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Japan’s Taiwan Policy – Is Deeper Engagement the New Normal?

Thursday, September 9, 2021

Taiwan has become an important issue for Japanese politicians and voters, notes Kato Yoshikazu of the Rakuten Securities Economic Research Institute. Suga Yoshihide’s successor as prime minister will have to navigate a tricky environment in which Tokyo and Taipei edge closer to each other and work together as “like-minded” partners who share democratic values as well as strategic interests in the Asia-Pacific region.

Japan’s Taiwan Policy – Is Deeper Engagement the New Normal?

Uniform protocol: Chinese Taipei judoka Yang Yung-wei (first left) celebrates his Olympic silver medal (Credit: David McIntyre/DGM Photography)

On September 3, Japanese Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide revealed that he would not run again for leadership of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). "I want to focus on the coronavirus response," Suga, whose popularity had been flagging in the runup to the Tokyo Olympic Games in August, told reporters. "I judged that I cannot juggle both [the fight against Covid-19 and the preparations needed to run in the party election] and that I should concentrate on just one of them."

The question now is who will succeed Suga as LDP leader – and thus prime minister – during this unprecedented crisis for Japan’s public health, economy, and national security. With an internal party election scheduled for September 29, potential premiers have already stepped up. The pandemic and its handling may not be the only key issue that will shape the outcome of the race. Foreign policy – specifically, Japan’s relations with China and its position on Taiwan – looks to be among the topmost concerns among voters.

Farewell, Mr Suga: Even with the prime minister bowing out, Japan’s policy of closer engagement with Taiwan is set to move forward (Credit: Prime Minister’s Office of Japan)

Farewell, Mr Suga: Even with the prime minister bowing out, Japan’s policy of closer engagement with Taiwan is set to move forward (Credit: Prime Minister’s Office of Japan)

Kishida Fumio, an influential party leader and foreign minister from 2012 to 2017 under then prime minister Abe Shinzo, had already announced his candidacy for LDP leader on August 26. In an interview with Bloomberg News on the same day as Suga’s surprise announcement, Kishida zeroed in on what he regarded as a critical foreign-policy challenge for Japan. “Taiwan is at the frontline of the standoff between the US and China,” he said. “Looking at the situation with Hong Kong and the Uyghurs, I have a strong feeling that the Taiwan Strait will be the next big problem”. He insisted that, as authoritarian nations assert themselves in the world, Japan should cooperate more with Taiwan and with countries that share Japanese values of freedom, democracy and the rule of law. (When Japan recognized the People’s Republic of China (PRC) as the sole legal government of China in 1972, it also stipulated that the Japanese government “fully understands and respects” Beijing’s stand that “Taiwan is an inalienable part of the territory of the PRC”.)

Kishida is no foreign-policy hawk. He is widely perceived as moderate – balanced and open-minded, even liberal. His potential competitors for the LDP leadership – Kono Taro, who succeeded Kishida as foreign minister before taking over the defense portfolio late in Abe’s final term; Ishiba Shigeru, who served as defense minister from 2007 to 2008 under prime minister Fukuda Yasuo; and Takaichi Sanae, Abe’s minister of state for Okinawa and Northern Territories affairs from 2006 to 2007 – are regarded as much tougher and tend to take a fighting stance against those who might threaten Japan’s national interests and security.

In this light, Kishida’s comment about Taiwan, therefore, may not reflect his personal view but should be regarded as an indication of the prevailing perspective in Japan, not just in political circles including within the Japanese Communist Party but broadly among the population.

Conflict in the Taiwan Strait is widely seen in Japan as one of the biggest security risks the country faces. Most Japanese consider Taiwan as a de-facto country, not a part of China. A Nikkei and TV Tokyo poll in April found that 74 percent of respondents favored Japan taking efforts to ensure stability in the Taiwan Strait, with 13 percent opposed.

