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Risk of accidental US-China conflict over Taiwan could leave Japan badly exposed

South China Morning Post logo South China Morning Post 28/07/2022 Minnie Chan
  • Tensions are rising, with China threatening 'forceful measures' if US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visits the island next month
  • Diplomatic analysts said Tokyo will be forced to side with Washington, but may find itself in a position it is not properly prepared to handle

US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's possible trip to Taipei and its potential to trigger a conflict between China and America risks leaving Washington's major allies in the region, especially Japan, in a situation for which they have not planned, analysts warned.

Maintaining security is a common concern for Japan and South Korea, the two key US allies in the region, but Tokyo will bear the brunt of supporting the American military in the event of conflict, according to diplomatic observers.

Taiwan 'will have to bear wrath of Beijing' if Pelosi visit goes ahead

"Japan has no option other than to take the US side once a contingency over the Taiwan Strait happens," said Fumiko Sasaki, a specialist in international relations focusing on Asian and Japanese politics at Columbia University in New York.

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"As an ally of the US, Japan's preparation for the contingency over the Taiwan Strait needs to be coordinated with the US. But that should not be the primary preparation."

Beijing considers self-ruled Taiwan to be a renegade province and has never renounced the use of force to bring it back into the fold.

The Chinese defence ministry on Tuesday warned for the first time that the People's Liberation Army sees Pelosi's planned visit as a move to "support Taiwan independence" adding it would not "turn a blind eye".

Last week, the Chinese foreign ministry said the US will "bear all consequences" and face "forceful measures" if Pelosi visits the island.

Pelosi has not confirmed her plans, but last week the Financial Times reported that she would take a delegation to Taiwan next month, also visiting Japan, Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia.

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Cheung Mong, an associate professor with the School of International Liberal Studies at Waseda University in Japan, said Tokyo has always been very cautious when dealing with the US and mainland China over Taiwan issues in the past decades and is not ready to deal with an accidental conflict.

"The timing of Pelosi's visit comes as Prime Minister Fumio Kishida is busy dealing with the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic," Cheung said.

"Japanese officials' political stance on the Taiwan issue is so skilful, depending on the nature of the event. They never make clear whether Tokyo will get involved or not, which would help them adjust their policies."

But Japan is home to many US air force and navy bases and this, coupled with its geographical location, means it will find itself on the front line in the event of any conflict.

China, US both build up military strength around Taiwan Strait as tensions rise

In an article published in May by East Asia Forum, an online publication sponsored by Australian National University, Cheung said Japan has yet to formulate any specific plans to guide its response to a potential crisis.

"As a key US ally in East Asia, Japan is debating the introduction of legislation to ready itself to deal with a contingency scenario in Taiwan. This seems to be more of a defensive response rather than a proactive military strategy," he wrote.

Sasaki said that Japan has room to act as a mediator between China and the US.

"The most important preparation is to avoid such a contingency by supporting communication between China and the US and reducing the tension between the two powers in the region," she said.

"Japan's goal is clear - stability in Asia [and] that includes good relationships with both [mainland] China and Taiwan. Japan should focus on avoiding any conflict in Asia before preparing for military conflict, though it needs to have preparations for it."

South Korean Foreign Minister Park Jin said on Wednesday that "upholding Taiwan Strait peace is vital" to his country and the Indo-Pacific region.

In May, President Yoon Suk-yeol and his counterpart US President Joe Biden issued a joint statement that emphasised the importance of "preserving peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait as an essential element in security and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific region".

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

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