Recent statements by senior Japanese officials, such as Defence Minister Nobuo Kishi and Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso, indicating that a Chinese invasion of Taiwan would pose an ‘existential threat’ to Japan, should come as no surprise. Indeed, the geography of Northeast Asia has historically made the political status of Taiwan a key consideration for Japanese policymakers. The statements underscore precisely why Taiwan is critical to the US’s position in Asia. Beyond its symbolic importance as a democratic entity, the geographical position of Taiwan makes its independence critical to preserving Japan’s freedom of action, and by extension the US–Japan alliance. This reality could result in Japan becoming more directly engaged with cross-strait issues.
The recent statements by Japanese officials do not represent a break from the past. Rather, they are the latest step in a gradual reorientation of Japanese policy which began in the 1990s. Although Japan’s current prime minister was quick to clarify that his administration is not committing Japan’s forces to intervening militarily in the Taiwan Strait, the structural incentives that have driven Japan’s gradual revision of its security posture could make this viable in the medium term, particularly if the ruling Liberal Democratic Party should succeed in its efforts to amend Japan’s constitution, which currently restricts the potential use of force.