They are not going to miss their shots: Tokyo’s fourth donation of Covid-19 vaccines arrives in Taipei, September 7 (Credit: @MOFA_Taiwan on Twitter)

They are not going to miss their shots: Tokyo’s fourth donation of Covid-19 vaccines arrives in Taipei, September 7 (Credit: @MOFA_Taiwan on Twitter)

Japanese politicians regularly “slip up” and refer to Taiwan as a country. Suga did so in June this year when, in a parliamentary debate, he named Taiwan together with Australia and New Zealand as “three countries” that had imposed restrictions on privacy to fight Covid-19.

More blatantly purposeful was State Minister of Defense Nakayama Yasuhide in a discussion that same month organized by the Hudson Institute, a conservative Washington-based think tank. He questioned the durability of the “one-China” policy. Noting Taiwan’s proximity to Japan’s Okinawa prefecture, where US military are based, Nakayama is reported to have described Japan and Taiwan as “really close”, explaining that “we are not friends, we are brothers”. He added: “So we have to protect Taiwan as a democratic country.” China’s foreign ministry criticized the comment as “erroneous and a serious violation”.

In its coverage of the Tokyo Olympics opening ceremony, public broadcaster NHK showed just where the Japanese are on the Taiwan issue when it defied International Olympic Committee protocol and introduced the Chinese Taipei team as “Taiwan”. Japanese citizens and, to be sure, Taiwan people lauded the gesture.

Since Joe Biden took office in the United States, Japan has taken a tougher diplomatic stance over Taiwan. When Suga visited the White House in April, the first foreign leader to meet Biden since his inauguration, the two leaders stressed “the importance of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait” and encouraged the “peaceful resolution of cross-Strait issues” in their joint statement, the first time since 1969 that the matter was referred to in a Japan-US post-summit communiqué. The exact same sentence made it into the leaders’ declaration issued after the G7 summit hosted by the UK in June.

Unofficial welcome: US President Biden sent retired officials to Taipei, where they met Taiwan leader Tsai Ing-wen, who tweeted this photo (Credit: @iingwen on Twitter)

Unofficial welcome: US President Biden sent retired officials to Taipei, where they met Taiwan leader Tsai Ing-wen, who tweeted this photo (Credit: @iingwen on Twitter)

The embrace of Taiwan and the expression of concern for security in the Taiwan Strait should be viewed in the context of attempts to shape a concerted stance on China among the allied Western democracies. With China stepping up economic, diplomatic and military pressure on Taiwan, the US and some Western leaders are casting their support for Taipei as a matter of defending democratic values, freedom and regional security. In his election campaign and since taking office, Biden has pledged to convene a “Summit for Democracy”, which is planned for December. The president is under pressure to invite Taiwan’s Tsai Ing-wen, who is keen to be among the dozens of world leaders expected to attend.

Concern for the Taiwan Strait and support for Taiwan in Japan stems from fears of China among Japanese. According to an NHK poll conducted after the G7 summit in June, 80 percent of respondents feel threatened by Beijing’s expansive maritime policies in the East and South China Seas. Furthermore, Japan business leaders are worried about the threat posed to trade and commerce posed by instability in the region. “If these risks materialize in Taiwan, a severe supply chain shock from the semiconductor industry could greatly depress the global economy”, Nogimori Minoru, senior economist at the Japan Research Institute, argues in a recent Japan Research Institute JRI Research Journal analysis.

Party lines: Sato Masahisa, convenor of the LDP working group on Taiwan, speaks after the “2+2” virtual talks between lawmakers from Japan and Taiwan (Credit: @wentisung on Twitter)

Party lines: Sato Masahisa, convenor of the LDP working group on Taiwan, speaks after the “2+2” virtual talks between lawmakers from Japan and Taiwan (Credit: @wentisung on Twitter)

Growing tensions and concerns over the Taiwan Strait have prompted Tokyo to move forward its Taiwan policy substantially but with due care. At the end of August, lawmakers from the ruling parties in Japan and Taiwan held “2+2” virtual talks. They emphasized that their governments agreed on the perceived threat from China, reaffirming the desire to strengthen cooperation to counter it. Leading the Japanese side was the head of the LDP’s foreign affairs division, Sato Masahisa, a retired colonel in the Self-Defense Forces, and Otsuka Taku, the party’s national defense division chief.

