on Japanese territories closest to Taiwan.  

Those are all big “ifs.” In reality, Japan’s ambiguous policy reflects two opposed public views that Tokyo’s leadership must take into account.

“One [view] is that Japan should strengthen its security ties and at least start a formal security dialogue with Taiwan,” University of Tokyo professor of international politics Yasuhiro Matsuda said in a December 2021 interview.

“The other is that Japan would continue to recognize China’s position that Taiwan is an inalienable part of China…. since Japan has fully understood and respected China’s position, it should avoid any kind of formal security ties with Taiwan.”

And it is not just Taiwan. Chinese actions are, at least in one respect, driving Japanese opinion in a more hawkish direction.  

“As long as China continues to send ships into the waters surrounding the Senkaku Islands and exerts military pressure on Taiwan, Japan’s stern position toward China and support for Taiwan will remain the same,” reckoned Matsuda.

But he suggested the status quo will continue: “Nevertheless, it is unlikely that Japan and Taiwan will reach new heights in security cooperation.”

Perhaps not – but Matsuda was speaking months before Pelosi’s Taiwan visit and the current brouhaha.

Now, Chinese academics in Beijing have fretted to Kyodo News that the tensions could add momentum to an ongoing movement within Japan’s right-wing to revise the pacifist national constitution – albeit, “within a decade.”

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