In East Asia, few things happen outside of China’s shadow. The recently concluded presidential election in Taiwan was no exception, although its outcome was far from what Beijing had wanted.
By electing a new president with pro-independence inclinations, Taiwan has sent an unmistakable message to China: While it does need to do business with China, it wants to keep the latter at arm’s length and rejects any direct or indirect attempt at reunification.
“China” as usual is on everyone’s mind in the wake of Tsai Ing-wen’s victory. But in comparison to past major political upheavals in Taiwan, this election appears to be bringing into the geopolitical picture of the Strait of Taiwan a new but potentially significant regional player: Japan.
Mindful of its delicate relations with China, official circles in Japan had, since its diplomatic recognition of Communist China in 1972, painstakingly shied away from publicly showing any interest in the politics of what China considers its own “renegade province.”
But something has changed. Immediately following confirmation of Tsai’s electoral victory, Tokyo shed its customary reserve and reacted with uncharacteristically candid enthusiasm, with both Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida publicly welcoming the victory of the pro-independence candidate, calling Taiwan “a longtime friend and a model of democracy,” and voicing hope for stronger ties with the island under its new leadership.
This unprecedentedly unapologetic enthusiasm in Tokyo for Taiwan’s new “anti-China” regime was not lost on Beijing, which summoned the Japanese ambassador for a briefing on China’s position on Taiwan and for a reminder of the sacrosanct “One China” principle.
Tokyo’s new proactive attitude on the sensitive Taiwan issue can be linked to the changing geopolitical situation in the East China Sea and South China Sea, as well as with Taiwan’s own subtle transformation in its attitude towards China.
On a personal basis, it is worth noting that a discreet but unmistakable exchange of friendship has been going on between the current Japanese prime minister and Taiwan’s new president-elect since at least 2011, before both came to power. In 2011, then Diet member (and former premier) Abe visited Taiwan and privately met with Tsai. Again, on October 2015, barely three months before her current electoral victory, Tsai visited Japan and is rumored to have secretly met with now Prime Minister Abe in Tokyo. She even visited Yamaguchi, Abe’s family and electoral home ground, where she was feted by the Abe family. All of these visits and meetings were wrapped up in top secret to avoid attracting China’s wrath.
Of course, international politics involves more than personal friendship.
Taiwan is considered one of the most “Japan-friendly” countries in the world, following and despite a 50-year Japanese colonial rule that ended in 1945. This Japanese colonial rule, despite its share of atrocities, discrimination, and other negative aspects, also helped modernize the island with infrastructure, education and economic systems, all of which helped to leave Japan with a rather positive image among the local population.
On the Japanese side, especially among the conservatives, there is a lingering sense of guilt towards Taiwan, which Japan “abandoned” in 1972 when it switched its diplomatic recognition of “China” from the Republic of China to the People’s Republic of China. In 2011, the Japanese were deeply moved when, following the great earthquake and tsunami that devastated the Tohoku region, the Taiwanese sent more donations than any other country in the world.
This mutual positive feeling explains the frequent exchanges between Japan’s conservative politicians and Taiwan’s pro-independence politicians, such as the mutual visits between Abe and Tsai.
Viewed from Japan, Taiwan sits squarely on the last leg of Japan’s vital energy resources supply lifeline, and the changing political orientations of the island with regards to China are understandably of considerable concern for Tokyo in view of security for this sea-lane. In this sense, the growing pro-China inclination shown by the outgoing Ma Ying-jeou administration these past eight years has been most unsettling for Tokyo, especially in a period of high tensions between Japan and China.
Several of Ma’s actions have led the Abe administration in Tokyo to start questioning Taipei’s “Japan-friendliness.”
First, while Japan and China are bitterly at odds over the sovereignty of the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands in the East China Sea, Ma’s Taiwan joined the quarrel, asserting with increasing force Taiwan’s own sovereignty over the disputed islands. Viewed from Tokyo, this position can only reinforce China’s and appeared to be “anti-Japanese.”
Next, on the issue of “comfort women” (women in wartime Japan-occupied territory who were forced into prostitution serving Japanese soldiers), over which the Abe administration has been engaged in emotional exchanges of accusations and denials with South Korea (at least until the recent deal) and China, Tokyo was again appalled to see Taiwan’s Ma directing increasing attention to the plight of Taiwan’s own former “comfort women,” going so far as to build a memorial to these women. Such moves were interpreted by Tokyo as a thinly veiled participation in the “Japan-bashing” campaign mounted by China and Korea.
