ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
At the center of tensions between the U.S. and China lies Taiwan. Beijing has threatened to take the island by force if necessary. The Biden administration is counting on help from its allies, especially Japan, to deter such a move. As NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports, Japan's position on the issue is undergoing a remarkable shift.
ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: For the past half-century, Japan has recognized Beijing, not Taipei, as China's legitimate government. The question of what Japan would do if the mainland attacked Taiwan was, if not unthinkable, at least unmentionable. That's now changed.
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YASUHIDE NAKAYAMA: We have to protect the Taiwan as a democratic country.
KUHN: That's Deputy Defense Minister Yasuhide Nakayama speaking at the Hudson Institute think tank in Washington last month. At a May summit, President Biden and Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga became their countries' first leaders in 50 years to publicly raise the Taiwan issue in a statement. Retired Admiral Yoji Koda is former commander of the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force Fleet. He says that the recent official comments don't mean that Tokyo is changing its policy but that Japan's relationship with China...
YOJI KODA: As our neighbors should be more pragmatic and practical. Pragmatic and practical means we need to say what we think.
KUHN: Koda says Japan is reacting to China's political and military muscle-flexing in the region, which makes Japan feel less secure. Japan's response to an attack on Taiwan, though, would be constrained by its postwar constitution, which limits the use of its military.
JEFFREY HORNUNG: So the United States would not expect Japanese forces to be right on the frontline of the - you know, the sharp end of the spear.
KUHN: Jeffrey Hornung is a political scientist at the RAND Corporation.
HORNUNG: Japan's strength - it's been built around a defensive capacity.
KUHN: If Japan were directly attacked, its military could fight in self-defense. If not, Hornung says, there are still things Japan could do to help the U.S. short of sending troops to Taiwan, like reconnaissance.
HORNUNG: Defense of U.S. bases, defense of Japanese waters like defending chokepoints or defending airspace.
KUHN: The change in Japan's rhetoric has its critics. Former defense official Kyoji Yanagisawa says it doesn't matter what Japan's role would be in a possible conflict over Taiwan. If the U.S. and China fight, Japan is going to get hit.
KYOJI YANAGISAWA: (Through interpreter) As long as the U.S. military uses Japanese bases to launch attacks, Japan will certainly be affected in the event of an emergency with Taiwan. We cannot avoid being involved. Sooner or later, Taiwan emergency will turn into a Japan emergency.
KUHN: The problem, he says, is that Japanese officials are now thinking more about how to win a conflict than how to avoid it in the first place. He adds that Japan's government now appears to have completely sided with the U.S., but he cautions that the more ties between Beijing and Washington deteriorate, the more Tokyo needs to keep its lines of communication to both sides open.
YANAGISAWA: (Through interpreter) Given its position, Japan should insist that the U.S. avoid anything that could lead to war. At the same time, Japan should insist on the same from China.
KUHN: But retired Admiral Yoji Koda argues that Japan must also prepare for a worst-case scenario. He expects the U.S. and Japan to draft an operational plan for a Taiwan conflict within the next year or so. If it fails to do so, he says the...
KODA: Japanese government would be called the most stupid government in Japanese history.
KUHN: Perhaps not now, he adds, but by historians and strategists in centuries to come.
Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Seoul.
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