Despite applying considerable pressure on Tokyo in recent weeks, Beijing was unable to prevent the Japanese government from rolling out the red carpet for former Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui last week. During a visit to Japan, Lee addressed a packed Diet and had a meeting with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Besides showcasing the longstanding warm relationship between Japan and Taiwan, the Abe government’s decision to stand up to Chinese pressure presages a likely deepening of ties between Tokyo and Taipei, the result of both growing fears of China’s assertiveness as well as political change in Taiwan.
In a strong protest on July 24 after Lee, 92, was allowed in Japan, a spokesman at China’s Foreign Ministry expressed Beijing’s “grave concern” over the visit by the former leader, whom he described as “a stubborn Taiwan splittist.”
On the same day, Ma Xiaoguang, a spokesman for the State Council’s Taiwan Affairs Office, said Beijing “strongly oppose[s] any country providing a stage for ‘Taiwan independence’ activities, and take strong umbrage at Japan allowing Lee to visit.”
Ma continued: “Lee’s contemptible acts have made compatriots from both sides see more clearly the extreme harms ‘Taiwan independence’ forces do to the peaceful development of cross-Strait relations and the integral benefit of the Chinese nation, and will surely be scorned by compatriots from both sides.”
Undeterred, Tokyo invited Lee, who presided over Taiwan’s democratization in the late 1980s and was the country’s first freely elected president in 1996, to give his first address ever at the Diet, Japan’s parliament, which was attended by about 400 members.
Tokyo further exhibited its independence from China’s pressure when Abe held a 90-minute meeting with Lee over breakfast. Although Lee declined to comment on the meeting, independent sources have confirmed that the two leaders did meet.
Known for his firm stance on China, Abe has made no secret of his affinity for Taiwan, which he visited in 2010. During that trip, he held meetings with Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou as well as paying an unscheduled courtesy call to members of the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). Despite referring to Japan as the Republic of China’s (Taiwan) “best friend,” Ma has been known for his at best lukewarm regard for Japan, which governed Taiwan from 1895 until 1945.
Tensions between Japan and China have risen markedly since Abe’s visit, in large part due to the territorial dispute over the Diaoyutai islets in the East China Sea, known as the Senkakus in Japan. China’s unilateral declaration of an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) in the East China Sea as well as militarization of the South China Sea, which has threatened to destabilize the region, forced Tokyo to join other governments in reassessing its stance on China. Hedging, rather than accommodation, became the main policy, with renewed interest in welcoming the U.S. back to the region as a “security guarantor.”
Taiwan is also a claimant to the Senkaku/Diaoyutais. Remarks by Lee in Tokyo last week, to the effect that the islets belong to Japan, prompted an angry response from Beijing and accusations of “treason” by Ma’s Kuomintang (KMT), which has threatened to take the former president to court and to suspend his pension entitlements as a former head of state.
Meanwhile, the rapprochement that has occurred between Taiwan and China since Ma assumed office in 2008 has also stirred some apprehensions in Tokyo. Although Japan, like much of the rest of the world, has welcomed the reduced tensions in the Taiwan Strait, fears have risen in recent years that the détente risked going too far, especially after a more ideological Xi Jinping assumed the No. 1 position in 2012. Though amenable to closer ties between Taiwan and China, Tokyo does not like the idea of an overly pro-Beijing government in Taipei, let alone one that would promote unification with China. Despite Tokyo’s “one China” policy and its stated neutrality on the Taiwan “issue,” there is no doubt that a Taiwan that exists independently of Beijing’s rule is very much in its strategic interest.
As a result, Japanese officials have quietly expressed Tokyo’s hopes that the DPP will return to power in 2016, especially as the KMT’s presidential candidate, Hung Hsiu-chu, has come across as a threat to Taiwan’s “status quo”—at least according to her critics, which includes a number of members of her party.
Although Tokyo is unlikely to take actions that will cause serious harm to its important relationship with China, there is nevertheless a high likelihood that Japan will increase its cooperation with Taiwan and provide the necessary moral support to the DPP. Although military-to-military relations between Taiwan and Japan have been good, albeit quietly so, in recent years, they would conceivably expand under a DPP administration that, much like a large segment of the Taiwanese public, has never hidden its deep affinity toward Japan.
The geopolitical context, which has turned against China as a result of its assertiveness abroad and deepening authoritarianism domestically, as well as the alignment of domestic politics in Taipei and Tokyo, could therefore create an environment that is more favorable for Taiwan than it has been in several years. Taipei might find it has more room to maneuver internationally. Consequently, more visits to Japan by Lee or senior DPP officials, or perhaps by Japanese officials to Taiwan, are likely, with pressure and complaints by Beijing having little, if any, effect. Although this is a prospect that would very much anger Beijing, it is one that undoubtedly would be warmly welcomed by the people of Taiwan.
The author is an employee of the Thinking Taiwan Foundation, a think tank launched by Tsai Ing-wen in 2012. The views expressed in this article are the author’s alone and do not necessarily reflect the official positions of the institutions with which he is affiliated.