SEOUL, South Korea — Japan is undergoing a remarkable shift in its stance on one of the most contentious issues in Asia: Taiwan.
Mainland China and Taiwan split during a civil war in 1949, and Beijing has vowed to unify with the self-governing island — by force, if necessary. The Biden administration is counting on help from its allies, especially Japan, to deter such a move.
For decades, Japan considered the Taiwan issue too politically sensitive to speak out about it publicly. Japan's military is focused on defense of its own territory and has no expeditionary forces to fight overseas.
But in recent weeks, top Japanese officials have said that if mainland China attacks the island, Japan should join the U.S. in defending it.
"We have to protect Taiwan, as a democratic country," Japan's deputy defense minister, Yasuhide Nakayama, said in a conference in June.
Japan's shift in thinking comes as China has stepped up pressure on Taiwan, including sending fighter jets and warships around the island. But the bolder talk could also be driven by further moves by China.
Yoji Koda, a former commander of Japan's Maritime Self-Defense Force fleet, says he believes Tokyo's trust in Beijing is eroding. He points to China's rapid military buildup, its crushing of dissent in Hong Kong and its flouting of an international court ruling that rejected China's claim over the South China Sea.
Tensions have also mounted between Japan and China over disputed territory known as the Senkaku Islands in Japan and the Diaoyu Islands in China.
As neighbors, Koda says, "we need to say what we think."
Making the case for a security threat
The Japanese Constitution rejects using force to resolve international disputes. But after 2015 reforms, Japanese law allows the military to use force when an attack on a foreign country threatens Japan's survival. The law also would let Japan deploy its forces to provide logistical support to foreign militaries ensuring Japan's security.
In early July, Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso reiterated that any crisis over Taiwan should be resolved through dialogue.
But speaking at a fundraising event, he said, "If a major problem took place in Taiwan, it would not be too much to say that it could relate to a survival-threatening situation" for Japan.
The Defense Ministry issued a white paper in July that said, "Stabilizing the situation surrounding Taiwan is important for Japan's security." It said Japan should monitor the situation "with a sense of crisis."
These statements signal that Japan is building an argument that an attack on Taiwan could meet Japan's conditions for activating its military, analysts say.
"It's that public connection now with Taiwan — that is the part that's new," says Jeffrey Hornung, a political scientist at Rand Corp.
Japan's official policy still recognizes the authorities in Beijing, not Taipei, as China's legitimate government. And China and Japan are major trading partners.
That has not changed. But Japan's new messaging has irked Beijing, which has criticized it as dangerous. The Chinese Foreign Ministry has repeatedly said that China won't let anyone stand in the way of its efforts to unify with Taiwan.
China looming in meetings
The bolder tone in Tokyo has also followed high-level meetings in which China loomed large.
In mid-March, the U.S. secretary of state and secretary of defense went to Japan.
Then at a summit in April in Washington, D.C., Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and President Biden became their countries' first leaders in 50 years to mention the Taiwan issue in a joint statement. The next month, Suga issued another joint statement with European leaders. Both statements stressed the need for "peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait."
China, for its part, has said U.S. warships in the region are "the biggest destroyer of peace and stability."
Looking at a map, Taiwan's importance to Japan is hard to miss.
Waterways between them are strategic choke points that could be used to control travel and shipping through the region.
Japan's Yonaguni island lies less than 70 miles off Taiwan's east coast. Yonaguni is part of an archipelago that's administered by Okinawa prefecture — where 70% of U.S. military bases in Japan are located.
Koda and other analysts believe China might attack Yonaguni and possibly other nearby Japanese islands to control approaches to Taiwan.
Rand Corp.'s Hornung says Japan could do many things, short of sending troops, to help the U.S. in case of an invasion of Taiwan, such as intelligence, reconnaissance, "defense of U.S. bases, defense of Japanese waters, like defending choke points or defending airspace."
Japan should insist on avoiding war
Kyoji Yanagisawa, a former deputy defense minister, acknowledges that Japan can't avoid involvement. "As long as the U.S. military uses Japanese bases to launch attacks, Japan will certainly be affected in the event of an emergency in Taiwan," he says. "Sooner or later, a Taiwan emergency will turn into a Japan emergency."
