TOKYO — North Korea has for years lobbed missiles into Japan’s waters without great incident. But for an increasingly powerful and aggressive China to do the same — as it did Thursday as a part of military exercises — has sharply raised concerns in political and security circles from Tokyo to Washington.
Beijing’s firing of five missiles into Japanese waters to the east of Taiwan has sent a warning to both the United States and Japan about coming to the aid of Taiwan in the event of a conflict there, analysts said.
Beijing wants to remind Washington that it can strike not only Taiwan, but also American bases in the region, such as Kadena air base on Okinawa, as well as any marine invasion forces, said Thomas G. Mahnken, a former Pentagon official who is now president of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington.
It also reminds the Japanese that the American military presence on Okinawa makes Japan a target, he added.
Daniel Sneider, an expert on Japan’s foreign relations at Stanford University, said the Chinese “want to demonstrate that they have the capability to impose a blockade on Taiwan, and they want to send a very clear message to those that would come to the aid of Taiwan — the U.S. and Japan — that they can target them as well.”
“If anyone in Japan thought they could avoid involvement in a conflict in the Taiwan Strait,” Mr. Sneider added, “the Chinese have demonstrated that’s not the case.”
Analysts also suggested that China’s military exercises in the waters around Taiwan seem likely to alter the status quo in the region, just as exercises in 1995 and 1996 obliterated the median line in the center of the Taiwan Strait.
“This exercise will last for only three days,” said Tetsuo Kotani, professor of international relations at Meikai University and a senior fellow at the Japan Institute of International Affairs, “but this kind of massive exercise will possibly become routine over the next few years.”
U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, whose visit to Taiwan this week ignited regional tensions, arrived in Japan Thursday night and is expected to meet with top Japanese politicians on Friday, starting with a breakfast with Prime Minister Fumio Kishida.
Some analysts have argued that if Beijing’s intent was to intimidate Japan, the missile shots might have the opposite effect on Japan’s leaders.
“Seeing something like this unfolding and having Chinese missiles landing in Japan’s economic zone may actually accelerate the argument for a more rapid increase in defense spending,” said Yuki Tatsumi, director of the Japan program at the Stimson Center, a Washington think tank.
Japan has for years warily eyed the growing strength of its neighbor, and has begun plans to take more responsibility for its own defense, working closer with its allies to counter China and relying less on Washington.
That evolution from its pacifist, postwar orientation gained new impetus with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, after which the ruling Liberal Democrats recommended doubling military spending to 2 percent of gross domestic product.
More hawkish politicians have pushed for Japan to develop a first-strike capability with conventionally armed missiles, and even suggested that the country could one day host American nuclear weapons as a deterrent. Such talk would have been unthinkable a decade ago.
Taiwan, only 68 miles from a Japanese military base on Yonaguni Island, in Okinawa prefecture, lies at the center of Tokyo’s security concerns. It is one of Japan’s largest trade partners, is a major source of advanced computer chips and lies astride a narrow strait through which virtually all of Japan’s energy resources are shipped.
Policymakers fear that any military confrontation over the island would inevitably draw in Japan, which hosts U.S. military bases on nearby Okinawa and has had a contentious territorial dispute with Beijing over the Senkaku Islands.
In its most recent white paper, Japan’s Defense Ministry cautioned that the country should have “a sense of crisis” over the possibility of a U.S.-China confrontation.
Preparing for such an event, military planners have increased coordination with American forces and moved more troops and missile batteries to islands in southern Japan, which could be on the front lines of a clash.
In December, during remarks to a Taiwanese policy organization, Shinzo Abe, the former prime minister, who was assassinated last month, warned that a “Taiwan crisis would be a Japan crisis. In other words, a crisis for the U.S.-Japan alliance.”
In an opinion article in April in The Los Angeles Times, he called for the United States to clarify its policy of “strategic ambiguity” toward the island, arguing that it is “fostering instability in the Indo-Pacific region, by encouraging China to underestimate American resolve.”
The Japanese public has taken a keen interest in the question of Taiwan’s security in recent years, as worries have grown about supply chains, China’s regional military activity and its treatment of Uighurs and its hostility to democratic governance in Hong Kong. Since the start of the pandemic, public opinion has shifted decisively against China, while support for Taiwan has grown apace.
Shortly after the missiles landed, Tokyo issued a formal protest to China and called on it to immediately stop its military exercises near Taiwan, Japan’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
Speaking to reporters, Japan’s defense minister, Nobuo Kishi, called the incident “a grave issue that concerns our national security and the safety of the people.”
Earlier on Thursday, before the missiles were fired, Hua Chunying, a spokeswoman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, had told reporters that Beijing did not recognize Japan’s economic zone, where the missiles landed.
China also called off a meeting between its foreign minister, Wang Yi, and his Japanese counterpart, Yoshimasa Hayashi, after the Group of 7 industrialized nations issued a statement expressing concern about Beijing’s “threatening actions” around Taiwan.
The missile incident is in some ways a familiar routine for Japan, which has seen 10 North Korean ballistic missiles land in its economic zone since 2016. In the short term, according to Ms. Tatsumi, the analyst, Japan’s response to Beijing is likely to follow the same playbook as with Pyongyang: diplomatic protests and more vigilance.
“Japan definitely does not want to be blamed by China for quote unquote overreacting,” she said, “so they won’t counter with anything physical, but their monitoring will ramp up.”
In the longer term, however, China should expect Japan to harden itself militarily, she said.
“It will not slow down Japan’s debate on increasing its defense spending,” she added. “If anything it will probably accelerate it, and it will also accelerate conversations between the U.S. and Japan.”
Hisako Ueno and Makiko Inoue contributed reporting from Tokyo, and Eric Schmitt from Washington.
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