While still a presidential candidate, in October 2015, Taiwan now-President Tsai Ing-wen showed her determination to promote Japan-Taiwan relations by taking a four-day trip to Japan dubbed as a tour of “Taiwan-Japan friendship.” While the phrase “Taiwan-Japan friendship” may not always make it into official remarks, Tsai has brought its substance alive by listing Taiwan-Japan relations as high on her administration’s diplomatic agenda since taking office.
Recently,Tsai’s Japan policy has seemed to bear fruit, with several moves from Japan. Japan’s decision to rename its de facto embassy in Taiwan to include the words “Japan” and “Taiwan” came into effect this January. Japanese State Minister for Internal Affairs and Communications Jiro Akama’s visit to Taiwan for tourism promotion also marked the highest-level visit to the island by a Japanese government official since Taiwan and Japan broke diplomatic ties in 1972. In both cases, China expressed dissatisfaction and urged Japan to respect its promises on the Taiwan situation.
Some media outlets have played up the possibility that the Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe looks to strengthen strategic relations with Taiwan in the face of a changing security environment marked by an increasingly assertive China. In recent remarks, Abe referred to Taiwan as “an important partner that shares Japan’s values and interests.” But is this value-sharing partner so important that it will drive Tokyo to embrace Taiwan at the expense of its relations with Beijing?
A Practical Taiwan Policy
The recent development of Taiwan-Japan relations gives the impression that the Abe Cabinet, compared to previous administrations, has adopted a more active approach toward engaging Taiwan. Some media outlets took these seemingly Taiwan-friendly policies as part of Abe’s strategic planning to counter China, linking it to a changing geopolitical dynamic in the East China Sea and the South China Sea in the past few years. Aside from a geopolitical cause, Abe’s friendship with Tsai is also said to have prompted him to adopt a policy that is Taiwan-friendly. Before both assumed their current offices, Abe (then a Diet member and a former prime minister) visited Taiwan and met with Tsai in 2010 and 2011. During Tsai’s tour of “Taiwan-Japan friendship” in 2015, Abe’s younger brother, Nobuo Kishi, a member of Japan’s House of Councillors, hosted Tsai in Abe’s hometown, Yamaguchi prefecture. Allegedly, Tsai also secretly met with Abe in Tokyo during the trip.
However, not all the moves Japan has made toward Taiwan in the past three months were driven by its geopolitical concerns or Abe’s personal connection with Tsai. To a greater extent, Abe’s Taiwan policy has a practical aspect: it is less about an attempt to get cozy with Taiwan despite China’s warning, and more about trying to confront the issues that stand between Japan and Taiwan. To address the differences between the two sides, the Abe Cabinet is open to different policy options, and the flexibility creates an opportunity for a policy approach that looks to be unprecedentedly friendly to Taipei.
On March 25, Akama visited Taiwan in his official capacity to attend the opening ceremony of an event promoting Japanese culture and tourism. Akama’s visit received wide local media coverage as he was the highest-ranking Japanese official to visit Taiwan on official duties in 45 years. While the visit was made under the banner of tourism promotion, it was more than that. During his brief visit to Taiwan, Akama repeatedly emphasized the safety of food imports from Japanese radiation zones, hoping to gain understanding from the Taiwan public. By sending a high-ranking official, Japan seeks to restore public confidence in food imports from five Japanese prefectures exposed to radiation, which has been banned by the Taiwan government in the wake of the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster. Although several scientific studies have shown food exposed to radiation in 2011 is safe to eat, people’s anxiety over food contamination still put pressure on the Taiwan government to continue to ban food imports from the five regions in Japan. The controversy over the safety of Japanese radiation-tainted food imports has posed a major obstacle in the Japan-Taiwan economic relations for years and has hurt Japan’s farming industry, which has already suffered considerable damage from the 2011 disaster. Therefore, despite Beijing’s warnings, Akama’s visit was a decision made to tackle the long-standing economic issue between Japan and Taiwan.
Along the same line, the Interchange Association, Japan’s de facto diplomatic office in Taiwan, announced on December 28, 2016, that it would change its name to the Japan-Taiwan Exchange Association starting from January 1, 2017. The renaming of the organization to include the words “Japan” and “Taiwan” also had a practical reason: to point out the organization’s substantive functions in Taiwan. The previous name is said to have created confusion because it failed to indicate the entity with which Japan was interchanging.
