TOKYO (BLOOMBERG) - During his long tenure as Japanese prime minister, Mr Shinzo Abe deftly avoided overtures towards Taiwan that would jolt ties with China. Now, he has joined the growing chorus of Japanese voices calling for greater support for the democratically ruled island.
The former premier was among a group of Japanese lawmakers who gathered in a large wood-paneled room in Tokyo last week for a video conference with counterparts from Taiwan and the US to discuss shared concerns. Mr Abe, who retains leadership of a key ruling party faction, said Japan could not allow what happened in Hong Kong to befall Taiwan, according to broadcaster TBS.
Beijing regards Taiwan as a renegade province to be reunified, by force if necessary.
Mr Abe's embrace of a more supportive policy towards Taipei is emblematic of a broader shift across the Japanese government in response to Chinese President Xi Jinping's crackdown on Hong Kong and increased military activities in the Taiwan Strait. Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso, a long-time Abe ally, sparked a rebuke from Beijing last month after he told a gathering that Japan would have to work with the US to defend Taiwan in the event of a crisis.
Japan - which heavily relies on supply lines that pass by the island sitting as close as 110km to its territory - views the threat as existential. China's disregard for international protests against its efforts to silence Hong Kong pro-democratic opposition has fueled fears in Tokyo that it might be prepared to act similarly towards Taiwan, Japanese defence officials and lawmakers said.
"The reason is China's attitude," said Mr Akihisa Nagashima, a former vice-defence minister and lawmaker with the ruling Liberal Democratic Party. "Until now, we expected China to have good intentions, so we didn't say provocative things."
The change has facilitated US President Joe Biden's effort to stitch together a more cohesive coalition to check China's rise. Mr Biden and current Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga affirmed "the importance of peace and stability of the Taiwan Straits" during Mr Suga's visit to the White House in April - the first mention of the island in such a joint statement since both countries switched formal relations from Taipei to Beijing in the 1970s.
After pushing the Group of Seven nations to issue a joint statement on Hong Kong last year, Japan has focused increasingly on Taiwan. The Defence Ministry's annual "white paper" referred to the need for a sense of crisis over a potential US-China clash around Taiwan. Meanwhile, Defence Minister Nobuo Kishi - Mr Abe's brother - told Bloomberg News in June that Japan sees its security as directly linked to that of the island.
US Senator Bill Hagerty, a Tennessee Republican who attended the meeting with Abe last week, praised the harder line. "It was encouraging yet again to see Japan taking a much more clear-eyed view of the threat that China poses to Taiwan," said Mr Hagerty, who served as ambassador to Japan from 2017 to 2019.
The shift has been met with protests from China, where holding Japan to account for its imperialist history - including a half-century occupation of Taiwan - remains a potent nationalist rallying cry.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian dismissed the meeting attended by Mr Abe as "negative and wrong in both form and content" and warned that agreement on Taiwan sat at the "political foundation" of China's ties with Japan, as well as the US.
Dr Liu Jiangyong, a professor of international relations at Tsinghua University, said Mr Aso's remarks pointed to a "fundamental change" towards Taiwan and warned that relations were "set to deteriorate" if Tokyo didn't alter its course. "There might have already been a consensus within Japan's right-wing forces on Taiwan," Prof Liu said.
So far, Mr Suga's government has stopped short of actions that could spark another diplomatic crisis with Japan's largest trading partner. The last one in late 2012 saw protests and boycotts erupt in China after the Japanese government purchased a group of East China Sea islands, known as the Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China, that both sides lay claim to.
Japan has preferred more symbolic overtures towards Taiwan, such as allowing a delegation led by ex-Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori to attend the funeral for former Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui last year. Japan also shipped millions of coronavirus vaccine doses to Taiwan, as it struggled to procure enough supply amid a dispute with China.
"Taiwan and Japan are closely tied neighbours and have shown support for each other at difficult times," Ms Tsai Ing-wen, Taiwan's current president, wrote in a July 24 Facebook post marking the start of the Tokyo Olympic Games.
Like Mr Biden in Washington, Mr Suga has sought to reassure Beijing that its tilt towards Taiwan does not represent a shift away from its "one China" policy. His government has distanced itself from more provocative statements by China hawks, such as when Mr Yasuhide Nakayama, the No. 2 defence official, told a Washington think tank in June that it was necessary to protect Taiwan as a "democratic country".
"The competitive relationship between the United States and China has continued since the inauguration of President Biden, and the Biden administration emphasises uniting with allies and responding to China's offensive," said Dr Madoka Fukuda, a professor of global politics at Hosei University. "Japanese politicians also recognise that Japan should play an important role."
Former Defence Minister Itsunori Onodera said in an interview with Bloomberg last month that the conservative wording in the Defence Ministry's white paper probably understated the level of concern about China.
"What's happening in reality is even more serious," said Mr Onodera, adding that Japan has not faced a security challenge this significant since the end of World War II. "We can't write it that strongly in the white paper, but that's the feeling in the party."
What role Japan, whose pacifist constitution limits the activities of its military, would play in the event of a Taiwan contingency, is unclear. One priority would be to evacuate the roughly 15,000 Japanese citizens on the island, while it might also provide support for the US, on whom pacifist Japan relies for much of its defence capability.
American and Japanese military officials began planning for a possible conflict with China over Taiwan last year, the Financial Times reported July 1, citing people with knowledge of the matter. The activity includes top-secret tabletop war games and joint exercises in the South China Sea and East China Sea.
"China has without doubt built up its military with Taiwan in mind," Mr Onodera said. "Once a certain level of preparation is done, it's a question of when they put it into effect. That's the phase we're entering now."