The problem, he says, is that Japanese officials are now thinking more about how to win a conflict than how to avoid one in the first place.
He believes Japan's government now appears to have completely sided with the U.S. in its dispute with China. But he cautions that the more that ties between Beijing and Washington deteriorate, the more Tokyo needs to keep open lines of communication to both governments.
"Given its position," he argues, "Japan should insist that the U.S. avoid anything that could lead to war. At the same time, Japan should insist on the same from China."
But Koda, a retired vice admiral, argues that Japan must also prepare for a worst-case scenario. He expects the U.S. and Japan to draft an operational plan for a Taiwan conflict within the next year or so.
If Japan fails to do so, Koda says, the "Japanese government would be called the most stupid government in Japanese history."
Perhaps not now, he adds, but by historians and strategists in centuries to come.
Chie Kobayashi contributed to this report from Tokyo.
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
At the center of tensions between the U.S. and China lies Taiwan. Beijing has threatened to take the island by force if necessary. The Biden administration is counting on help from its allies, especially Japan, to deter such a move. As NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports, Japan's position on the issue is undergoing a remarkable shift.
ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: For the past half-century, Japan has recognized Beijing, not Taipei, as China's legitimate government. The question of what Japan would do if the mainland attacked Taiwan was, if not unthinkable, at least unmentionable. That's now changed.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
YASUHIDE NAKAYAMA: We have to protect the Taiwan as a democratic country.
KUHN: That's Deputy Defense Minister Yasuhide Nakayama speaking at the Hudson Institute think tank in Washington last month. At a May summit, President Biden and Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga became their countries' first leaders in 50 years to publicly raise the Taiwan issue in a statement. Retired Admiral Yoji Koda is former commander of the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force Fleet. He says that the recent official comments don't mean that Tokyo is changing its policy but that Japan's relationship with China...
YOJI KODA: As our neighbors should be more pragmatic and practical. Pragmatic and practical means we need to say what we think.
KUHN: Koda says Japan is reacting to China's political and military muscle-flexing in the region, which makes Japan feel less secure. Japan's response to an attack on Taiwan, though, would be constrained by its postwar constitution, which limits the use of its military.
JEFFREY HORNUNG: So the United States would not expect Japanese forces to be right on the frontline of the - you know, the sharp end of the spear.
KUHN: Jeffrey Hornung is a political scientist at the RAND Corporation.
HORNUNG: Japan's strength - it's been built around a defensive capacity.
KUHN: If Japan were directly attacked, its military could fight in self-defense. If not, Hornung says, there are still things Japan could do to help the U.S. short of sending troops to Taiwan, like reconnaissance.
HORNUNG: Defense of U.S. bases, defense of Japanese waters like defending chokepoints or defending airspace.
KUHN: The change in Japan's rhetoric has its critics. Former defense official Kyoji Yanagisawa says it doesn't matter what Japan's role would be in a possible conflict over Taiwan. If the U.S. and China fight, Japan is going to get hit.
KYOJI YANAGISAWA: (Through interpreter) As long as the U.S. military uses Japanese bases to launch attacks, Japan will certainly be affected in the event of an emergency with Taiwan. We cannot avoid being involved. Sooner or later, Taiwan emergency will turn into a Japan emergency.
KUHN: The problem, he says, is that Japanese officials are now thinking more about how to win a conflict than how to avoid it in the first place. He adds that Japan's government now appears to have completely sided with the U.S., but he cautions that the more ties between Beijing and Washington deteriorate, the more Tokyo needs to keep its lines of communication to both sides open.
YANAGISAWA: (Through interpreter) Given its position, Japan should insist that the U.S. avoid anything that could lead to war. At the same time, Japan should insist on the same from China.
KUHN: But retired Admiral Yoji Koda argues that Japan must also prepare for a worst-case scenario. He expects the U.S. and Japan to draft an operational plan for a Taiwan conflict within the next year or so. If it fails to do so, he says the...
KODA: Japanese government would be called the most stupid government in Japanese history.
KUHN: Perhaps not now, he adds, but by historians and strategists in centuries to come.
Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Seoul.
(SOUNDBITE OF AK'S "COUNTING DOWN THE DAYS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.