Increased Chinese military maneuvers prompt Japan to appoint new Defense personnel

Japan's Defense Minister Minoru Kihara walks on the day of the cabinet reshuffle at the Prime Minister's office in Tokyo, Japan, Sept. 13, 2023. [Reuters]

China’s increasing military manoeuvers near Taiwan and Japan are triggering changes in Japanese government attitudes.

Japan made two important defense personnel appointments last week. Analysts think the moves reflect the growing level of importance that Tokyo attaches to the status across the Taiwan Strait.

"China has engaged in a lot of provocative activities near Taiwan and the Japanese are deeply worried about these," Stephen Nagy, a regional security expert at the International Christian University in Japan, told VOA in a phone interview.

"Japan is sending a signal to Beijing that they seek to prioritize peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait by appointing pro-Taiwan individuals to defense-related positions," he added.

Several media outlets reported last week that Japan has appointed a serving defense ministry official as its de facto defense attaché in Taiwan, reversing previous policy of appointing retired Japan Self-Defense-Force officers to the role at the Japan-Taiwan Exchange Association, the organization that represents Japanese interests in Taipei.

Experts say this development shows Tokyo's desire to improve the quality of conversations related to the security situation across the Taiwan Strait. They hope to achieve the goal by appointing the right person to be the de facto defense attaché.

"This [move] speaks to the ability to develop stronger ties at the human level," Alessio Patalano, professor of war and strategy in East Asia at King's College London, told VOA in a phone interview.

"Stability across the Taiwan Strait has an inevitable repercussion for Japanese security and there is a growing perception in Tokyo that having someone in Taipei makes it easier to have a better quality conversation," he added.

Enhance Japan's response to rising tensions across the Taiwan Strait

In addition to the new appointment of the de facto defense attaché in Taiwan, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida also appointed Minoru Kihara, a politician with a track record of promoting stronger ties between Tokyo and Taipei, as Japan's new defense minister. Kihara's appointment is part of the cabinet reshuffle announced by the Japanese government on Sept 13.

Kihara was secretary general of the Japan-Taiwan inter-parliamentary group and visited Taiwan as part of a Japanese parliamentary delegation last August. Patalano from King’s College says his appointment shows Tokyo wants to have someone capable of understanding what role Japan may or may not play amid rising tensions across the Taiwan Strait.

"Kihara has served as a junior minister at the Ministry of Defense before, he has visited Taiwan and he has a personal interest in cross-Strait stability," he told VOA. "It shows that Japan is taking development across the Taiwan Strait seriously."

In response to the defense personnel appointments announced by Japan, Beijing said it firmly opposed any country with official diplomatic ties with China conducting official exchanges with Taiwan.

"China urges the Japanese side to learn from the lessons of history, abide by the one-China principle and the spirit of the four Sino-Japanese political documents, and be prudent in its words and actions on the Taiwan issue," Chen Binhua, a spokesperson for the Taiwan Affairs Office of China’s State Council, said during a daily press briefing on Sept 13.

Japan bolsters its defense capabilities amid growing Chinese aggression

Japan’s defense personnel appointments come amid growing Chinese military aggression near Taiwan and Japan in recent weeks. Since Sunday, Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense detected 103 Chinese military aircraft and nine naval vessels near the island. "We urge the Beijing authorities to bear responsibility and immediately stop such kind of destructive military activities,” Taiwan’s Defense Ministry said in a statement.

Last week, China staged large-scale military exercises in the Western Pacific, deploying dozens of naval vessels, military aircraft, and its aircraft carrier Shandong.

On Sept. 15, the Japanese coast guard said four Chinese government ships entered Japanese territorial water near the disputed islands that are called Senkaku in Japanese and Diaoyu in Mandarin. The incursion is the first since Aug. 23 and the 23rd Chinese incursion in 2023, according to Japanese broadcaster NHK.

Analysts say the continuous Chinese military aggression in the region, including China's joint patrols with Russia around Japan and the high number of Chinese incursions around the disputed Senkaku Islands or Diaoyu Islands, has helped justify Tokyo’s efforts to bolster its defense capabilities over the last year.

"The more China engages in saber-rattling, the more it makes it easier for Japanese leaders to get political cover for actions on the security front," Jeff Kingston, Director of Asian Studies at Temple University Japan, told VOA.

Japan walking a tightrope in relations with Taiwan

While Japan puts more attention on the Taiwan Straits through the new defense personnel appointments, Kingston says Tokyo is trying to find a balance between supporting Taiwan and maintaining economic ties with China.

"Japan is walking a tightrope," he told VOA. "China is Japan's top economic partner and many people realize that Japan’s future prosperity hinges on tapping China’s potential and working with the Chinese. On the other hand, the sympathy for Taiwan is huge in Japan and I don’t think the public would be comfortable with any policy that diminishes support for Taiwan."

In his view, Japan has gone from "a meek, unassertive support for Taiwan" to a much bolder and stronger position. However, rather than making bold moves, Kingston expects Tokyo to make incremental and gradual progress when it comes to its support for Taiwan. "Perhaps the progress is less than what Taiwan would want, but it’s within Japan’s comfort zone," he explained.

Despite Japan’s attempt to play a balancing act, Nagy from International Christian University thinks there are opportunities for Taipei and Tokyo to cooperate in areas like rescue operations, humanitarian assistance, and informal exchanges between Japanese and Taiwanese think tanks.

“There is a possibility [for Japan] to cooperate with Taiwan within the multilateral framework, but Japan will have to be very careful about how this is done,” he said.