What’s Behind a Flexible Policy
The flexibility of Abe’s policy toward Taiwan is made possible by both the internal and external situations. Domestically, high approval ratings give Abe a stronger hand to adopt his preferred policies. Although Abe and his wife are currently involved in a power abuse scandal that caused the prime minister’s approval rating to drop by ten percentage points in a month, Abe’s approval ratings remain a robust 56 percent, well above his disapproval ratings. A pro-Taiwan momentum in the Japanese society also forms a power base for Abe to engage with Taiwan. The latest polling has shown that a predominance of Japanese people holds positive views toward Taiwan: 66.5 percent of the Japanese people surveyed “feel close” to Taiwan, and 55.9 percent think Taiwan is “reliable.”
Externally, Taiwan’s attitude adjustment toward China opens a window of opportunity for Japan to advance relations with Taiwan. Under Tsai, Taiwan’s foreign policy has undergone a transformation from the previous administration’s focus on rapprochement with China to a rebalancing policy highlighting a closer relationship with Japan and a “New Southbound Policy” to engage with Southeast Asian countries. The domestic concern of economic “over-dependence” on the mainland and a growing Taiwanese consciousness have prompted Tsai to diversify Taiwan’s economic and external relations. Tsai’s policy toward Beijing is embraced by a majority of the Taiwan public. A recent polling result showed that 74 percent of people expressed support for Tsai’s cross-Strait policy, which features maintaining the “status quo” across the Taiwan Strait and forging ties with Beijing that are “consistent, predictable, and sustainable.” In the same poll, up to 67.8 percent of people expressed they would not accept “the 1992 consensus” as the non-negotiable political foundation for cross-Strait dialogue and exchanges, as China has been insisting.
Some Things Never Change
Despite an ever-warming relationship between Japan and Taiwan — or an “upgrading of Japan-Taiwan relations,” as some local media like to call it — it would be far-fetched to assume that Tokyo is ready to provoke Beijing by moving away from the One China policy. Tokyo certainly understands the risks of approaching Taiwan. When asked whether he received any pressure from China over the recent trip to Taiwan, Akama discreetly answered that it’s a “quite hard decision.” He had to “factor in many international situations before making the final decision,” Akama said, adding that “Japan-China relations is undoubtedly important.”
However, for China, the moves that Japan has taken to serve the practical need of growing cultural and economic exchanges between Japan and Taiwan cannot be an excuse for challenging China’s core interest: the Taiwan issue. On December 28, 2016, China expressed dissatisfaction with Japan’s decision to rename its de facto embassy in Taiwan. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying said at a regular press briefing that China was “extremely dissatisfied” with “the passive move by Japan on the Taiwan issue” that seems to allow the existence of “one China, one Taiwan” or “two Chinas.”
Three months later, commenting on Akama’s Taiwan visit, Hua expressed that China has lodged “solemn representations” to Japan as Japan “clearly ran contrary to” its promises to limit Japan-Taiwan relations to nongovernmental and local level exchanges. Notably, Hua accused Japan of saying one thing and doing the opposite: “Since the beginning of this year, Japan has said it respects its promises on the Taiwan situation, but in fact has been acting provocative, which has caused severe disturbance to the improvement of Sino-Japanese ties.”
As Japan-China relations have not been in the best shape in the past year, Japan should be cautious in engaging Taiwan to avoid another disruption in ties with China. In addition to Tokyo’s recent close exchanges with Taiwan, Japan’s Defense Minister Tomomi Inada’s visit to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine — which honors those who died fighting for Japan, including a number of convicted war criminals from World War II — has drawn rebukes from China. On the other hand, the frequent activities of Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy and People’s Liberation Army Air Force near the Miyako Strait have repeatedly triggered Japan’s Air Self-Defense Force to scramble fighters. Without a doubt, China will be closely watching the development of Taiwan-Japan relations.
Emily S. Chen is an incoming Ph.D. student at The University of Tokyo. Previously, she was a fellow with the Hoover Institution and the Center for the National Interest. She holds a Master’s degree in East Asian Studies and a focus on international relations at Stanford University.
A version of this article first appeared on the Global Taiwan Brief.