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Threat of Chinese sanctions tests Japan's resolve on Taiwan

Heavy price tag looms over Tokyo for its decision to stand with the US

Protesters march against Japan's decision to nationalize the Senkaku Islands, which are claimed by China as the Diaoyu, in September 2012. Japan's government and businesses could face renewed pushback over its latest leaders' statement with the U.S. on Taiwan.   © Reuters

TOKYO -- Four days after Japan and the U.S. issued a joint leaders' statement that mentioned Taiwan for the first time in 52 years, Chinese President Xi Jinping broke his silence at the Boao Forum for Asia on Tuesday, railing against what he saw as foreign meddling.

"Bossing others around or meddling in others' internal affairs would not get one any support," Xi said at his keynote speech for the event.

China's response to the Taiwan statement has been relatively restrained, all things considered. Still, Xi's remark was not the first sign of Chinese dissatisfaction.

"We advise Japan to stay away from the Taiwan question," the Communist Party-backed Global Times had said in a recent editorial. "The deeper it is embroiled in, the bigger the price it will pay." 

Since foreign and defense ministers from Japan and the U.S. met last month for a "two-plus-two" dialogue, China has been increasingly critical of Japan but at times moderated the tone by portraying Japan as a vassal of the U.S.

But that charitable view vanished after the Japan-U.S. summit in Washington on Friday, according to Bonji Ohara, a senior fellow at the Tokyo-based Sasakawa Peace Foundation.

"Since the summit, China now sees Japan as a U.S. partner, and believes they are mounting a joint challenge against Beijing," he said. "China is still weighing its options, but it will likely step up various pressures against Japan moving forward."

A Japanese commitment to contingencies on the Taiwan Strait carry more of a significance for both the U.S. and China than Tokyo may realize.

Take the Pacific Deterrence Initiative by the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, for example.

China's military presence in the Indo-Pacific surpasses that of the U.S., and Beijing is close to establishing a defensive line in the region that is capable of fending off U.S. threats. Unless the U.S. can break this defense line, it cannot block a hypothetical military invasion of Taiwan.

The Pacific Deterrence Initiative is designed to drive a wedge into this defensive line with a network of precision-strike missiles and other weaponry along the so-called first island chain, which extends from Japan's Okinawa islands to Taiwan and the Philippines. In a March report to Congress, the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command requested roughly $27 billion in spending on the missile network for the six years through fiscal 2027.

China believes Japanese contributions to the U.S.-led missile network could directly affect the outcome of any potential operations against Taiwan. 

China has excelled at enacting retaliatory measures that hit countries where it hurts the most. When South Korea decided to deploy the U.S.-developed Terminal High Altitude Area Defense missile shield in 2016, China retaliated by squeezing travel to South Korea and restricting South Korean entertainment content. South Korean products were boycotted across China as well.

More recently, China imposed trade penalties against Australian coal, wine and beef after Canberra called for an inquiry into the origins of the coronavirus last year.

China's retaliatory measures have been particularly effective in South Korea, where President Moon Jae-in is now struggling to strike the right balance between the U.S. and China. Although South Korea's reluctance to take a clear side could erode U.S. trust, the country is wary of reigniting China's ire.

The South Korean government said last week that Moon would visit the U.S. in late May, though no summit agenda has been set -- a sign that trilateral cooperation between Japan, the U.S. and South Korea may be fracturing beyond repair.

The power struggle within Beijing is only expected to grow as Xi seeks a rare third term as China's leader at the Communist Party Congress next year. Retaliating against Japan could help the Xi administration ramp up pressure against the U.S. and its partners, while satisfying hawks at home amid a growing power struggle.

Japanese businesses would likely bear the brunt of the blow. They have suffered the consequences of diplomatic disputes in the past, from property damage caused by anti-Japan rallies to arrests. It remains to be seen how Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga plans to communicate with Japan's businesses and face political risks together -- one of many challenges that face Japan's alliance with the U.S. 

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