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Japan and the U.S. would have to defend Taiwan together in the event of a major problem, Kyodo News reported Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso as saying, marking some of the highest-level remarks from Tokyo on the sensitive subject.

In comments at a political fundraising party in Tokyo on Monday, Aso said an invasion of Taiwan by China could be seen as an existential threat, allowing Japan to exercise the right to collective self-defense, Kyodo reported.

Japan has sought to avoid alienating China, its biggest trading partner, while maintaining its alliance with the U.S., amid tensions between the world’s two largest economies over topics ranging from the origins of COVID-19 to human rights. Recent comments about Taiwan by some Japanese officials have nonetheless angered China, which sees Taiwan as part of its territory.

China saw the comments as “extremely wrong and dangerous,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said Tuesday at a regular news briefing in Beijing. “We will never allow any country in any way to interfere in the Taiwan question and nobody should underestimate the Chinese people’s strong determination, will and ability to safeguard national sovereignty.”

Last week President Xi Jinping struck a defiant tone on the issue in a speech marking the Communist Party’s 100-year anniversary, calling China’s quest to gain control of Taiwan a “historic mission” and warning the country’s adversaries to avoid standing in the way of his government.

Aso told reporters Tuesday the most desirable outcome was for the parties involved to reach a peaceful solution through direct talks.

“We have to think about various situations, such as not being able to pass through the Taiwan Strait,” Aso said. “It’s difficult to say overall which would be an existential threat.”

The government’s top spokesman, Katsunobu Kato, told a briefing he didn’t know the details of Aso’s comments on defending Taiwan and declined to comment on them.

Tensions have grown around Taiwan in recent months, with China sending 28 military planes close to the island in June, the largest exercise this year.

Japanese Vice Defense Minister Yasuhide Nakayama said in a presentation to a Washington think tank last month that China presented a growing threat, and it was necessary to protect Taiwan as a “democratic country.”

Chinese officials urged Japan to disavow the remarks, which they described as sinister, irresponsible and dangerous. Japanese government spokesman Kato said the comments represented a personal view, while Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi said there was no change to Japan’s support for the “one China” policy, under which Taiwan is not treated as a country, TBS news reported.

Japan has demonstrated support for Taiwan, including by donating about two million doses of vaccine to its neighbor, as Taipei has blamed China for impeding shipments of the shots. The second shipment of donated vaccines was set for delivery Thursday, Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi said.

While Japan’s pacifist constitution limits the scope of its military, a 2015 reinterpretation of the document allows it to send troops to overseas conflicts in some circumstances.

Aso, 80 and a former prime minister, has a history of controversial remarks, including in 2013 suggesting that Japan learn from the Nazis. He later withdrew the comment. In the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, he explained Japan’s relatively low death rate from the disease by saying its people were of a different cultural level.

A Taiwanese flag flies over Taipei.
A Taiwanese flag flies over Taipei. (Adam Jones/Wikicommons)

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