The Odd Couple: Japan & Taiwan’s Unlikely Friendship

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The Odd Couple: Japan & Taiwan’s Unlikely Friendship

Starting with people-to-people ties, Taiwan is far and away the most Japan-friendly state in Northeast Asia.

The Odd Couple: Japan & Taiwan’s Unlikely Friendship
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Japan does not have it easy among its neighbors. Koreans (from both Koreas) and Chinese won’t miss a chance to slam Japan for lack of repentance for Japan’s war-time crimes (needless to say, public figures in Japan give them a good reason every now and then), and relations with Russia, while not being as bad, still face the unresolved dispute over Kuril Islands. However, one relationships stands out in the otherwise awkward position of Japan in the region. Its relationship with Taiwan, while unofficial due to the peculiar status of Taiwan, is unlike any other Japanese bilateral relationship in Northeast Asia. Indeed, it would not be far-fetched to call Taiwan the most Japan-friendly state in Asia.

Naturally, there is no single explanation for why Taiwan does not join its neighbors in their collective dislike of Tokyo. There is certainly a mutual understanding that Taiwan needs Japan’s support should relations between Taiwan and China deteriorate. Likewise – and in the face of Beijing’s pressure on Tokyo regarding Diaoyutai/Senkaku despite – Japanese policymakers understand that Japan’s security would be seriously challenged should Taiwan fall under Beijing’s control. With the return of Shinzo Abe to premiership, there has been remarkable acknowledgment of the importance of Taiwan for Japan’s security. In a January 2013 White Paper, Japan’s defense ministry included a PRC attack on Taiwan as one of the scenarios that could prompt a Japanese conflict with China. Yet, the same could be said about South Korea. That is, it would be hard to imagine another Korean War that would see Japan cooperating with Seoul in one way or another. But relations between South Korea and Japan are a far cry from Tokyo’s relationship with Taiwan.

Another argument can be made that ties to Washington help to facilitate relations between Tokyo and Taipei. The U.S. would certainly not be pleased if Taiwan’s President ran on an anti-Japanese agenda. Taiwan needs the U.S. for its defense, hence, it is sound to assume that whoever is in charge in Taipei will moderate their policy toward Japan. Yet again, however, the same could be said about South Korea, which maintains a formal defense alliance with Washington and hosts a sizable contingency of U.S. troops. Yet, these factors have not resulted in cordial relations between Korea and Japan. Washington is certainly trying to decrease the level of antipathy between its two treaty allies, but it can’t claim much success on that front.

Democracy may also play a role in smoothing relations between Taiwan and Japan. But this too fails to account for why Japan and South Korea don’t have as positive of a relationship as Tokyo and Taipei. Indeed, as the case of Korea and Japan shows, democracy might actually help sow discord between two states as politicians feel the need to cater to public opinion.

Economics also cannot fully account for Japan and Taiwan’s strong bilateral relationship. Japan is Taiwan’s second largest trading partner, while Taiwan is the fifth largest for Japan. But Taiwan and China as well as Japan and China maintain even more extensive economic ties.  This can’t overcome the fact that China is Taiwan’s principal security threat and, as the recent Sunflower Movement reminds us, Taiwanese are having serious second thoughts about the direction of cross-strait relations. And China may be Japan’s largest trading partner but this has done little to prevent prolonged tensions over disputed islands in the East China Sea.

Another reason that Taiwan and Japan’s bilateral relationship has been so positive is that successive Taiwanese heads of state have held a positive view of Japan. Lee Teng-hui (Taiwan’s President 1988-2000) represents a generation of Taiwanese who received their education from Japan during the colonial period (1895-1945) and who speak Japanese fluently. Lee’s successor, Chen Shui-bian, from Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) also held a favorable view of Japan and sought closer security ties with Tokyo.

Yet, when the Kuomintang (KMT) party came to power under Ma Ying-jeou in 2008, many expected the new Taiwanese government to reduce ties with Japan at least at the very senior levels of government. This was not an unreasonable position given that the KMT of 2008 was a fundamentally different party from Lee Teng-hui’s KMT in the 1990s. Frustrated with its loss of the presidency for two terms, KMT embraced China (and the CCP) with Lien Chan’s visit in 2005. Moreover, the rapid improvement of cross-strait ties during the first years of Ma’s presidency puzzled Tokyo about where Taipei stood. Thus, the scene was set for a deterioration in bilateral relations.

