Japanese PM Kishida is Hot as Chinese Pressure Mounts on Taiwan

  • Kishida and Biden held talks earlier this month to coordinate an approach to China over Taiwan.
  • Taiwan is vitally important to Japanese security, but Kishida is aware of economic dependence on China.
  • Kishida seeks to defend the integrity of Taiwan, while furthering its long-term ambitions in the region. 
Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida speaks before the media at his official residence as an extraordinary Diet session was closed, in Tokyo, Japan December 21, 2021. Yoshikazu Tsuno/Pool via REUTERS
Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida / Yoshikazu Tsuno, REUTERS

Why is Fumio Kishida’s heat level Hot?

Answer: Fumio Kishida and the Japanese public recognise the importance of Taiwan for its ambitions, and hence are more involved in the issue.

Since Xi Jinping’s arrival to the scene, China has considerably upped the pressure on Taiwan and has raised questions as to whether or not it will indulge in the use of force to get its way. In fact, Beijing recently began to employ what Taiwan has labelled “gray-zone warfare” in a bid to test Taiwanese military fortitude. This is epitomised by China’s incursions into Taiwan’s Air Defence Zone – a key tenant of its national security – in the recent past. Taiwan’s Minister of Defence Chiu Kuo-cheng further underscored the frailty of peace in the region, warning that Beijing could be prepared to launch a “full-scale” invasion by as early as 2025.

With China making inroads in its bid to integrate Taiwan, Japan has become more involved in the issue, with the newest Prime Minister Fumio Kishida overseeing a shift away from Japan’s previously pacifistic tendencies. This is an unsurprising development given that the stakes are very high for Japan. Chinese occupation of Taiwan would be a fundamental threat to Japanese security, placing PLA forces a mere 110 kilometres from Yonaguni Island, the westernmost point of Japan. Consequently, Tokyo would struggle to defend the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands that China views as part of the “Taiwan Province.”

Kishida recognised this potentially dire scenario in his early days in office and has since sought to up the ante on Japan’s previous efforts to fortify its military apparatus, as well as diversifying economic relationships to mitigate the glaring conflict of interest with a major trading partner in China. Earlier this month, the Japanese PM met with President Joe Biden as part of the two-plus-two talks to coordinate an approach with respect to China over Taiwan. Simultaneously, Kishida has sought to double down on previous efforts to build a strong alliance against China in the Indo-Pacific region. 

The name of the game, it would appear, is about building strong avenues to deter potential Chinese aggression. The recognition of the interlink between Japanese security and Taiwanese independence has enabled Kishida to overcome past constraints over Japanese society’s pacifistic inclinations. The Prime Minister, as a result, is well primed to buttress Japan’s ability to deter, or if need be respond, to China’s encroachment in Taiwan. 

Who is changing Fumio Kishida’s temperature?

Answer: American interests in the region compliment Japan’s security concerns over Chinese occupation of China. Beijing, however, remains a key economic partner. 

Japan’s recent shift in attitude toward Taiwan is emboldened by its close ally in President Biden and the US. Although Tokyo was always cognizant of the issue, it trod a cautious diplomatic line, especially given its economic relationship with China. However, as US competition with China deepens, Kishida will likely be forced to compromise Japan’s relationship with Beijing. Among other reasons, US motivation to defend Taiwan can be attributed to its dependence on Taiwanese semiconductor chip firms which were responsible for 60% of revenue from these chips globally in 2020. President Biden, in particular, has championed US efforts to strengthen their chip industry

The recent dialogue between the two leaders substantiates the notion that US interests in the region have provided the necessary impetus for a more pronounced Japan on the Taiwan issue. Indeed, the Biden-Kishida call in April 2021 marked the first time in five decades that the US and Japan included a clause on Taiwan in their joint statement. With China increasingly encroaching on Taiwanese sovereignty, Kishida and Biden drew up a draft plan for a joint operation in the event of a Taiwan emergency. Under this agreement, the US Marine Corps would set up temporary bases on the Nansei Island Chain, while Japanese armed forces would provide logistical support. Clearly, Kishida has shown that if push comes to shove, he would side with their American counterparts. 

Moreover, the real danger for Japan lies in the event that China would feel emboldened enough to successfully take Taiwan. From a Japanese perspective, this would raise disturbing questions as to how far Beijing would be willing to bend the rules, and would certainly place in jeopardy the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. The security dilemma is further exacerbated by North Korea’s recent aggressive missile testing that serves as yet another avenue that threatens peace in the region.

With Pyongyang in desperate need of economic relief from its Chinese counterparts, it is likely that it will continue to support Xi Jinping’s geopolitical ambitions by maintaining the ballistic missile testing and the pressure that places on Japan. Defending the integrity of Taiwan, therefore, becomes a critical consideration, especially in light of Kishida’s long-term aspirations.

The Japanese Prime Minister’s stance on the issue is a marked shift away from his more dovish inclinations. This is in large part due to his recognition of the severity of China’s assertive foreign policy, declaring that it has set off a “strong alarm”. With North Korea missile tests in the backdrop, it is perhaps of no surprise that the country will add $6.75 billion to its annual military spending to boost its defences. In fact, the possibility of possessing the capabilities to directly strike enemy bases is controversial because opponents say it violates Japan’s constitution. 

That being said, the Japanese PM has sought to foster constructive relations with Chinese President Xi Jinping given that Beijing is Japan’s top export destination and a reliable trade partner. In fact, despite the COVID-19 pandemic, the share of trade with China with respect to total Japanese trade volume was the largest ever recorded with imports from China making up 25.8% of the total, and exports to China accounting for 22% of the overall share.

