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Taro Aso’s Taiwan Slip Was Likely Deliberate

The gaffe-prone Japanese politician was the perfect vehicle for plausible deniability when signaling support for Taipei.

By , a Tokyo-based writer who follows Japan’s politics and economics.
Japanese Finance Minister Taro Aso
Japanese Finance Minister Taro Aso during the G-20 press conference at International Monetary Fund Headquarters in Washington, D.C., on April 12, 2019. Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images

Japan’s Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso is 80 years old, and in his 42 years in politics he’s often stumbled into trouble. But when he last week blurted out support for Japan coming to Taiwan’s aid in the case of a Chinese invasion, it may have been less of a gaffe than a deliberate signal—one with enough plausible deniability for the Japanese government to get away with it.

Under its post-World War II constitution, Japan is prohibited from military conflict except for self-defense. But Aso reckoned that an attack on Taiwan, just 70 miles from some small islands under the jurisdiction of Okinawa, could represent an “existential threat” to Japan’s security. The southernmost prefecture is home to more than half of U.S. forces in Japan. “If a major incident happened, it’s safe to say it would be related to a situation threatening the survival [of Japan]. If that is the case, Japan and the U.S. must defend Taiwan together,” Japanese media quoted Aso as saying.

His remarks produced not only the expected anger from the “wolf warriors” of Beijing but also the textbook recitations from Tokyo and Washington that everyone stands by the “One China” policy, under which Beijing is diplomatically recognized over Taipei. Tokyo and Washington’s interpretation of this has always been sharply different from Beijing’s—not least because the United States, while not a formal ally of Taiwan, has always strongly opposed any prospective Chinese military action against it. But Japan has traditionally been more neutral on the issue, despite the long-standing ties with Taiwan, once Japan’s “model colony” in Asia.

Japan’s Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso is 80 years old, and in his 42 years in politics he’s often stumbled into trouble. But when he last week blurted out support for Japan coming to Taiwan’s aid in the case of a Chinese invasion, it may have been less of a gaffe than a deliberate signal—one with enough plausible deniability for the Japanese government to get away with it.

Under its post-World War II constitution, Japan is prohibited from military conflict except for self-defense. But Aso reckoned that an attack on Taiwan, just 70 miles from some small islands under the jurisdiction of Okinawa, could represent an “existential threat” to Japan’s security. The southernmost prefecture is home to more than half of U.S. forces in Japan. “If a major incident happened, it’s safe to say it would be related to a situation threatening the survival [of Japan]. If that is the case, Japan and the U.S. must defend Taiwan together,” Japanese media quoted Aso as saying.

His remarks produced not only the expected anger from the “wolf warriors” of Beijing but also the textbook recitations from Tokyo and Washington that everyone stands by the “One China” policy, under which Beijing is diplomatically recognized over Taipei. Tokyo and Washington’s interpretation of this has always been sharply different from Beijing’s—not least because the United States, while not a formal ally of Taiwan, has always strongly opposed any prospective Chinese military action against it. But Japan has traditionally been more neutral on the issue, despite the long-standing ties with Taiwan, once Japan’s “model colony” in Asia.

“We will never allow anyone to meddle in the Taiwan question in any way. No one should underestimate the resolve, the will, and the ability of the Chinese people to defend their national sovereignty and territorial integrity,” Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said at a briefing on Tuesday, a day after Aso’s statement.

Media reports were also quick to remind people that Aso has a fairly long list of misstatements on various issues. He at one point seemed to suggest that Adolf Hitler “had the right motives,” even if he went wrong by killing so many people. He later said he regretted the statement. He also once said that the expense of caring for the elderly won’t be solved unless people “hurry up and die,” and on another occasion he said he wanted to make Japan a country where “rich Jews” would want to live. In 2018 he appeared dismissive of sexual harassment allegations against a senior bureaucrat in the Ministry of Finance, which he also leads. When asked to comment on the complaint, he replied that “it would have been easier to read if they used a bigger font.”

To some analysts, Aso was therefore the perfect person to issue a warning to China with the ability to then express plausible deniability.

“This wasn’t a renegade statement,” said Corey Wallace, a foreign-policy expert at Kanagawa University in Yokohama, Japan. “The surprising thing was that he said this in public. This represents a change in tone by Japan.” But Wallace said that Aso’s comments reflected what Japanese officials have long believed privately and did not appear to be an off-the-cuff remark, given the specific references to security legislation in 2015 that expanded the parameters of engagement for Japan’s Self-Defense Forces.

Japan’s policy toward Taiwan has been strengthening steadily over the years, although until recently much of this was done in a low-key fashion to avoid riling up China too severely. In 2017, Japan made a change to the name of its unofficial embassy in Taipei, putting the word “Taiwan” in the official name. While Japanese government ministers have avoided official visits, the island (as much of the country’s media likes to call it to avoid hassles back in Beijing) has been a popular stop for Japanese lawmakers, and the annual celebration for Taiwan’s National Day is a massive event at a top Tokyo hotel. When the hawkish Shinzo Abe was prime minister, he sent his mother—herself the daughter of a prime minister and the widow of a former foreign minister—to represent him at the gala, where she gave the keynote address. The Taiwanese were thrilled.

