Beijing’s Taiwan Aggression Has Backfired in Tokyo

Military exercises have stiffened Japanese resolve.

By , a Tokyo-based journalist.
Two unidentified military vessels off Taiwan
Two unidentified military vessels off Taiwan
Two unidentified military vessels sail in waters near the east coast of Taiwan on Aug. 7. Sam Yeh/AFP via Getty Images

TOKYO—China’s four days of military exercises encircling Taiwan in response to a visit by U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi last week has clear ramifications for Japan. The show of military muscle just 70 miles from Japanese territory and the firing of ballistic missiles into waters controlled by Japan were clearly meant as a warning that the country risks being dragged into any future conflict in the region.

While China’s motives in indirectly targeting Japan are not known, the results are pretty clear. The surprisingly extensive military action is bringing a new sense of urgency to heighten Japan’s defense capability, substantially raise the defense budget, and, potentially, institute new rules that would for the first time allow preemptive military steps if Japan is at risk. It’s hard to see how any of these meet Beijing’s policy goals.

The military exercises included the firing of five missiles that overflew Taiwan and landed in Japan’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ). Japanese Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi said the firings represented “serious threats to Japan’s national security and the safety of the Japanese people.” China’s foreign ministry brushed aside Japan’s protests. It said that there was no EEZ, because Japan had failed to negotiate with China over proper boundaries between Chinese territory and the string of islands that stretch from Japan’s Okinawa region, with the westernmost isle just 70 miles from Taiwan. Beijing, which claims 90 percent of the entire South China Sea as its own, is no stranger to sweeping maritime claims.

TOKYO—China’s four days of military exercises encircling Taiwan in response to a visit by U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi last week has clear ramifications for Japan. The show of military muscle just 70 miles from Japanese territory and the firing of ballistic missiles into waters controlled by Japan were clearly meant as a warning that the country risks being dragged into any future conflict in the region.

While China’s motives in indirectly targeting Japan are not known, the results are pretty clear. The surprisingly extensive military action is bringing a new sense of urgency to heighten Japan’s defense capability, substantially raise the defense budget, and, potentially, institute new rules that would for the first time allow preemptive military steps if Japan is at risk. It’s hard to see how any of these meet Beijing’s policy goals.

The military exercises included the firing of five missiles that overflew Taiwan and landed in Japan’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ). Japanese Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi said the firings represented “serious threats to Japan’s national security and the safety of the Japanese people.” China’s foreign ministry brushed aside Japan’s protests. It said that there was no EEZ, because Japan had failed to negotiate with China over proper boundaries between Chinese territory and the string of islands that stretch from Japan’s Okinawa region, with the westernmost isle just 70 miles from Taiwan. Beijing, which claims 90 percent of the entire South China Sea as its own, is no stranger to sweeping maritime claims.

Japanese analysts saw China’s actions as a direct warning, especially in relation to Japan’s hosting of more than 50,000 U.S. service personnel, the largest offshore deployment of U.S. forces in the world. “The purpose of those kind of threatening [actions] is … make Japan recognize that if Japan cooperates with the United States to contain China or to block China conducting the unification operation of Taiwan, then Japan must be involved in the war, must be damaged by the Chinese military operation,” Bonji Ohara, a senior fellow at the Sasakawa Peace Foundation, told NHK television.

But, as Chinese officials should know well, intimidation seldom produces moderation from the other side. Witness the efforts to scare Taiwan in 1996 with missile launches a few weeks ahead of the country’s first direct presidential election. The result was a clear victory for the independence-minded Lee Teng-hui.

The new threats could instead create a “Finland moment” for Beijing. After threatening his neighbors, this year Russian President Vladimir Putin got what he least wanted: a massive expansion in NATO, with long-neutral Finland and Sweden moving to join the military alliance. The landing of missiles in waters close to Japanese territory, coupled with various threats and a claim that Japan is somehow responsible for the Taiwan situation, will do little to improve relations. It doesn’t help that China is in the middle of a surge of anti-Japanese public feeling, leading to the cancellation of cultural festivals and anime conventions across the country.

The new missile launches come at an important time for Japan. Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, fresh from a strong showing in parliamentary elections, has promised a significant increase in Japan’s defense spending. Japan’s military (officially the Self-Defense Forces) is one of the largest and considered among the most capable in the world, but the spending level has been unofficially capped at around 1 percent of annual GDP, half the level requested for NATO countries and well below the 3.7 percent racked up by the United States in 2020. Some influential members in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) have called for it to be doubled over the next five years. Kishida has been more circumspect, no doubt considering the implication for Japan’s already massive debt load at an estimated 250 percent of annual GDP. In addition to the fiscal impact, opponents of higher spending fear a return to Japanese militarism and see the potential for a new arms race. The pressure will now be on, however, for Kishida to come up with something sizable at the very least.

