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Drawing the sword: Is Japan getting ready to move against China?

Relations with Beijing are crucial for regional trade, but is Tokyo ready to put it all on the line over Taiwan and Washington’s favor?

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.

Although they may be economically very integrated, the two countries are still enemies of each other. Their geopolitical ambitions clash more 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. Although the East China Sea is and the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands are one issue, the main and most pressing flashpoint of the moment is actually Taiwan.

Japan makes public now that Taiwan’s autonomy is vital to Japan’s 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.

Japan has increased its stakes in Taiwan. Japan’s parliamentary delegations have also made similar visits to Taiwan during and before the current string of lawmaker visits. 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.

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Similar sentiments have been expressed by Taiwanese, who was previously under Japanese colonial control and which it annexed to China. The extent of the public mourning it pushed following Abe’s murder was very telling.

There is also growing speculation about whether Japan will actually defend Taiwan militarily against Chinese invasions, considering the Japanese constitution’s limitations.

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 another important partner. Although New Delhi is not focusing on Taiwan in an effort to reduce tensions with China, the country still sees Japan to be a strategic long-term partner and has a clear view of Beijing.

The US encourages Japan to try and win South Korea over. Although Yoon Suk Yeol, a new right-wing president, is open to working with Japan in the North Korean issue, the US has encouraged him to continue with his cautious approach. After Nancy Pelosi’s notorious Taiwan trip, Yoon Suk Yeol avoided her arrival in town and Japan welcomed her visit.

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A pro-China supporter steps on a defaced photo of US House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi during a protest against her visit to Taiwan outside the Consulate General of the United States on August 03, 2022 in Hong Kong, China. © Anthony Kwan / Getty Images
Pelosi’s trip to China was a wake-up call for China. Appeasing the US is not an option.

Japan remains undoubtedly the most advanced country supporting the United States in Asia.

However, it is not possible to go too far with Beijing. Beijing remains both a neighbour and a key trade and investment partner. Their business relationships are deep, despite the historic animosity. Japan is also affected by any economic downturn in China. Japan can’t afford to lose the Chinese market either, especially when it comes to the export of cars, electronics and other consumer goods.

It is possible for the Chinese government to be extremely effective at inciting anti-Japanese sentiments on a moment’s notice. This can lead to mass boycotts or even property destruction. These protests were last seen in 2012, when they took place over the Senkaku Islands.

It is clear that Japan has its own problems, even with the support of the USA. China’s economy has long outgrown it; the continuing expansion of its military capabilities is unparalleled.

Hu Xijin is a Chinese nationalist commentator and former editor of Global Times. He stated that if Japan fired 1,000 missiles at China it would be 5,000 points back. This would target US bases located on Japanese soil.

However, he stated that China-Japan relations must remain friendly regardless of all that. It isn’t China’s choosing, despite everything, to pursue antagonism along this path.

The question is: Is Japan able to keep up the fight for Taiwan and defend China? 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.

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