Recently, Japan has moved from nods and winks to open smiles. Just a week before Aso’s comments, State Minister of Defense Yasuhide Nakayama, the No. 2 official in the ministry, told an online conference hosted by the Hudson Institute that “we are not friends of Taiwan, we are brothers.” He also said that it was time to “protect Taiwan as a democratic country,” breaking the Chinese taboo on calling Taiwan a country, a transgression that has previously forced merchants and airlines around the world to change their online systems to refer to “countries and regions.” Nakayama’s statement duly drew a formal protest from China. “The politician in question flagrantly refers to Taiwan as a ‘country’ on multiple occasions,” a foreign ministry spokesman said. “We ask Japan to make crystal clarification and ensure that such things won’t happen again.”

Following a Washington summit between U.S. President Joe Biden and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga in April, the two nations issued a joint statement that for the first time referred specifically to concerns over Taiwan. “We underscore the importance of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait and encourage the peaceful resolution of cross-Strait issues,” the statement said.

Wordplay aside, Japan’s commitment to regional security is becoming more concrete. It is slowly but continually upgrading its already formidable defense arsenal and boasts one of the world’s most powerful navies (properly called the Maritime Self-Defense Force).

Japan today can also feel bolder because it has successfully shored up its ties with other like-minded countries. When China and Japan appeared ridiculously close to conflict over the uninhabited Senkaku/Diaoyu islands in the East China Sea in 2012, the Japanese government had to run to Washington to see if the U.S.-Japan alliance would cover a landing by China on the disputed rocks.

Today, there is no such question. The Biden-Suga statement reaffirmed that the islands are covered under the U.S.-Japan security treaty even though Washington has politely declined to pass judgment on their actual sovereignty.

Under Japan’s nudging, nations in the region are also talking increasingly about a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific,” and there has been a crash course in joint military maneuvers among the so-called Quad nations of Japan, the United States, Australia, and India. Former Asian colonial power France has also joined in, taking part in military exercises with the United States, Japan, and Australia in May. Japanese Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi noted at the time that France is the only European country with a military presence in the Indo-Pacific region. With so many nations piling on against China, Japan runs less of a risk of being singled out by Beijing.

And even as Aso was dropping his own verbal hand grenades, the British aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth was leading a flotilla through the Suez Canal (fortunately no longer blocked by a massive Taiwanese-operated container ship) on its way to the South China Sea, a mission that reflected the growing international consternation over China’s claim that it has sole control over the important waterway. British Commodore Steve Moorhouse, commander of the strike group, called it Britain’s “most important peacetime deployment in a generation.”

From China’s perspective, it is easy to see all this as a ganging-up against the new kid on the block, and it has deployed its own rhetoric. “UK parades its two-faced desperation,” was the headline for an editorial in the state-operated China Daily newspaper.

To some analysts, Japan isn’t going far beyond rhetoric, reflecting the close economic ties—China is Japan’s biggest export market—and a pro-China wing in the ruling party that sees those business ties as vital to Japan’s economic health.

“This is really just shadow boxing at this stage. There is a lot of gesturing going on,” said Jeff Kingston, the director of Asian studies at Temple University’s Japan Campus. He noted that surveys show a reluctance among many Japanese to have a more aggressive self-defense posture, fearing that it could drag the country into a U.S.-driven conflict, like Iraq or Afghanistan.

Still Taiwan could be different. Japan is a former colonial occupier but managed to get through it with a largely positive image, with Taiwanese remembering the infrastructure projects and improved government administration. After the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in northern Japan, Taiwanese were the biggest donors, even though deference to China forbade the Japanese government from listing Taiwan as a “donor country.” The Taiwanese, used to such problems, did not take offense at this seeming snub, and their patience has more than paid off. Japan returned the favor this year by sending more than 2.3 million COVID-19 vaccine doses to Taiwan in June and July. The move further irked China, which said it would do the supplying.

Not surprisingly, Taiwan was happy with the latest Aso comments. Taiwan Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Joanne Ou said in response that “the Ministry is pleased to see and welcome the international community and friends from all walks of life to continue to pay attention to the peace and stability of the Taiwan Strait.”

But caution remains in Taipei over how far Japan would be willing to go. “Japan has always followed the U.S. closely in these matters. We need to see what comes next,” said Lin Chong-pin, a former Taiwanese deputy defense minister and well-regarded analyst on Taiwanese defense policy.

William Sposato is a Tokyo-based writer who has been following Japan’s politics and economics for more than 20 years. He previously worked at Reuters and the Wall Street Journal.

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