Meanwhile, the recent modification of history textbooks in Taiwan is also viewed by Tokyo as a sign of Taiwan nudging closer to Chinese views of history, portraying Japan’s historical role in Taiwan in a negative light.
Besides these bilateral issues, the change of regime in Taiwan will doubtless lead Tokyo (and the international community) to look more closely at its possible fallout in the South China Sea, another stretch of Japan’s vital energy lifeline and a new flashpoint in the Far East with China once again as adversary.
Because of its sovereignty claim over the entire South China Sea, China is invariably singled out as the primary troublemaker in this strategically important area. But with all attention on China’s moves in the South China Sea, few observers have paid attention to the fact that the biggest natural island in this sea, the Taiping, has been under Taiwan’s occupation for decades without anyone, not even China, bothering to object. And Taiwan itself has so far maintained a low profile in the volatile waters.
In this context, the Ma administration’s rapid rapprochement with China has forced Tokyo (and no doubt Washington too) to warily contemplate the unpleasant possibility of an “All-Chinese alliance” between China and Taiwan to assert “Chinese” sovereignty over the entire South China Sea. After all, the very idea of a nine-dashed line (according to which China owns the whole maritime area delimited by the line) was first advocated by the Kuomintang (Nationalist) regime which has since ruled Taiwan almost continuously since the end of the war. Today’s Communist China has only inherited and expanded the idea.
New Strategic Environment
Now, with the Democratic Progressive Party’s Tsai replacing the Nationalist Ma administration, Japan is confident that the new government will move away from China in favor of Japan, particularly given the warm personal ties between the new Taiwanese leader and the Japanese prime minister. Tokyo noted with satisfaction Tsai’s comment on the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands issue: While reiterating Taiwan’s sovereignty over the disputed islands, the president-elect added that Taiwan’s friendship with Japan had priority over the territorial feud.
From a strategic perspective, Tsai’s victory and the subsequent expected tensions with China may mean a greater role for Japan to play around the volatile Strait of Taiwan, especially in light of a less reliable American deterrence. This expectation is all the more credible as Japan, under the nationalist Abe’s push, adopted last year a new proactive defense policy, allowing its forces to shed their traditional self-defensive role and to engage in more “proactive” operations abroad, especially to defend Japan’s supply lifeline.
To be realistic, Japanese forces are hardly likely to directly face down the Chinese military in the Strait of Taiwan. But they could at least weigh in by providing logistical support to U.S. forces coming to the rescue of Taiwan.
Precisely because of this new proactive defense policy, Japan has come under increasing pressure to participate in international efforts to counter Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea. In this context, military analysts in the still-reluctant Japan have discreetly voiced hope that the expected return of tensions to the Strait of Taiwan might force China to temper its activities in the South China Sea, relieving Japan of the unwelcome obligation to play an active but dangerous military role in that sea.
However, the possibility of an actual military showdown in the Strait of Taiwan remains remote, notwithstanding repeated Chinese threats. The more realistic expectation for a greater Japanese role in counter-balancing China extends rather to the economic sphere, as the prospect of severe economic sanctions from China looms large for Taiwan.
It is possible that Tsai’s visit to Japan and her alleged secret meeting with Prime Minister Abe, three months before her victory, were actually aimed at seeking Japan’s cooperation in case an angry China decides to punish Taiwan’s electoral insult with economic sanctions. The new Taipei leadership may want to count on Japan’s economic might to offset any such potentially devastating sanction. And Tokyo’s enthusiastic reaction to the election outcome in Taiwan can only mean that some kind of deal was reached.
China’s Loss, Japan’s Win?
Taiwan’s expected shift away from China in the coming years coincides with a new diplomatic and strategic re-emergence for Japan under Abe’s leadership since 2012.
It remains to be seen whether the new Taiwan will become an added positive element for Abe’s ambition of exploiting this new diplomatic and strategic pro-activism to form a ring of democracies encircling and containing Communist China. Besides, Japan hopes, Beijing’s attention will be so focused on Taiwan in the coming years that this may shift Chinese assertiveness away from the explosive areas around Senkaku/Diaoyu.
Viewed from Tokyo, Japan can only gain from what China loses in Taiwan.
The writer is a retired French diplomat. Born in Taiwan and educated in Japan before becoming French citizen and diplomat, he was successively posted to Japan, United States, Singapore and China.