China and Japan are once again embroiled in a diplomatic row over Taiwan, in the latest example of Beijing’s extreme sensitivity over the status of the self-ruled island and Tokyo’s changing attitude towards Beijing.
Speaking to the US conservative thinktank Hudson Institute on Monday, Japan’s state minister of defence, Yasuhide Nakayama, spoke of a growing threat posed by Chinese and Russian collaboration, and said it was necessary to “wake up” to Beijing’s pressure on Taiwan and protect the island “as a democratic country”.
The comments immediately outraged Beijing, which has lodged a diplomatic protest over Nakayama’s characterisation of Taiwan as a country. On Tuesday, China’s foreign ministry spokesperson, Wang Wenbin, called Nakayama’s remarks “a serious violation”.
“We deplore the erroneous remarks by the senior official of the Japanese government, and we have lodged solemn representations,” Wang said. “This is highly sinister, dangerous and irresponsible. This politician also openly called Taiwan a country, in serious violation of the China-Japan joint statement.”
It is the second time in a month that Beijing and Tokyo have clashed verbally over Taiwan. Earlier in June, the Japanese prime minister, Yoshihide Suga, listed Taiwan next to New Zealand and Australia as three “countries” that had taken stricter measures to combat the spread of Covid-19.
Beijing protested, saying Suga “broke Japan’s long-standing promise not to regard Taiwan as a country”. Online, China’s nationalists demanded a firm response.
This week’s row again highlighted Beijing’s extreme sensitivity over Taiwan. China regards Taiwan as a breakaway province – not a country in its own right – which will one day, by force if necessary, be fully reunited with the mainland.
In Beijing, “one China” is deemed as a “principle”, which insists both Taiwan and mainland China belong to a single China – and that is solely represented by the People’s Republic of China.
After the Chinese civil war in 1949, the defeated nationalist government fled to the island as the communists, under their leader Mao Zedong, took power on the mainland.
Japan in 1972 adopted a “one China policy” and recognised Beijing as the sole legal government of China and reduced ties with Taiwan to a non-governmental level.
But on Monday, Nakayama questioned whether his country’s longstanding policy would stand the test of time. “Was it right?” he asked at the Hudson Institute online event, “I don’t know.”
Nakayama said democratic countries had to protect each other, and noted that he had in the past referred to Taiwan as a “red line”. Because of the geographical proximity, he said, if something happened in Taiwan it would also affect Japan’s Okinawa prefecture, where US forces are based.
Some say this month’s two diplomatic incidents highlighted a change in the mood over China in Japan. “In the past, Japanese politicians, even if they are China hawks, tended to be cautious when it comes to the status of Taiwan. Now they talk about supporting Taiwan publicly in a way that would irritate China,” said George Yin, of Harvard University’s Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies.
“From Beijing’s perspective, it is a corrosion of the ‘one China’ commitment, and is manifested also in Japan’s recent support for Taiwan to join international organisations that require nationhood. But it is also a sign that a China-hawk consensus akin to what we are observing right now in Washington appears to be emerging in Japan, as it becomes more difficult for politicians to show their sympathy towards Beijing,” Yin said.
On the same day as Nakayama’s event, the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, and his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, announced the extension of a 20-year-old friendship and cooperation treaty between the two countries, amid their increasingly strained ties with the west.
Xi praised the Sino-Russia relationship as a “model example of a new type of international relations” that adds “positive energy” to the world. “I believe that under the guidance of the spirit of the treaty, no matter how many obstacles and hurdles must be overcome on the road ahead, China and Russia will continue to unite in their efforts and move forward with determination,” he said.
Recent moves between Beijing and Moscow have alarmed Japan, too. On Monday, Nakayama said it was necessary to show deterrence to both countries. “You can see China and Russia collaborating together, when they are doing some military exercise around our neighbours,” he said, also urging the US to become “stronger, stronger and stronger”.
He said Japan needed to spend more on weapons, including missiles, and Washington and Tokyo should boost technological collaboration in the face of closer Chinese and Russian cooperation.