Asō’s Potent Taiwan Message: No Deterrence Without Resolve

Politics World

Visiting Taipei last August, Liberal Democratic Party Vice-President Asō Tarō created a minor media frenzy by stressing the “willingness to fight” as a condition for peace in the Taiwan Strait. The author explores the significance of Asō’s speech in the context of Japan-Taiwan relations.

Former Prime Minister Asō Tarō, vice-president of Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party, created quite a stir last summer with his three-day visit to Taiwan, August 7–9. The occasion was deemed newsworthy on two counts. One was the fact that it was the first recorded visit by a sitting LDP vice-president to the island since Japan severed formal diplomatic ties with the Republic of China more than 50 years ago. The other was Asō’s use of the phrase tatakau kakugo, or “willingness to fight,” in his August 8 keynote speech to the Ketagalan Forum.

In the following we will assess the importance of Asō’s visit from a historical standpoint and the significance of his message at a time of rising cross-strait tensions.

Avenues of Japan-Taiwan Exchange

The Japanese and Taiwanese governments have had no formal diplomatic relations since September 29, 1972. However, they have maintained unofficial ties through the Tokyo-based Japan-Taiwan Exchange Association (with offices in Taipei and Kaohsiung) and the Taipei-based Taiwan-Japan Relations Association (with Japanese offices under the name of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative in Japan). The offices of the Japan-Taiwan Exchange Association, including those in Taipei and Kaohsiung, are staffed primarily by Japanese civil servants on leave or seconded from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry, and other government agencies. Similarly, the Taiwan-Japan Relations Association and the offices of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative in Japan are staffed by Taiwanese civil servants seconded from key ministries in the Taiwanese government. Agreements between Japan and Taiwan take the form of nongovernmental accords signed by the two aforementioned associations with the full approval and support of the two governments.

Supplementing those ties are the activities of individual politicians from both countries. Japanese Diet members frequently visit Taiwan under the auspices of groups like the cross-partisan Japan-ROC Diet Members’ Consultative Council and the LDP Youth Division. Hagiuda Kōichi, chairman of the LDP Policy Research Council, traveled to Taipei on December 10, 2022, and a delegation of 12 LDP lawmakers led by House of Councillors Secretary General Sekō Hiroshige arrived there on the 28th of that month. In 2023, in the months leading up to Asō’s trip, some three dozen Diet members met with President Tsai Ing-wen in her offices in Taipei: a group of four LDP politicians from Kumamoto Prefecture (May 3), six members of the LDP Youth Division (May 4), four House of Councillors members led by Santō Akiko (also May 4), an eleven-member delegation of opposition party politicians (July 3), three members of the Japan-ROC Diet Members’ Consultative Council (July 5),  a party of two led by Abe Akie (July 19) , and a group of eight Nippon Ishin (Japan Innovation Party) lawmakers.

On the other hand, it is quite rare for top officers of either house of the Diet to visit Taiwan, although Etō Seishirō traveled there in May 2011 as vice-speaker of the House of Representatives to convey Japan’s gratitude for Taiwan’s assistance in the wake of the Great East Japan Earthquake. Cabinet officials—ministers, state ministers, and parliamentary vice-ministers—are also prevented from visiting Taiwan as a rule, although a state minister for internal affairs and communications did travel there on official business in March 2017. By comparison, senior Taiwanese officials are relatively free to visit Japan, with the notable exceptions of the president, vice-president, premier, foreign minister, and defense minister. In June 2023, a Taiwanese vice-premier (Cheng Wen-tsan) visited Japan for the first time in 29 years.

Significance of Asō’s Visit

The last LDP vice-president to visit Taiwan previously was Shiina Etsusaburō, whom Prime Minister Tanaka Kakuei sent there more than a half century ago to speak with Chiang Kai-shek about Tokyo’s imminent decision to normalize relations with the People’s Republic of China. At the time, Shiina held no cabinet position, although he had previously served as foreign minister and minister of international trade and industry. The position of LDP vice-president had been vacant for two years before Tanaka (as LDP president) appointed him in 1972. That was most likely a way of conferring a bit of prestige on Shiina prior to his September 1972 visit to Taiwan.

It would have been possible at that time to send the foreign minister or another member of the cabinet, given that Japan had yet to sever diplomatic relations with Taiwan. The Tanaka cabinet’s decision not to do so reflected its shift in diplomatic priorities as it prepared to normalize relations with Beijing and cut off formal ties with Taipei. Such were the awkward circumstances of Shiina’s visit to Taiwan.

By contrast, the government in Taipei was delighted to welcome Asō to Taiwan last August for his first visit in 12 years. Asō is not only one of the longest-serving members of the House of Representatives and the number-two figure in the ruling party but also a former prime minister. In this sense, he can be regarded as the highest-ranking Japanese politician to visit Taiwan since formal relations came to an end. Although Chief Cabinet Secretary Matsuno Hirokazu declined to comment publicly on the significance of Asō’s trip, we can be sure that the government sent him to Taiwan in full knowledge of the importance attached to a visit by such a distinguished politician.

Import of Asō’s Keynote Speech

The Ketagalan Forum, where Asō delivered his keynote speech, is a prestigious international conference on Indo-Pacific security issues held annually in Taiwan under the joint sponsorship of the Foreign Ministry and the Prospect Foundation, a think tank affiliated with the National Security Bureau. With presidential and legislative elections scheduled for January 13, 2024, the administration of President Tsai Ing-wen decided to showcase the strength of its ties with the Japanese government by inviting the sitting vice-president of Japan’s ruling party to give one of two keynote speeches at a forum attended by dignitaries and prominent scholars from around the world.

