Japanese PM's Taiwan-related proposals likely to backfire
Zhou Wenxing
Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga attends a news conference at the Prime Minister's Official Residence in Tokyo, Japan, January 7, 2021. /Xinhua

Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga attends a news conference at the Prime Minister's Official Residence in Tokyo, Japan, January 7, 2021. /Xinhua

Editor's note: Zhou Wenxing is an assistant professor at Nanjing University's School of Government and a research fellow at the University's Huazhi Institute for Global Governance. The article reflects the author's opinions and not necessarily the views of CGTN.

Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga talked about Taiwan affairs in public for the first time on a TV talk show on April 4, claiming that Taiwan's peace and stability is key to the region and proposing that Japan will cooperate with the United States to "use deterrence to create an environment" for both sides of the Taiwan Strait to handle the Taiwan affairs peacefully.

According to Japanese and U.S. media reports, Suga and U.S. President Joe Biden are supposed to mention the Taiwan issue in a joint statement after their first in-person summit next week in Washington, D.C. If it becomes true, then it would be the second time that the two nations refer to the issue since more than half a century ago.

There are several factors behind Suga's decision to interfere in China's domestic affairs on the eve of his state visit to Washington.

First, the Suga Cabinet urgently needs strategic reassurance from the U.S. to stand up against China regarding the Diaoyu Islands dispute. After the enactment of China Coast Guard Law early this year, there are growing concerns in Japan that this law would allegedly jeopardize Japanese national interests.

Second, and also the more salient factor, is Japan's fears of the prospect and consequences of the Chinese mainland's reunification with Taiwan. Many researchers have suggested that the balance of power in the Taiwan Straits has already tilted in favor of the mainland. The gap has been enlarged since the mainland now enjoys its economic revival after the pandemic.

In the past several months, people have witnessed the regular operation of Chinese mainland's military aircraft flying into "Taiwanese airspace", which has further intensified Japanese political elites' strategic anxiety. They fear that the so-called first island chain could not protect itself anymore once the "Taiwanese military", which is located on the chain, is controlled by the mainland.

The night view of Taipei, southeast China's Taiwan, June 20, 2019. /Xinhua

The night view of Taipei, southeast China's Taiwan, June 20, 2019. /Xinhua

Besides, Suga's desire to seek a second term also pushes him to make some achievements in foreign policy. After taking office from his predecessor Shinzo Abe in September 2020, Suga is thought to be an "interim" politician since he faces a harsh test in September 2021 when his term ends. Strengthening the Japan-U.S. alliance by meddling with sensitive Taiwan affairs might be one of the means to realize the prime minister's expectations.

In the hope of introducing the U.S. factor into the region to balance China's growing influence, the Suga cabinet knows clearly that the first step Japan needs to take is to improve the strategic importance of Japan's role in promoting U.S. interests in the Indo-Pacific.

To this end, Suga emphasized strategically, on the one hand, that Japan is willing to advance the U.S. vision of a "free and open Indo-Pacific region" by promoting rules-based order in the region. By placing his country's alliance with the U.S. as the "cornerstone" of diplomatic and security policy, the prime minister seems to be ready to adjust Japan's foreign policy where the U.S. finds it necessary.

On the other hand, Suga proposed some specific issues that are likely to attract the Biden administration. In addition to offering an olive branch on Taiwan affairs to the U.S. side, he also proposed at the TV show to cooperate with the U.S. on issues including coordinating policy toward the DPRK, the COVID-19 pandemic, and climate change.

For the U.S. part, the Biden administration does need some adequate means to pivot "back to the Asia-Pacific. Taking into account that most countries in the region are unwilling to "deter" China, the U.S. must find a new partner so as to win the great-power strategic competition vis-a-vis China. Suga's positive remarks just suit the Biden administration's taste.

However, Suga's proposal to use deterrence against China on Taiwan affairs is very likely to get frustrated. An anti-China alliance is doomed to fail. In fact, some countries even have expressed that they have no interest in doing so. Bipartisan tensions, depressing economy, ethnic conflict, and pandemic shock, among others have also put U.S.'s plan to deter China into great uncertainty.

Therefore, not only would Suga's Taiwan-related proposals damage Sino-Japanese ties and thus fail to secure Japan, but it will also create new unstable factors to the subtle political atmosphere in East Asia.

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