In February, the LDP had launched a working group on Taiwan, which Sato, a member of the upper house of Japan’s parliament, is steering. In June, the panel published its first policy paper, “Rethinking Japan’s Taiwan policy”, which considered Taipei’s importance to Japan and what members viewed as China’s provocative behavior that is disrupting the status quo in the region.

In an account of the 2+2 talks posted on his personal blog, Sato said that the LDP group brought its recommendations to the table. The conference lasted 90 minutes, a half hour longer than planned, with the legislators discussing how Tokyo and Taipei could strengthen cooperation based on planning for a possible “Taiwan emergency”.

The Japanese side also raised the importance of Taiwan participating in World Health Organization (WHO) activities to enable it to confront the Covid-19 pandemic effectively. They urged Taiwan to apply as soon as possible to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), the most ambitious rules-based trade agreement across the Asia-Pacific region, which Japan led to conclusion after the US withdrew from the pact in 2017. Given the absence of official diplomatic relations between Tokyo and Taipei, party-to-party diplomacy becomes more relevant. “This framework could be effective if the ruling-party lawmakers formulate common goals and then make proposals to the governments,” said Sato.

The perspective on the Taiwan Strait of Sato and his colleagues, which reflects the views of the Japanese political, business and academic mainstream, could have a strong influence the next Japanese prime minister for two reasons. First, solidarity and closer cooperation with Taiwan in the face of the difficulties of managing the relationship with China would be a popular policy for the new administration. Second, doing so would fit with the emerging Biden strategy in the Indo-Pacific and the approach to Beijing.

Washington is of course Tokyo’s most important ally. The Biden administration has been quick to signal its aim to strengthen its relationship with Taipei and support Taiwan’s efforts to expand its international space even as Beijing has sought to block them.

In April, the president sent to Taiwan an unofficial bipartisan delegation of retired senior officials – Richard Armitage, deputy secretary of state in the administration of George W Bush; James Steinberg, who held the same job when Barack Obama was president; and Christopher Dodd, who served as a senator from 1981 to 2011. “I can tell you one thing about President Biden’s administration,” Armitage told Tsai when they met her. “He has only one purpose in mind, and it’s not vexation. His purpose is only to support the continuation of this great democracy, which you all have built and which you are now leading.”

An office by any other name: In 2017, the Interchange Association, Japan’s representative office in Taipei, changed the sign over its entrance (Credit: MOFA Taiwan)

An office by any other name: In 2017, the Interchange Association, Japan’s representative office in Taipei, changed the sign over its entrance (Credit: MOFA Taiwan)

Although the US and Japan have not changed their “one-China” policies based on their respective official communiqués signed with Beijing and have declared that they would not to support Taiwan independence, a new, more active policy on the Taiwan Strait and relations with Taipei appears to be evolving, much to Beijing’s irritation. Tokyo and Washington are edging away from an unambiguous strict adherence to keeping a low-key relationship with Taiwan to a more robust exchange predicated on the need to defend and strengthen democratic values and security. (Other countries too have been pitching in support with nomenclature adjustments, notably Lithuania, which announced in July that it would allow Taipei to open a representative office in Vilnius using the name “Taiwan”, and the Netherlands which in April changed the name of its “trade and investment office” in Taiwan to “Netherlands Office Taipei”.)

On NHK’s Sunday Debate program broadcast on September 5, Japanese Foreign Minister Motegi Toshimitsu pointed out that “the US’s priority has now shifted from the Middle East to the Indo-Pacific”. Tokyo would welcome this move and expect the US government to invest more in the region generally and in the security of the Taiwan Strait in particular. This change would affect Japan’s future discourse with China on their territorial dispute over the Senkaku Islands, or Diaoyu Islands, as they are called by the Chinese. “I do not deny that Japan is doing more and moving forward more than in previous times on Taiwan issues,” said a Japanese career diplomat engaged in Asia policy. “China may get angry and upset, but this is an unstoppable process.” In other words, no matter who succeeds Suga, deeper engagement with Taiwan is the “new normal” in Japanese foreign policy.

Opinions expressed in articles published by AsiaGlobal Online reflect only those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of AsiaGlobal Online or the Asia Global Institute

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