A recent report suggests that Japan’s government is considering positioning over 1,000 ballistic missiles aimed towards China, a move that would mark a major escalation in tensions between Tokyo and Beijing.
It is unclear if this will ever materialize, given the threat to regional stability it would carry, as well as the limits imposed by Japan’s own constitution, but by this point it is undeniable that geostrategic competition between Japan and China is a new reality.
The two countries may well be vastly economically integrated, but they are old enemies at heart, and their geopolitical ambitions are increasingly clashing across the board.
The rise of China threatens Japan’s once dominant position in Asia, not least in terms of disputed territories, which if Beijing succeeds in retaking, would strategically checkmate Tokyo. While the East China Sea and the disputed Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands is one thing, the biggest and most urgent flashpoint is in fact a topical subject of late: the island of Taiwan.
Japan now makes it publicly known that the continued autonomy of Taiwan is critical to its own survival. Why? Because a reunification of the island with mainland China would result in Beijing gaining maritime dominance around all of Japan’s southwest periphery.
As a result, Japan is upping its own stakes concerning Taiwan. Both before and during the current streak of lawmaker visits to the island, parliamentary delegations from Japan have made similar trips of their own. The recently assassinated Abe Shinzo, an architect of Japan’s current revisionist foreign policy, was a huge supporter of Taiwan and was set to visit the island himself.
Similarly, Taiwan, once under the colonial rule of Japan, which annexed it from China, has also increased its pro-Japan sentiment significantly. The extent of the public mourning it pushed following Abe’s murder was very telling.
Then there is the growing speculation as to whether Japan would actually defend Taiwan militarily if China invaded it, given the limitations imposed by the Japanese constitution.
If it wasn’t obvious already, Japan can’t afford to lose Taiwan, despite the One China Policy being a key condition of the resumption of diplomatic relations between the two countries in 1976.
This has put Tokyo in a race against time to try to find loopholes around its current peace-oriented constitution in order to increase its defense spending and attempt to balance against China’s growing military might.
In doing so, it finds support from the other members of the ‘Quad’ group, especially the United States and Australia, who are coordinating to try and contain China.
India is also a critical partner. While New Delhi has distanced itself from the Taiwan issue in a bid to avoid aggravating tensions with China over the disputed border, it nonetheless sees Japan as a long-term strategic partner with a view to Beijing.
Japan also seeks to woo South Korea into this game, a move that is being encouraged by the US. While new right-wing President Yoon Suk Yeol is more willing to cooperate with Japan on the issue of North Korea, expectations of him being an ultra-hawk on China have in fact fizzled out, and he has continued with the cautious approach of his predecessors. When Nancy Pelosi came to town after her notorious Taiwan trip, the Korean president avoided meeting her, even as Japan nonetheless fully embraced her visit.
Japan is undoubtedly the number one and most forward country in support of the United States in Asia.
Yet despite all of this, there are limits to how far it can rock the boat with Beijing, which remains a neighbor, as well as a critical trade and investment partner. Despite the historical enmity between the two, their business ties are very deep. Any hit to the Chinese economy hurts Japan too. Japan can’t afford to lose the Chinese market either, especially when it comes to the export of cars, electronics and other consumer goods.
The Chinese government can be devastatingly effective in whipping up anti-Japanese sentiment on a whim, which can result in mass boycotts and even destruction of property. Such protests last occurred in 2012 over the Senkaku Islands.
This reminds us that despite the backing of the US, Japan is in some ways in a delicate position. China’s economy has long outgrown it; the continuing expansion of its military capabilities is unparalleled.
Chinese nationalist commentator Hu Xijin, the former editor of the Global Times, declared that if Japan dared point 1,000 missiles at China, China would point 5,000 back and target US bases on Japanese soil.
Yet despite that, he said that China-Japan relations above all ought to remain friendly. It isn’t China’s choosing, despite everything, to pursue antagonism along this path.
This poses the question: Can Japan keep up in the bid to protect Taiwan, and fend off China as a whole? It’s not a straightforward task, which is why relations between the two countries will continue to be torn between longstanding rivalry and historical grievances on the one hand, and restraint and interdependency on the other.