TOKYO – Japan prefers a peaceful solution to tensions around the Taiwan Strait but will still defend Taiwan if a Chinese invasion of the island threatens Japan’s security, Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso said on Tuesday (July 6).
Japan’s No 2 politician was speaking to reporters a day after he told a lecture on Monday that Japan must defend Taiwan with the United States.
“If Taiwan falls, Okinawa will be next. We must think about this seriously, and steadfastly prepare our defence capabilities,” Mr Aso had said on Monday, citing the “direct existential threat” to Japan’s security.
Taiwan is just 110km off the coast from Japan’s westernmost point on Yonaguni.
Mr Aso, who sits on the National Security Council, toned down his hawkish language on Tuesday, but said that all options – including exercising the right of “collective self-defence”- are on the table in Japan’s scenario planning.
His remarks, however, set off a firestorm in China.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian told a regular news conference on Tuesday that Mr Aso’s remarks “harmed the political foundation of China-Japan relations”, and China “resolutely opposed” them.
“No one should underestimate the Chinese people’s staunch resolve, firm will, and formidable ability to defend national sovereignty,” he said.
China’s Taiwan Affairs Office (TAO) slammed what it called repeated false statements by Japanese politicians that violate Tokyo’s political commitment to Beijing.
“We urge the Japanese side to deeply reflect on history, immediately correct its mistakes, take practical actions to adhere to the one-China principle… be cautious in its words and deeds on the Taiwan issue, and stop all Taiwan-related mistakes,” said TAO spokesman Zhu Fenglian.
Mr Aso is the highest-level Japanese politician to have made an explicit commitment to Taiwan’s defence.
His remarks came after Chinese President Xi Jinping said at the centenary celebrations of the Communist Party of China last Friday that the reunification of Taiwan – which Beijing regards as a renegade breakaway province – was the “unshakeable commitment” of the party.
Mr Aso had said that Japan may exercise the right of “collective self-defence” under the 2015 reinterpretation of its war-renouncing Constitution, which allows the military to go to the aid of friendly forces under an attack that threatens its own national safety.
Defence Minister Nobuo Kishi stressed on Tuesday that what constituted an “existential crisis” to Japan would be “comprehensively judged”, implying that Mr Aso’s remarks over Taiwan’s defence were in line with government policy.
Geopolitical tensions are heightening in a game of chicken. China has flown fighter jets into Taiwan’s air space, and sailed ships through the Miyako Strait en route to the Pacific Ocean.
Japan has been fortifying Okinawa with new military bases, radars and warships. The Financial Times has reported that the US and Japan have been discreetly engaging in war games to prepare for a Taiwan contingency.
Japan’s defence ministry will likely adopt language about Taiwan’s security for the first time in its annual defence white paper, which is slated to be passed by the Cabinet this month.
Mr Kishi has vowed to lift the unofficial ceiling on defence spending – at one per cent of gross domestic product – in recognition of the perceived Chinese threat.
Mr Aso’s comments follow remarks made by State Minister for Defence Yasuhide Nakayama last week to the US-based Hudson Institute think-tank.
Mr Nakayama said that the world must “wake up” to Chinese pressure on Taiwan and protect the island “as a democratic country”.
He is the second Japanese politician to have referred to Taiwan as a “country” in recent months, after Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga angered China when he appeared to have slipped up in collectively referring to Taiwan, Australia and New Zealand as “countries” with strong Covid-19 curbs.
This is diplomatically sensitive, given that Tokyo recognises the “One China policy” after it forged official relations with Beijing in 1972.
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