Asō’s speech attracted media attention above all for its use of the phrase tatakau kakugo, indicating a “willingness to fight'’ in defense of Taiwan. Of course, it was Asō, not his Taiwanese hosts, who chose those words. But given the theme of the conference, the Taiwanese government would have been expecting some quasi-official message regarding Japan-Taiwan relations and Tokyo’s foreign and security policies. The Japanese government, for its part, viewed Asō’s address as a means of sending some clear signals that would have been difficult to issue through official channels. Under the circumstances, it is reasonable to conclude that bureaucrats in the Japanese government played a central role in the preparation of Asō’s speech.

Indeed, Asō’s keynote address was a sweeping, carefully constructed foreign-policy speech. Asō, who served as foreign minister under Prime Minister Abe Shinzō, spoke of the development of Japan’s foreign policy since 2007, with special reference to such pivotal doctrines as the Arc of Freedom and Prosperity and a Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP). With this background as a springboard, he emphasized the importance of peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait, drawing on Japan’s three key strategic documents (the National Security Strategy, the National Defense Strategy, and the Defense Buildup Program) and citing statements issued by the Group of Seven and other international forums. He spoke of the role of the Comprehensive Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership in the economic security of the region and welcomed Taiwan’s application for membership. He also praised the Taiwanese government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Judging from the content and style, we can surmise that the speech was drafted by a select group of bureaucrats in the Foreign Ministry and then underwent multiple checks and revisions within the ministry and the Prime Minister’s Office before being reviewed by Asō himself. It would then have been handed to Prime Minister Kishida Fumio (LDP president), the only higher-ranking party officer, for final approval. Under the circumstances, the words tatakau kakugo should be regarded as a deliberate, albeit unofficial, message from the Japanese government.

But what exactly did Asō mean by tatakau kakugo? How literally should the words be taken?

The media were quick to pounce on the punchy phrase, using it for headlines and sound bites, but the context was a discussion of the use of deterrence to prevent war in the Taiwan Strait. Asō’s point was that deterrent power can only function effectively if one’s adversary knows that one has both the ability to fight and the will to use that ability when necessary. “What we need now,” he said, “is the will [kakugo] to put our strong deterrent power to work.” It was then that he uttered the phrase tatakau kakugo (willingness to fight) to clarify his meaning. The point was that showing oneself willing to fight is a necessary condition for building an effective deterrent.

A Message to Japan and Beijing

Some appear to have taken the phrase tatakau kakugo as an admonition to Taiwan to prepare for war, but having watched a video of Asō’s speech, I am quite convinced that those words were directed toward the Japanese people first and foremost and secondarily to the Chinese government, the object of the deterrence of which he spoke.

Raising the Japanese people’s concerns about a Taiwan contingency is by no means a bad thing. Unless one is aware of the possibility of an emergency, it is difficult to respond calmly and rationally when it occurs. Moreover, since we cannot deny the possibility that a Taiwan contingency could turn into a contingency for Japan, we must plan and prepare for various scenarios with that eventuality in mind. As I see it, the Japanese people have been all too slow to recognize how a Taiwan contingency could envelope Japan and to prepare accordingly.

Were China to launch a full-scale attack on Taiwan’s main island, the resulting conflict would in all likelihood eclipse the Korean War in scale and intensity. Were such an invasion to fail, it could lead directly to the collapse of China’s Communist regime. If China were to succeed (even if it limited itself to installing a pro-Beijing regime or turning Taiwan into a special administrative region with a separate system), the island would become a hotbed of unrest and instability worse than anything seen in Xinjiang or Tibet—a ticking time bomb.

The People’s Liberation Army does not yet possess the capability to successfully invade and occupy Taiwan’s main island. At this time, the Communist government has no compelling reason to risk an invasion and the possibility of failure. But it is also a fact that China remains firmly committed to reunification. For Beijing, the ideal scenario is to “win without a fight.” To secure such a painless victory, it is building an army capable of fighting and winning. To this end, President Xi Jinping has called on the PLA to ramp up practical military maneuvers and exercises in order to build a strong, combat-ready fighting force.

Taiwan’s ruling Democratic Progressive Party, which stands for Taiwanese identity and sovereignty, is heading into the January 2024 elections with a decided advantage now that plans for a Beijing-friendly alliance between the Kuomintang and the Taiwan People’s Party have collapsed. Dismayed by the prospect of another four-year DPP administration, China is likely to step up preparations for a possible invasion through intensive military maneuvers and exercises around Taiwan.

Taiwan, meanwhile, is demonstrating its determination to repel such an attack, as by building its own submarine, extending compulsory military service from four months to a year, strengthening the nation’s reserve forces, and implementing a national defense education program. Public opinion polls show a growing willingness among the Taiwanese to fight an invasion from China.

At such a time, it is more important than ever that Japan do what it can to help prevent war in the Taiwan Strait by demonstrating its own willingness to fight.

(Originally published in Japanese. Banner photo: Former Prime Minister and current Liberal Democratic Party Vice-President Asō Tarō speaks as Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen looks on at the Presidential Office in Taipei, August 8, 2023. © Jiji.)

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