In the newly published “2022 Diplomatic Bluebook” from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan, the Taiwan Strait was mentioned five times, a record high. It’s especially notable given the term’s total absence in previous editions from 2017 to 2021.
An overview of the latest Diplomatic Bluebook’s references to the Taiwan Strait makes clear the changes in Japan’s foreign policy toward Taiwan.
The first mention, which has much symbolic significance, was in the Japan-China relations category. The bluebook recounted that, soon after being appointed Japan’s foreign minister, Hayashi Yoshimasa mentioned that “the peace and stability in the Taiwan strait are important” in a conversation with his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi. The Taiwan issue featured alongside Japan’s concerns over the disputed Senkaku islands, the South and East China Seas, and humanitarian issues in Hong Kong and China. While the meeting heralded the 50th anniversary of the normalization of China-Japan relations, it also revealed the lurking fissures in that relationship.
The second mention of the Taiwan Strait appeared in the Japan-Taiwan section. This statement again shows that Taiwan Strait issues have risen to the surface in Japanese politics. The bluebook notes that, since the Japan-U.S 2+2 joint statement first mentioned Taiwan in March 2021, “the importance of the peace and stability in the Taiwan strait” was also mentioned in the discourse of multiple Japan foreign meetings, including the 2021 G-7 Summit, Japan-EU Summit, Japan-France Foreign and Defense Minster Meeting (“2+2”), Japan–Australia 2+2 Foreign and Defense Ministerial Consultations, and the joint statement of the U.S.-Japan-Republic of Korea Trilateral Ministerial Meeting.
Likewise, the bluebook reiterated that Japan supported Taiwan’s application to join the WHO as an observer, praising Taiwan’s success in combating Covid-19.
The third mention of the Taiwan Strait, interestingly comes under the Japan-ASEAN section, which highlights that Prime Minister Kishida Fumio emphasized “the importance of the peace and stability in the Taiwan strait” at the 16th East Asia Summit (EAS) while expressing strong opposition to any economic coercion. At the same time, Kishida also emphasized that a Code of Conduct (COC) in the South China Sea – currently under negotiations between China and ASEAN – should be in accordance with the United Nations Convention on Maritime Law. That Taiwan was included alongside the South China Sea among Japan’s concerns in Southeast Asia is remarkable.
The fourth mention, unsurprisingly, fell under the section on Japan-U.S. relations, in which reiterated the joint statement issued at the Japan-U.S. 2 +2 in 2021.
Lastly, the Taiwan Strait was mentioned for the fifth time under the discussion of the 2021 G-7 summit, which emphasized “the importance of the peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait” and encouraged “the peaceful resolution of cross-Strait issues.”
As the Diplomatic Bluebook serves as the cornerstone for the trajectory of Japan’s foreign policy, the frequency and placement of references to the Taiwan Strait implies a change in Japan’s foreign policy toward Taiwan. One breakthrough in Japan’s stance on Taiwan issues could be seen in its efforts to highlight the importance of the Taiwan Strait by leveraging the influence of both regional and international frameworks, as manifested through the mention of stability in the Taiwan Strait at the EAS and G-7 summit.
There is little question that Japan has stepped up its level of support toward Taiwan and has been more vocal in showing support for Taiwan by stressing the importance of stability in the Taiwan strait. These pro-Taiwan remarks could be traced back to the U.S.-Japan Joint Leaders’ Statement, issued by U.S. President Joe Biden and then-Japanese Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide in April 2021. The joint statement noted “the importance of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait and encouraged the peaceful resolution of cross-Strait issues.” It was the first time for Japan and the U.S. to publicly refer to Taiwan since China and Japan normalized relations in 1969.
Tokyo’s standpoint aligned with its 2021 Defense of Japan edition, which noted that “Stabilizing the situation surrounding Taiwan is important for Japan’s security and the stability of the international community. Therefore, it is necessary that we pay close attention to the situation with a sense of crisis more than ever before.” High-level officials also voiced their staunch support on Taiwan issues, culminating in Deputy Prime Minister Aso Taro’s remarks that “Japan and the U.S. must defend Taiwan together” if a major incident happened in Taiwan, as it will become a situation threatening the survival of Japan. Aso’s statement apparently tiptoed on the redlines of Beijing, as such remarks overtly violate the 1972 Japan-China joint communique, which recognizes Taiwan as an inalienable part of the People’s Republic of China. The inadvertent slip of the tongue, nevertheless, may signal the changing dynamics in the perceived relationship between Taiwan’s survival and Japan’s security.
It is not hard to understand why Japan has expressed increasing concerns over the security of Taiwan given the close geographical proximity. Japan’s closest territory, Yonaguni Island, is only 110 kilometers off the east coast of Taiwan. Meanwhile, the threat from China is growing. Incursions from the People’s Liberation Army have reached record highss, with Taiwan reporting 107 aircraft being sent into Taiwan’s Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) in a single day in October 2021. According to the ROC National Defense Report, in 2021 the PRC’s defense budget was the highest in Asia and the second highest in the world, standing at 1.35 trillion renminbi (approximately $208 billion), reflecting a 6.8 percent year-on-year increase.
The increased Chinese military presence near Japanese waters has further mounted tensions in an already long-standing clash over disputed islands in the East China Sea, administered by Japan as the Senkaku but claimed by China and Taiwan as the Diaoyu and Diaoyutai, respectively. Reports have shown that the presence of Chinese warships in close proximity to Japan has amplified to double digits in the past two decades. In response, Japan has stepped up its military infrastructure on Yonaguni’s sister islands, Amami Oshima and Miyakojima. A fourth base on Ishigaki, which is east of Yonaguni, is under construction and will come into operation in March 2023.
Japan’s increasing security worries have sparked more overt outreach to Taiwan. Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen held a virtual meeting with former Prime Minister Abe Shinzo in March 20202. The meeting meticulously treads the line of Japan’s stated policy of conducting “exchanges of private and regional nature with Taiwan.” While Abe reiterated that a “Taiwan emergency is a Japanese emergency, and therefore an emergency for the Japan-U.S. alliance” – as he had noted during a think tank symposium last year – this time he added a circumspect remark by saying he was “expressing his own sense of crisis,” apparently to avert anger from Beijing.
The virtual meeting also projected Taiwan’s willingness for further bilateral cooperation with Japan, particularly aiming at securing membership in the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), where Japan has claimed a leadership role after the U.S. pullout. Taiwan officially applied for CPTPP membership in September 2021, shortly after China did the same. In their meeting, Tsai appealed to Abe by citing a recent breakthrough: her decision to lift the 11-year ban of food products from the 2011 Fukushima disaster-affected areas, which was once considered the biggest impediments to bilateral relations. Tsai has cleared that barrier and paved the way for further Taiwan-Japan cooperation.
As Taiwan and Japan are brought together under the same “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” umbrella, whether Japan is willing to respond to the growing insecurities caused by a rising China with concrete forms of bilateral cooperation with Taiwan remains an area for attention under the Kishida cabinet.