Yet, nothing of the sort has happened. On the contrary, last April Taipei and Tokyo signed a fisheries agreement that laid down the rules under which Taiwanese fishermen can operate around the Diaoyutai/Senkaku islands. This is a remarkable agreement especially when seen within the broader context of maritime disputes in East and Southeast Asia. Japan signing a similar agreement with South Korea or China would be virtually unthinkable at the present time.

In short, then, their relationship with the U.S., economic ties, similar political systems and an affinity between national leaders all play a role in facilitating Taiwan and Japan’s strong bilateral relationship. But, as noted above, those factors are present with other nations, including some like South Korea which have strained relations with Japan. Perhaps the largest reason for the positive bilateral relationship, then, is that—unlike in other countries, ties with Japan are cherished by Taiwanese of all different groups.

Consider that a survey conducted by the Interchange Association Japan, Japan’s de facto embassy in Taiwan, found that 65 percent of Taiwanese feel either “close” or “really close” to Japan, which stands in stark contrast to China where over 90 percent of Chinese have either an “unfavorable” or “relatively unfavorable” opinions of Japan.

Indeed, Japan is overwhelmingly the most popular country among Taiwanese. When asked what their favorite country was in the same survey, 43 percent said Japan, while only single digits said Singapore, the U.S. or China. The support for Japan is even stronger among Taiwanese aged 20-29, with 54 percent of respondents in that age group listing Japan as their favorite foreign country. By contrast, only 2 percent of respondents between ages of 20 and 29 said China was their favorite foreign country.

A Japanese Foreign Ministry report on Taiwan-Japan relations reveals some of the reasons why Japan is viewed so favorable among Taiwanese. For example, 67 percent of Japanese say they feel either “very close” or “really close” to Taiwan, while tourism reached 1.5 million people in 2012.

This cordiality between the Japanese and Taiwanese people has virtually eliminated any anti-Japanese sentiment in Taiwan, as exemplified by the amount of (mostly private) donations Taiwanese made to Japan in the aftermath of the 3/11 earthquake and tsunami. There is also an aspect of positive interpretation of common history. It is former President Lee’s generation that maintains a generally positive interpretation of the colonial period, which compares favorable for many Taiwanese with the period of White Terror brought about by the Kuomintang after its retreat to Taiwan in 1949. But, as noted above, there is an immense support for Japan among younger population too. And that translates into great popularity of Japanese products. Young Taiwanese prefer to use Line over WhatsApp and WeChat for their instant messaging, Japan-born Hello Kitty is omnipresent on the streets in Taiwan, and Japanese anime has a large fan base in Taiwan. The positive ideas about history meet widespread admiration for Japanese cultural artifacts and fashion designs.

The friendship is not a top-down driven process; it goes well both ways and it makes Taiwan an outlier among Japan’s neighbors. Japanese, for their part, feel Taiwan’s positivity and reciprocate accordingly. From the perspective of Taiwan’s relations with China, partnership with Japan provides additional security while extensive people-to-people contacts make Japan perhaps the friendliest nation regarding Taiwan’s de facto independence. From the vantage point of Taiwan-U.S. relations, Japan’s genuine interest in preserving Taiwan’s status quo is complementary to the U.S. interests in protecting Japan. Moreover, regional efforts to strengthen the bilateral relationship are in line with declared U.S. policy of rebalancing to Asia and its “alliance network.” But all that stands on a solid and extensive networks of people-to-people contacts between the two island nations.

Michal Thim is a Ph.D. candidate in the Taiwan Studies Program at the China Policy Institute (CPI), University of Nottingham, CPI blog’s Emerging Scholar and a Research Fellow at the Prague-based think-tank Association for International Affairs. Michal tweets @michalthim.

Misato Matsuoka is a Ph.D. candidate at the Department of Politics and International Studies at the University of Warwick and CPI blog’s Emerging Scholar. Research interests cover the U.S.-Japan alliance, neo-Gramscianism and regionalism in Asia-Pacific.