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Japan troops won’t get involved if China invades Taiwan, PM Yoshihide Suga says

South China Morning Post logo South China Morning Post 21/04/2021
a man wearing a suit and tie: Japanese PM Yoshihide Suga and US President Joe Biden have called for ‘peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait’. Photo: Kyodo Japanese PM Yoshihide Suga and US President Joe Biden have called for ‘peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait’. Photo: Kyodo

Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga has emphasised that despite a reference to Taiwan in a joint statement released after his recent meeting with US President Joe Biden, there is no possibility of Japanese forces being committed to any military contingency surrounding Taiwan.

In response to a question from an opposition politician in the Diet on Tuesday about the details of Japan's commitment to Taiwan, Suga replied that the statement "does not presuppose military involvement at all".

Analysts say Japan's constitution would block the military from taking part in combat in the event China attempted to take Taiwan by force, although Japan could provide a range of logistical and rear-echelon support to the United States.

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The wording of the statement - the first document signed by the Japanese and US leaders to refer to Taiwan since diplomatic relations between Tokyo and Beijing were normalised in 1972 - had been closely scrutinised.

Biden and Suga called for "peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait", the first reference to Taiwan - which Beijing claims as its territory - in a joint statement in more than 50 years. They also said they would counter China's "intimidation" in the Asia-Pacific region.

China accused Japan and the US of sowing division, and said the two countries were inciting "group confrontation". On the weekend, the People's Liberation Army's Eastern Theatre Command, which oversees the Taiwan Strait, deployed dozens of H-6K strategic bombers in a nine-hour live-fire drill, according to state television.

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Analysts said Suga's latest comments to the Diet was Tokyo's way of drawing a line under suggestions that the government could use a different interpretation of the constitution to give it freer reign to dispatch the military.

Ben Ascione, an assistant professor of international relations at Tokyo's Waseda University, said Suga was in a difficult position over Taiwan.

"If he were to say nothing at all, then that could have had a negative effect on the Japan-US security alliance, but at the same time, Suga needed to make it clear to his domestic audience that Japan would not go to war over Taiwan," he said.

Ascione said there were "many different scenarios" that could emerge surrounding Taiwan in the coming months and years, but the extent of Japanese involvement during an armed clash over the island was very likely to be limited to rear-area support and maintaining the present status quo under the constitution.

"I think a lot of fuss has been made over the mention of Taiwan in the US-Japan joint statement and that Suga really needed to get out in front of that," he said, pointing out that while Biden might have been hoping for a stronger expression of support from the Japanese leader in their first face-to-face meeting, Tokyo had insisted on "boilerplate language" that still emphasised peace and stability.

"I do not think we can expect Japan to do more than making incremental change for now," Ascione said.

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Yuko Ito, a professor of international relations at Asia University, agreed that Suga's hands were presently tied by Japan's war-renouncing constitution, which only permits the military to be deployed to defend the nation and its allies. But she added that there was a growing sense of concern in some quarters that Tokyo was being "too naive".

"Taking part in military activities involving Taiwan would not be permitted under the constitution, but there are clearly deepening tensions in the region and it would already be too late if we only started a discussion on revising the constitution after China has attacked Taiwan," Ito said.

"The majority of Japanese people are still against the use of the nation's military power, so the debate on the constitution cannot take place," she said.

"But they also do not realise ... that the Japanese military are carrying out a lot of joint exercises with the US in areas very close to Taiwan as a message to China.

"If we have no discussions on changing or reinterpreting the constitution now and that debate can only take place after an invasion, then it is too late," she said.

This article originally appeared on the South China Morning Post (www.scmp.com), the leading news media reporting on China and Asia.

Copyright (c) 2021. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

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