The United States is committed to preventing China from militarily taking back Taiwan, but a Pentagon spokesman sidestepped questions Tuesday about a Japanese minister’s pledge to join any U.S.-led defense of the island democracy in a conflict.
In Tokyo, Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso told reporters Monday that if China attacked Taiwan, Japanese Self-Defense Forces would join the United States in seeking to prevent a takeover of the island, comments that drew instant and heated condemnation from the Chinese government.
“Nobody wants to see the situation dissolve into conflict and there’s no reason for it to,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said, when asked about the Japanese leaders’ comments. “We’re focused on making sure Taiwan can continue to defend itself.”
U.S. policy toward Taiwan has been guided by the U.S. version of a policy that recognizes mainland China’s communist government as the sole sovereign power there, while Taiwan’s sovereignty remains ambiguous. Chinese Nationalists fled to Taiwan and set up a separate Chinese government there in 1949, claiming to be the rightful power over all China, but the communist government in Beijing insists Taiwan is part of its sovereign territory.
Pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party governments have been in power in Taipei for more than 20 years.
Mr. Kirby said that separate from the defense of Taiwan, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has stated that U.S policy calls for integrated deterrence of China, involving closer alliances and partnerships in Asia. Integrated deterrence involves “netting our capabilities and our resources together across the joint force,” Mr. Kirby said at a Pentagon briefing.
“But also working with our allies and partners, and that certainly includes Japan, South Korea, Australia, many other partners in the region,” he added.
Mr. Kirby declined to speculate how the United States would respond to a conflict in any part of the Indo-Pacific region.
“We work closely with our Japanese allies for lots of good reasons in the region, and again, nothing’s changed about our policy with respect to Taiwan,” he said.
China has been stepping up provocative military activities near Taiwan in recent months by sending large numbers of surveillance and maritime patrol aircraft into Taiwan’s air defense zone, triggering numerous flights of Taiwanese F-16 interceptor jets. Two commanders of the Indo-Pacific Command, outgoing Adm. Philip Davidson and current commander Adm. John Aquilino, have told Congress that China could move militarily against Taiwan before the end of the decade or sooner.
A Chinese video promoted by state media this week showed a simulated ballistic missile attack on Taiwan, the London Times reported Monday.
The 11-minute video shows a barrage of Chinese missiles in a surprise attack on the island as Taiwan’s warning system failed and its fighter jets are destroyed.
China has an estimated 1,200 missiles deployed opposite Taiwan, according to the Pentagon.
Meanwhile, U.S. and Japanese naval forces recently conducted joint military exercises near the disputed Senkaku islands that news reports said were preparation for a joint defense of Taiwan.
“What we don’t want to see is any need for this to dissolve into conflict,” Mr. Kirby said. “We want to adhere to the one-China policy and we don’t want any unilateral changes in the situation with respect to Taiwan.”
China has not ruled out the use of force to retake Taiwan and President Xi Jinping last week emphasized in a speech marking the 100th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party that retaking Taiwan remains an “historic mission.”
Mr. Aso, the Japanese deputy prime minister, made the comments during a fundraising event, according to the Kyodo news agency.
“If a major problem took place in Taiwan, it would not be too much to say that it could relate to a survival-threatening situation [for Japan],” Mr. Aso said. “We need to think hard that Okinawa could be the next,” Aso added.
Mr. Aso’s comments followed earlier remarks by former White House Deputy National Security Adviser Matt Pottinger, who disclosed the importance of Taiwan to the Japanese military.
“There’s a saying in the Japanese military that Taiwan‘s defense is Japan‘s defense,” Mr. Pottinger said during a conference last month. “And I think that Japan will act accordingly.”
Japan’s military is limited under a post-World War II constitution to conducting defensive operations, and China and other Asian nations still express alarm at a re-militarized Japan. But Tokyo is also one of the closest U.s. military allies in Asia and the Pentagon has several important bases in Japan.
The 1979 Taiwan Relations Act commits the United States to providing defensive goods to Taiwan but stops short of committing American forces to a military defense.
A Chinese air force training manual contains references on the importance of the Chinese Communist Party annexing Taiwan at some point in the future, Mr. Pottinger said.
“It’s all about Japan,” Mr. Pottinger said. “If you read the excerpt of that manual, it basically says that China is going to take Taiwan in order to render Japan unable to wage war, unable to even defend itself, unable to even supply itself, and that if Taiwan were taken, basically China would be able to dominate the region and render Japan irrelevant.”
Japan’s Deputy Defense Minister Yasuhide Nakayama said during a conference at a Washington think tank last month that Taiwan, as a democratic country, should be protected.
The remarks by Mr. Aso, the deputy prime minister, prompted a swift rebuke from Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian.
“Those remarks are extremely wrong and dangerous as they severely violate principles set out in the four political documents between China and Japan and undermine the political foundation of China-Japan relations,” Mr. Zhao told reporters in Beijing. “China deplores and rejects this and has lodged solemn representations with Japan.”
Mr. Zhao said past Japanese militarism has resulted in crimes and aggression against China. Some Japanese politicians “are still coveting Taiwan to this day,” he said.
“We will never allow anyone to meddle in the Taiwan question in any way,” he said. “No one should underestimate the resolve, the will, and the ability of the Chinese people to defend their national sovereignty and territorial integrity.”
China and Japan have squared off over the disputed Senkaku Islands near Okinawa that have been under Japanese control for decades. China claims the Senkakus as its maritime territory, giving it title to suspected large underwater oil and gas deposits in the area.
Mr. Aso said Monday that disputes over Taiwan should be settled through dialogue.
“We have to think about various situations, such as not being able to pass through the Taiwan Strait,” Mr. Aso said. “It’s difficult to say overall which would be an existential threat.”
Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato, declined to comment when asked if Mr. Aso‘s comments on joining a U.S. defense of Taiwan were in line with Tokyo’s policies.
“Japan hopes the Taiwan issue will be resolved through direct dialogue between parties concerned in a peaceful manner. That has been our consistent stance,” Mr. Kato said.
Former State Department official John Tkacik said Japanese leaders appear united in viewing a Chinese assault on Taiwan as an existential threat.
“Both the deputy prime minister and defense minister are vocal about their insistence on Japan‘s strategic need to defend Taiwan in the context of their alliance with the U.S.,” Mr. Tkacik said. “And the foreign ministry has made its stance clear by addressing Taiwan as a ‘country.’”
Japanese leaders are engaged in a delicate balancing act aimed at preserving Japan’s trade ties with China while emphasizing the need to prevent a Chinese takeover of Taiwan.
“The signal to China is, ‘Don’t mistake Japan‘s rhetorical politeness for a weakness in our determination to defend Japan‘s strategic interests in the Taiwan Strait,’” Mr. Tkacik said.
• This article is based in part on wire service reports.