Analysts: China perceives Japan’s One China Policy to be “breaking down”

Analysts: China perceives Japan’s One China Policy to be “breaking down”
Prime Minister Fumio Kishida delivered a general debate speech at the NPT (Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty) Review Conference on August 1, 2022. 

China’s perception that Japan's One China Policy is “breaking down” due to the internal political drivers is far from reality, the U.S. subject matter experts say.

Insights from newly translated Chinese primary source documents within the Interpret Project revealed that there is an “absence of reflection” on how China’s actions have affected Japan’s approach to Taiwan and its alliance with the United States.

Rumi Aoyama, the Director of Waseda Institute of Contemporary Chinese Studies, and the Professor at the Graduate School of Asia-Pacific Studies explained that China's outdated framework, which assumes that all anti-China and pro-Taiwan forces in Japan are minority, is a major hindrance to understanding the true situation in Japan.

“It is impossible for Chinese scholars and even the government to recognize or admit the fact that the Japanese government's Taiwan policy has the support of the majority of the Japanese people.”

The analyzed material came amid Japan’s new National Security Strategy, announced in December 2022, which considers China’s rising assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific as Japan’s “greatest strategic challenge.”

As Nishimura Yasutoshi, Minister of Economy, Trade, and Industry (METI) of Japan said during his remarks in Washington DC, Japan is building up economic security and deterrence capabilities, as well as strengthening relations with like-minded countries, such as the United States.

But experts say Japan’s efforts are perceived differently in Beijing.

Translated Chinese material indicates that Japan’s One China Policy is “breaking down”, partially because of domestic political drivers, including the rise of the right-wing parties, according to expert analysis.

When it comes to the One China Policy, the U.S. has more extensive unofficial relations with Taiwan, while Japan follows a semi-formal policy. The U.S. explicitly says it doesn’t support Taiwan’s independence, but Japan has “maintained some ambiguity” on the matter, Christopher B. Johnstone, Senior Adviser, and Japan Chair at CSIS explained during the discussion.

Johnstone, who has been in the Pentagon since 2010, working on matters of U.S. policy toward Japan and the Indo-Pacific, said that back then you could only “whisper in the hallway” about Taiwan.

As the number of official contacts between Japan and Taiwan gradually increased, support for Taiwan intensified. Johnstone said Japan used to have a “Japan-Taiwan Friendship Group” within the National Diet, but over time support has become broader with more Diet members meeting with Taiwanese leaders. However, the official ties continue to be limited, especially in the National Security space, according to Johnstone.

Johnstone notes that Japan now recognizes how a conflict in Taiwan could impact its own security, as evidenced by its new National Security Strategy, which outlines the country's efforts to defend itself in the event of a crisis and “that's different from a commitment to defend Taiwan.”

A far deeper sentiment in Japan is “respect for Taiwan’s democracy”, “for its political evolution” or “its resilience in the face of coercion” and respect for its economic growth – something that’s “completely missing” from the Chinese writings, according to CSIS analysts.

Bonny Lin, a Senior Fellow for Asian Security and Director of the China Power Project at the CSIS, said some shorter news articles drive the idea that Japan “no longer wants to be a shield”, instead it wants to be a “sphere”, meaning it is trying to return to militarism and putting itself at risk of drawing into conflict.

Aoyama and Johnstone both note that the perception in China used to be that Japan played a subordinate role in its alliance with the U.S., “dragged into the U.S. position” in the cross-strait dynamic, but that assumption has changed. Japan is now seen as taking an active role in its cooperation with the United States.

“It suggests that China understands that the strategy of driving a wedge between the United States and Japan is no longer a possible policy option. Instead, a policy of hostility toward Japan may emerge as a policy option for Beijing,” Aoyama said.

Johnstone noted that the Chinese belief that the U.S. and Japan will act together in case of military coercion might not necessarily be a bad thing from a deterrence standpoint. In fact, it raises costs for Beijing’s actions toward Taiwan.

And because the cost of actions toward Taiwan is huge, Japan doesn’t think China will go ahead with an old-style military invasion, according to Aoyama.

She said possible government changes in Japan won’t affect its main course, because, unlike the United States, Japan’s politicians are not divided on China and their perception is strictly focused on the “security environment”.

The Interpret China project at CSIS utilizes newly translated Chinese content, including articles, speeches, policy documents, and other important material, to explore how China perceives the world. The goal is to transform how policymakers, researchers, journalists, and the broader public understand China and its activities.