A Japanese Perspective

In 2019 China intensified its offensive against Taiwan. At the same time as it strove to penetrate the Taiwanese society with policies of favoritism based on “31 measures” of better opportunities for businesses and individuals in the PRC. It also stepped up its political and military pressure through Xi Jinping’s New Year’s speech to Taiwan compatriots and PLA fighter jets crossing the mid-line of the Taiwan Strait. Meanwhile, the United States, despite maintaining a “one-China policy,” increased its commitment to Taiwan through a series of laws, beginning with a Taiwan travel act. Moreover, the importance of Taiwan was rising as its geopolitical significance grew in regard to the Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy advocated by Japan and the United States and the clashing military viewpoints of China’s first-island chain and US naval re-assertiveness. Even in non-traditional security issues the importance was mounting, such as the difficulty of excluding Taiwan from the WHO regional governance. Step-by-step, Taiwan was becoming a focus of Sino-US relations, as Japan was closely observing the new situation facing Taiwan in the context of the Sino-US confrontation.

The changing face of Japan-Taiwan relations

Japan-Taiwan relations have been drawing closer since the 1990s—against the background of Taiwan’s economic development and democratization—and the 2011 Eastern Japan earthquake marked a big turning point. The humanitarian assistance from Taiwan to Japan of about 25 billion yen aroused a new level of positive feelings toward Taiwan, and it forged a foundation in public opinion of “ongaeshi”—Japan owed Taiwan something in return. For that reason, from the DPJ’s Noda Yoshihiko to the LDP’s Abe Shinzo, new “agreements” were signed, including one on investments and another on fishing in the East China Sea, and bilateral relations leaped forward despite the absence of diplomatic relations. Moreover, after the realization of the Sino-Taiwan summit at the end of KMT Ma Ying-jeou’s administration and Ma’s hardline posture toward Japan over the issue of Okinotorishima Island, expectations in Japan rose again with the birth of the DPP administration. In January 2016 before the presidential election, the DPP’s Tsai Ying-wen visited Japan, and Abe’s younger brother, Kishi Nobuo, attended her, while it was said that the prime minister himself unofficially met with her. Further, when the Tsai administration was launched in May, the Japanese side began to envision the prospect of Japan-Taiwan talks to conclude an FTA, and it sought a resolution to the Okinotorishima issue and the ban on food products from the area of Fukushima and beyond that was affected by radiation. However, that fall, at the site of the FTA negotiations, although the Taiwan side indicated that the outlook was good to resolve the first issue, it could not resolve the second one, meaning that FTA negotiations could not begin.

To strengthen Japan-Taiwan economic relations, even if Taiwan’s participation in TPP-11 is not a precondition, it would be an important step. After the FTA setback, at the start of 2017, the Japanese side continued its positive policy toward Taiwan, switching the name of (minkan) citizens’ organizations for negotiations on cooperation from Exchange Association (Koryu Kyokai) to the Japan-Taiwan Exchange Association (Nittai Koryu Kyokai), followed by the
participation in talks on “local creation” of the deputy minister of internal affairs and communications, whose visit was the first to Taiwan at that level since diplomatic relations were severed in 1972. In this way, even before Taiwan became the focus of Sino-US confrontation, plans to strengthen ties between Japan and Taiwan were becoming more concrete with higher level officials visiting and a presidential candidate visiting before an election, as agreements were being forged indicative of relations leaping ahead. However, from the time in June 2017 when Abe at the Nikkei Asia Future conference sent a comparatively positive message to China concerning the BRI, Japan’s positive policy toward Taiwan paused. Now the government’s policy seems to stand poised in a state of “Beijing? Taipei?” signifying a pause in becoming more positive toward Taiwan as the rudder has been turning toward improved relations with China.

When Taiwan’s presidential election is held in the fall of 2020, it will not only influence Sino-US relations but the entire international order of the East Asian region. The order present on the Korean Peninsula and the Taiwan Strait is something that took shape from after the end of WWII to the Korean War and now appears to be in flux amid the shifting nature of Sino-US relations. Especially the situation of Taiwan (and the East China Sea) has great geopolitical significance, raising questions about whether Japan can or cannot respond to the ongoing changes affecting Taiwan.

