Taiwan's Puzzling New Approach to Japan
Tsai Ing-wen meets with a delegation from Japanese House of Representatives led by Shunichi Yamaguchi.

Taiwan's Puzzling New Approach to Japan


Tsai Ing-wen led the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) to a major victory in the 2016 Taiwan election in January and took office in May. In contrast to former President Ma Ying-jeou and his KMT party’s pro-China regime, Tsai and her cabinet are expected to launch a major shift in foreign policy, making the DPP’s policy toward Japan a focal point. However, the first 100 days of Tsai’s presidency present a puzzling picture to many observers and analysts.

Over the past eight years, Ma’s pro-China political discourse reduced Chinese suspicion and interference in the development of Taiwan-Japan relations, and the interactions between Taiwan and Japan were largely unobstructed. However, in a bid to ensure his primacy and influence in cross-strait relations after his presidency, Ma shifted this approach. In the last year of his term, Ma launched a number of statements and actions on issues regarding historical memory and territorial disputes that are Sino-centric and largely confrontational toward Japan. These gestures have been widely interpreted as deliberately undermining Taiwan-Japan relations.

Tsai is not expected to continue Ma’s foreign policy, nor does the new international situation allow such continuity. Tsai is perceived to be more keen than Ma on developing “substantive” Taiwan-Japan relations, in areas such as economic and trade relations or even military cooperation in terms of sharing intelligence and defense technology. Currently, governments on both Taiwan and Japan expect a high degree of interaction, but resistance from China could grow stronger and prove to be a major obstacle.

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Since taking office, Tsai appointed former Premier Minister Frank Hsieh as representative in Japan and former National Security Council Secretary-General Chiou I-jen as president of the Association of East Asian Relations. Both men previously lived in Japan for some time and are famously fond of Japan. However, Tsai’s official Japan policy has so far not been as active as expected.

So far the biggest diplomatic event for Tsai has been the stripping of the island status of Taiwan-controlled Itu Aba (Taiping Island) in South China Sea. The development came as a result of the international arbitration case filed by the Philippines against China. The ruling reduced Itu Aba to reef status, thus undermining Taiwan’s claim to an exclusive economic zone around the feature. As a result, the Tsai administration issued a formal statement refusing to acknowledge the jurisdiction of the international court over Taiwan and thus arguing that the decision has no biding power. This move was widely interpreted as siding with China, much to other countries’ surprise (including Japan), but the domestic pressure within Taiwan made this statement the only reasonable and acceptable response from Tsai.

Tsai’s Japan policy has lagged behind in other ways. The Taiwan and Japan Marine Affairs Cooperation Dialogue, supposed to be held at the end of July, has been postponed. Tsai has also yet to appoint at least one Advisory Committee in charge of Japan affairs at the National Security Council, in accordance with prior practice.

Rather than foreign affairs, Tsai Ing-wen appears to have focused most of her efforts on domestic reforms since taking office, including launching pension reform and enacting a law on transitional justice. Those efforts ought to be ongoing during this critical period.

In her inaugural address on May 20, Tsai refused to recognize the 1992 Consensus despite China’s insistence, resulting in a precipitous cool down in cross-strait relations. China has a wealth of tools to undermine Tsai’s regime, such as restricting China-Taiwan economic interactions, obstructing Taiwan’s international participation, and reducing Taiwan’s official allies in the UN. Thus, Tsai’s administration has been walking a tight rope to avoid aggravating China while maintaining Taiwanese sovereignty.

In order to survive a period of tense cross-strait relations, in which her political capital may be quickly exhausted if engaged in incessant conflict with China, Tsai has chosen to be conservative in her foreign policy and avoid openly angering China.

Analysts have attributed this conservative strategy to her prudent characteristics as a negotiator, but Tsai is eventually expected to take steps in seeking more significant progress on Taiwan-Japan relations, in order to benefit Taiwan’s long-term security and de facto independence.

Compared to the critical importance of Taiwan-U.S. relations, the status of Taiwan-Japan relations was secondary in the past decades for both the Taiwanese and Japanese governments. This order of priority changed after the current administration of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe took office in 2012, as Japan responded to China’s expansion. Abe has since reformed Japan’s security provisions and foreign policy in favor of more active involvement on regional and international affairs.

For Taiwan, especially for Tsai Ing-wen and her pro-independence DPP government, Abe’s policy means that Taiwan-Japan relations will take on unprecedented significance. Taiwan should try to strengthen Taiwan-U.S. relations by persuading Japan, a major U.S. ally, to advocate for Taiwan’s strategic importance and Taiwanese interests. Taiwan and Japan’s interests align in urging the United States to rethink its role in the Asia-Pacific region and the cost of recent exchange of interests between the U.S. and China.

In order to reduce the Taiwanese economy’s overdependence on the Chinese market, Tsai’s international trade policy centers on joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership and building closer ties with the markets of ASEAN countries and India (Tsai’s “New Southbound Policy”). These effort will also require active assistance and cooperation from Japan if Taiwan is to achieve any substantive success.

If Tsai can be expected to turn toward Japan eventually, when precisely will she make her move? The Abe administration is seen as a pro-Taiwan regime that takes a tough stance on China. If the internal rules of the Liberal Democratic Party are not modified to allow Abe to take on a third term as LDP president, he will only serve as prime minister until 2018.

In this short window remaining between now and 2018, Abe has demonstrated his commitment to prioritize constitution revision, aiming to make Japan more active and flexible in its defense policy. Currently, Abe’s ruling coalition in both houses of the parliament occupies more than two-thirds of the entire legislature, achieving an absolute majority. This could be the last and best chance for Abe to create his political legacy. However, to revise the Constitution will also mean opening Japan and the region to more unrest and political uncertainty.

For Taiwan, then, time is short. It is unclear whether the current welcoming atmosphere in Japan will continue to be in place for Tsai if a new administration is installed or the situation is to otherwise change. The next prime minister’s foreign policy toward Taiwan may not continue Abe’s extremely friendly gestures, especially if Abe’s successor seeks to raise the priority of Japan-China relations.

The vagaries of international relations in the Asia-Pacific region have made it extremely difficult for Tsai’s diplomatic team to grasp fleeting opportunities, but there is precious little time for Taiwan to be inactive and overly prudent.

Chih-Cheng Chang is an Assistant Professor of Legal Studies at Graduate School of Law, Kyoto University, Japan. He is a columnist for Thinking Taiwan, which was founded by the NGO Thinking Taiwan Foundation created by President Tsai. He also writes for the Hong Kong Economic Journal. He is a member of the Asia Information Forum, a private think tank founded by Japanese diplomats in Tokyo.

Chih-Chin Chen is a Doctoral Candidate in the Sociology Department at the University of Maryland, College Park. He is a research fellow in the Participatory Budget Project in Taichung City in Taiwan. He is currently serving substitute military service in the Department of Education in Taiwan.

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