“When you look at the problems in Taiwan, the stronger the recognition that Japan is in a very harsh international environment. As a result, I think the debate about strengthening Japan’s defense capabilities will intensify,” Harukata Takenaka, a professor at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies in Tokyo, said on TV Tokyo.

As always in a country given to gradualist politics, the move toward a stronger military has been gaining traction for many years. Former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, killed in an attack last month, had pushed through legislation in 2015 that allows Japan’s Self-Defense Forces to take part in collective defense with its U.S. allies. The move was highly controversial in light of Japan’s constitution that bans the use military force except in direct defense of the country.

With that bedded down (and the concept now given an inadvertent boost by Beijing), defense hawks within the ruling LDP, many from the faction previously headed by Abe, are now pushing the envelope further to authorize preemptive strikes against a country threatening Japan. The ostensible target is nuclear-armed and always bellicose North Korea (largely forgotten recently as global attention has shifted to Taiwan). But the rules could conceivably apply more broadly. Polls show fairly solid support for the concept, although advocates prefer calling it “counterstrike capabilities” to avoid the image problems raised by the idea of a preemptive attack.

The Chinese action also serves as something of a vindication for former Prime Minister Taro Aso, who said a year ago when he was a deputy prime minister that an attack on Taiwan would represent a threat to Japan. The remarks were criticized at the time, but the recent Chinese military actions show that his analysis was correct. More controversially, he also said that “if that is the case, Japan and the U.S. must defend Taiwan together.”

Japan has long-term ties to Taiwan, formerly a Japanese colony. China-Japan tensions are not new, coming to a near boiling point in 2012 over the islands in the East China Sea, known as Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China, that are under Japan’s control but are also claimed by China (as well as Taiwan). The unpopulated islands, totaling around 3 square miles, are largely meaningless in strategic terms. All this prompted the Economist to ask at the time: “Could Asia really go to war over these?” But it wouldn’t just be Asia. The Obama, Trump, and Biden administrations in the United States have all said that the islands are covered by the U.S.-Japan security alliance.

The latest tensions were on full display at a foreign ministers’ meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in Cambodia, which took place during Pelosi’s landing in Taiwan and subsequent meetings in Tokyo with Kishida, among others. Angered by Japan’s support for a G-7 statement expressing concern over China’s live-fire exercises, China canceled a planned meeting with Japanese Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi on the sidelines of the ASEAN meeting. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov both walked out when Hayashi addressed the group.

“China somehow is targeting Japan very strongly, even though we didn’t do anything. This is a very difficult and interesting situation. Why does the Japanese government have to be criticized so much?” Ryo Sahashi, an associate professor at the University of Tokyo’s International Relations Institute for Advanced Studies on Asia, said in an interview.

Hayashi, who comes from a moderate group within the ruling party, kept his usual calm demeanor during the ASEAN meeting. Speaking with reporters, he acknowledged that the two men were “out for a certain period of time” during his remarks. More importantly, he seemed eager to lower the temperature. “In times like this, when the situation is tense, communicating well is important. Japan is always open to dialogue with China,” Hayashi said.

But the mood is clearly darkening. “It is a very malicious and dangerous act for China to fire as many as five missiles into the Japanese EEZ in one day,” LDP policy chief Sanae Takaichi said on her Twitter feed. She called for urgent senior-level meetings with Washington and other allied countries on the issue.

Takaichi is one of a new generation of hard-liners on defense issues, following in the footsteps of Abe, himself a strong Taiwan supporter. At the same time, her views reflect a growing public frustration over what is seen as Beijing’s high-handed methods. Even before the latest rise in tensions, a Pew Research Center survey of views on China found that 87 percent of Japanese held an unfavorable view of China, the highest among any country in the poll. Australia, which has faced Beijing’s wrath, including direct trade embargos over a series of perceived slights, was at 86 percent, while the United States came in at a remarkably subdued 82 percent.

And China made clear on Monday that it will not leave things where they are, announcing fresh military drills. Analysts expect that Beijing will keep up the pressure, pulling from its playbook employed against Tokyo in the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands. After a flare-up when the islands were purchased by the Japanese national government in 2012, China began a steady drip of regular incursions into the EEZ and territorial waters. It is still at it, and in June China sailed coast guard ships within 2 miles of land, well within the 12-mile territorial limit, remaining for a record-long 64 hours. With Taiwan, the Pelosi visit is as much an opportunity as a problem for Beijing.

“What we really wanted was to have is a quiet environment that would enable us to prepare for a better security environment over the next five to 10 years,” said the University of Tokyo’s Sahashi. “We wanted to quietly get ready within Japan, with the United States and also with Taiwan. I think Pelosi’s visit was really strategically unnecessary.”

Kathleen Benoza contributed reporting to this article.

William Sposato is a Tokyo-based journalist who has been a contributor to Foreign Policy since 2015. He has been following Japan’s politics and economics for more than 20 years, working at Reuters and the Wall Street Journal. He is also the co-author of a 2021 book on the Carlos Ghosn affair and its impact on Japan.

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