The legacy of hub and spokes

Just after Trump’s inauguration, Japan was concerned that Taiwan and the Korean Peninsula would become the objects of a “deal.” When in a phone conversation with Tsai Ying-wen, Trump’s words had put in doubt the preceding US “one China policy,” inside Japan there were rumblings that the US would reconsider whether to maintain that policy, but this issue was soon put aside. However, when it became clear that inside the Trump administration there was a tough posture toward China, and this grew more apparent in 2018, the Japanese side also, to some degree, appeared to be searching for a response. For example, when a series of laws passed the Congress, including the Taiwan Travel Act in February and the Asia Reassurance Initiative Act, enacted late in 2018, Japanese saw that the US commitment to Taiwan was growing stronger, and for Japan these moves were an important element as it considered its own Taiwan policy. Yet, for at least three reasons, the Japanese government did not take corresponding, concrete measures.

First, Japan-Taiwan relations had already over several years grown stronger, but due to the food trade issue, this process had been stalled, and this situation did not change through 2018. Rather, because, through a national referendum, Taiwan continued to reaffirm its ban, the Japanese government hardened its attitude. Second, although the US and others considered Japan to be “anti-China” and some 80 percent of Japanese polled did not have a positive attitude toward China, 70 percent recognized the importance of Sino-Japanese relations and approved of the further development of bilateral relations, keeping in mind economic relations. In Japan support for the “one China policy,” which had been established in 1972 between Japan and China, remained strong. Third, there is a difference between the Western Pacific or East Asia and Europe. US relations with allies in the Western Pacific are, heavily, a hub and spokes system without horizontal alliance relations, unlike in Europe. US-ROK, US-Japan, and past US-ROC relations were alliances with America at the center. Japan’s ties to South Korea, Taiwan, and others are not alliances, depending completely on the US intermediary role. Thus, even if US-Taiwan ties changed, if US-Japan relations did not, there was no incentive, in principle, to automatically change Japan-Taiwan relations. Not having relations with Taiwan and having them with China, Japan was careful even as some changes occurred in US regional policy from Obama’s time. The changes by the Trump administration, therefore, did not directly influence Japan’s Taiwan policy.

In contrast, inside Japan the geopolitical importance of Taiwan had already been well recognized, and a lively discussion was unfolding over how the FOIP concept included Taiwan. However, the Japanese government only responded negatively to the proposal of Tsai Ying-wen in March 2019 for Japan-Taiwan dialogue on security. Japan would not decide, on its own, that relations should be strengthened beyond the dimensions of economics and culture, especially in the military, strategic dimension. With requests and hints from the US, Japan was beginning to move in that direction.

“Improved” Sino-Japanese relations and the Taiwan question

The Abe administration, established in 2012, aimed from 2014 for an improvement in relations with China, stressing, in accord with the 2014 “four-point agreement” with China, summits at multilateral conferences. Abe’s June 2017 comments, as noted above, added impetus to the process of improving relations. Since the September 2012 nationalization of part of the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands (converting private to pubic property) by the Noda administration, Chinese public ships had regularly become more active in sailing in Japan’s territorial waters. Moreover, the Chinese side had shown its displeasure, issuing warnings since 2011, about the advancing ties between Japan and Taiwan. The Xi Jinping administration, using tightened economic relations between the two sides of the strait as its foothold, adopted a mixed hard-soft policy toward Taiwan. On one side, it did not deny the possibility of using military force toward unification. On the other, it pressed to penetrate the Taiwanese society with its influence through the “31 measures” and other means. As a result, the number of Taiwanese citizens working in China increased, and the mood spread inside Taiwan in 2018 that “independence” would be difficult, that the DPP independence platform is unrealistic, and even without speaking of unification, that building harmonious ties with China is important, as the level of support for the Tsai administration continued to fall.

Amid these currents of improving relations, in May 2018, Premier Li Keqiang came to Japan to participate in the Japan-China-South Korea summit, showcasing the image of improved relations, and Abe visited China in October. Then, Xi Jinping was set to come to Japan at the end of June 2019 to participate in the G20, and there was an expectation that in the spring of 2020 he would return. It was said that summit exchanges were gradually being normalized, but the improvement was nothing more than from minus to zero. The reasons the Abe administration sought to improve relations with China were: first, stabilization of relations with a neighbor; second, important economic relations; and third, China’s importance for the North Korean question and other regional issues. Japan was not following the Sino-US confrontation by striving to improve Sino-Japanese relations, but from earlier, those relations were continuing to improve from minus to zero. It was no more than an accident that Abe’s October 2018 visit to China came right after Vice President Pence’s Hudson Institute talk, sending China a very different message.