This serves to illustrate Japan’s considerably weak economic security, especially vis-à-vis China. Consequently, it took Kishida only four days after taking office to engage in discourse with his Chinese counterpart for the first time since Yoshide Suga in September 2020. The two leaders agreed that despite tensions in the region, they must commit to building “constructive and stable relations” Kishida, therefore, is virtually forced to maintain a diplomatic balance in relationships with both Biden and Xi Jinping.

What is driving Fumio Kishida?

Answer: Kishida has to contend with his vulnerability within his party, while seeking to establish Japan as a key player in the Western liberal order. 

Kishida’s newfound hawkishness on the issue is not solely due to developments in international affairs, however. Kishida’s rise to ascendancy in Japan was not the outcome of the normal democratic processes in the nation. He instead replaced Yoshihide Suga, who departed from his tenure early, which threatened to revive Japan’s past instability with political leaders. Consequently, with Kishida seeking to strengthen his grip on power, it is only natural that he seeks to please influential leaders within his governing party. This is especially true for former PM Shinzo Abe who had a similar stance on China.

In recent years, relations between Abe and Kishida have come under significant strain. As a result of a number of political differences, the two leaders drifted apart which saw Abe dropping his support for Kishida in 2019. Certainly, PM Kishida is aware that currently, his position is vulnerable and in its relative infancy, acknowledging the influence yielded by Abe. His continuation of the former leader’s policies, therefore, is also an appeasement mechanism as he attempts to consolidate his power. 

The Japanese public’s acknowledgement of the Taiwanese issue and its inextricable link to Japanese security has enabled Kishida to follow through with his predecessor’s policies towards the Taiwan issue. Polling suggests, in fact, that despite a society that is largely pacifistic, 74% of respondents in an April 2021 study supported active Japanese engagement in fostering stability in the Taiwan Strait.

The increasing public support for considering Taiwan in Japan’s security calculus enables Kishisa greater leeway on the issue. This changing sentiment is reflected in not just Kishida’s discussions with Biden, but also in Japanese government officials making once-unfathomable statements, such as Defence Minister Nobuo Kishi’s declaration that “the peace and stability of Taiwan are directly connected to Japan.”

Moreover, the Taiwan issue for Japan and Kishida is not solely limited to security interests but is also part of its larger global agenda of playing a leadership role within the international liberal order. In fact, the two-plus-two talks with President Biden came a day after Japan signed a cooperation pact with Australia in a bid to address the threat posed by China militarily as well as economically. India also plays a similarly critical role in this, providing Tokyo with a trading power that has the potential to supersede the economic reliance on China

The ‘Quad’, as it is known, attempts to oversee peace and prosperity in the region, with its purpose becoming increasingly pertinent as the Taiwan issue develops. This is because greater regional stability will naturally benefit national security. With China being disruptive in the area, Japan is seeking to build a front with democracies and quell Beijing’s ambitions in the region. Moreover, Kishida is seeking to dispel previous notions that Japan is a free rider on a US-backed security system. By championing efforts independent of the US, Japan furthers its legitimacy in the international arena.

Kishida, alongside Biden, has also vowed to deepen cooperation with ASEAN countries to further counterbalance Chinese interests in the region. The leaders also coordinated a meeting of the 10 ASEAN members where the US committed $100 million in funding to preserve stability in the Indo-Pacific. Essentially, Kishida is seeking not just to bolster their military capacity in an attempt to deter a Chinese invasion, but also to reduce economic dependence on China and be less constrained in terms of policymaking on the issue. 

What does this mean for you?

Answer: Japan through its efforts has better placed itself to play a critical role in the Taiwan issue and deter potential Chinese aggression. 

China over the years has been staunch in its position over Taiwan and is a relic of national shame for Beijing. Xi Jinping in the past has not hesitated to allude to the fact that China is undaunted by the prospect of using force, which Japan and the US have come to terms with. Needless to say, a Chinese invasion would be catastrophic for peace in the region and would crucially pit Beijing and Washington – two major nuclear poles of the world – with one another. It would even draw in the unstable nuclear power in North Korea. With Kishida and his US allies increasingly acknowledging the notability of Taiwanese sovereignty for their own interests, the stakes are very high and both sides are trying to maximise their share of benefit while minimizing that of their counterparts. 

Kishida since his appointment has undertaken a number of initiatives with respect to China, many of which are continuations of the policies of his predecessors. Although certainly expanding the scope of regional trade agreements, expanding the involvement of ASEAN in particular, Japan needs to be cautious and open to diplomacy given, both, its emphasis on deterrence as well as maintaining economic ties with Beijing. Regardless, the leader is far more flexible in his approach to the region given the observed shift in public opinion that has authorised the recent hawkishness. 

As is widely acknowledged, Japan is a critical part of the West’s strategy in Taiwan. Kishida’s approval of a draft plan allowing the US to use its islands to station its troops is a step in the right direction in further deterring Chinese aggression. That being said, neither the US nor Japan seem to have cracked the code with respect to North Korea. American leadership has, in the past, acknowledged that China is a key stakeholder in marshalling Kim Jong Un, but with Taiwan splitting Washington and Beijing right down the middle it would appear that the stage is set for North Korea to once again go rogue. 

Hence, despite Kishida’s best efforts in improving economic as well as military security, he must continue to tread with caution given China’s economic leverage, as well the ace up its sleeve in North Korea’s missile testing. Ultimately, the Taiwan issue is yet another avenue for hostility in the region, with Kishida and Japan playing a key deterring role.

Ahaan Rai

R&A Alumno