Of course, the Abe administration proceeds carefully with its “improved” relations with China, which demonstrates to the US Japan’s own intentions, in the context of increasingly tense Sino-US relations. Through a halt in technological cooperation with China and dialogue with China on intellectual property as well as continued appeals to China in connection with the BRI for openness, transparency, economic viability, and healthy financial policies, Japan is able to explain itself to the United States. The Chinese side at present has not accepted these four conditions, and the 52 cooperation projects in third countries between Japan and China will not necessarily advance smoothly.

The reason the “improvement” in Sino-Japanese relations is said to be no more than moving from minus to zero is because it is nothing more than summits between leaders and increased opportunities for dialogue between government officials. Recently the activity of Chinese public ships in the East China Sea grew more intense, and despite agreement on reopening negotiations aimed at signing a note on joint development of the East China Sea, in accord with an agreement reached in 2008, Japan’s requests have been ignored and no progress has occurred. There is no movement at all on historical, territorial, and other fundamental questions in bilateral relations; far from it, when viewing the activity of China’s coast guard and navy, there are signs of worsening ties. Thus, it is extremely difficult to expect that Japan would make concessions on the Taiwan issue and consider it the object of some deal. Japan’s Taiwan policy even today, under the rubric of the “one China policy,” is to expand economic and cultural relations to the extent possible, and to aim to gradually strengthen some political relations. At present, changes in Sino-US confrontation and in US Taiwan policy do not necessarily have any direct influence.

The Taiwan presidential election and external factors centered on Hong Kong

The Japanese media is reporting on the big influence on the region and international relations, as well as cross-strait relations, that could result from Taiwan’s January 2020 presidential election. In the past, among Japanese media, Sankei had a tendency of reporting predominantly on Taiwan, but now all of the main media have stationed correspondents in Taiwan and are reporting on the “facts” there. Compared to a few decades earlier, there is almost no sign of the tendency for Asahi to be pro-China and Sankei pro-Taiwan. With her declining rate of support, Tsai Ying-wen would not necessarily come out ahead in the election, and it might even be difficult for her to win in the vote for the selection of a DPP candidate. In her March 2019 interview carried by Sankei, she called for a Japan-Taiwan security dialogue. Also, the DPP’s Lai Ching-te, former premier, and Ko Wen-je, mayor of Taipei, have visited Japan one after the other. Along with showcasing their relationship with the United States, the candidates are trying to make an impression on Taiwan’s voters by building ties with Japan. Also, carefully choosing their words, they explain in their own way the relationship they expect with China. Tsai while recognizing the existence of cross-strait talks in Hong Kong in 1992, rejects the “1992 consensus” and makes clear that she does not accept China’s “one country, two systems.” Compared to other candidates, Tsai takes the most hardline posture toward China, it is said, but in Taiwanese society that does not suffice to give her support.

The June Hong Kong movement against the “extradition law” is having a big impact on trends related to Taiwan’s presidential election. After the “umbrella movement” and the “sunflower” student movement led to exchanges on both sides between youth groups in the democratization movement, this time observing Hong Kong, the people of Taiwan feel that the ongoing movement is opposing forces that would be in the future for Taiwan if it were to be united with China. Hong Kong activists are touring Japan while giving talks, finding that not only is there great interest in the situation in Hong Kong, but that the interest has risen in the future of Taiwan. The Hong Kong movement works in Tsai Ying-wen’s favor, showing China in the harshest light. In contrast, not only the KMT ‘s Han Kuo-yu and Guo Tai-ming, but also the DPP’s Lai Ching-de is disadvantaged. As a result, this decided that the DPP presidential candidate would be Tsai, who bested Lai and at present has the edge in the election set for the beginning of next year.

Japan has a degree of alarm toward Han Kuo-yu and Guo Tai-ming, who are conciliatory toward China. As before, the support level is high for the current Tsai administration. Kono Taro’s May 2019 statement of support for Taiwan joining the WHO General Assembly with observer status, despite it not having resolved the foodstuffs question, can be taken as a position of support for the current administration. The way Kono is drawing closer to Taiwan hints at the possibility that the Japanese government is moving away from a posture of “Beijing? Taipei?” amid the Sino-US confrontation. One can understand Japan’s Taiwan policy both in the context of managing the situation of East Asia from before the Sino-US confrontation heated up, but also, to a certain degree, through the Sino-US confrontation’s impact, affecting the regional situation in East Asia.