Monday, April 13, 2020

China and Taiwan-Japan Relations: challenges and opportunities*

Tony Tai-Ting Liu
Assistant Professor, Center for General Education National Chung Hsing University

In 2017, with the introduction of Japan’s diplomatic representative office in
Taipei as the Japan-Taiwan Exchange Association, Taiwan-Japan relations entered
a new phase. With Japan recognizing and conforming to the One China Policy
almost five decades ago, interexchange between Taiwan and Japan slowed, to the
point that political relations became almost non-existent while business and trade
relations remained. The 2011 Tohoku earthquake was important in re-energizing
bilateral relations, as Taiwan surprisingly topped the world in terms of disaster
relief assistance provided to Japan. Since 2011, Taiwan-Japan relations began
to warm, in the context of China’s rise in the world and later, the succession of
China’s fifth generation leaders in 2013. Reviewing developments since the Tohoku
earthquake and the impact of China’s fifth generation leadership on Taiwan-Japan
relations, this author ponders over the challenges and opportunities for expanding
and deepening the relationship between Taiwan and Japan.

Warming of Taiwan-Japan Relations Since 2011

Despite the termination of official relations between Japan and Taiwan in 1971,
for various reasons, bilateral relations did not end, but took on a different form
for Tokyo and Taipei. Rather than taking a sharp downturn, counterintuitively,
Japan-Taiwan relations has grown in the past decades and deepened greatly since
the Tokohu earthquake in 2011. The close relationship Japan has developed with Taiwan over the past decades stands in clear contrast with Japan’s relationship with
China and South Korea. While China’s northeastern provinces of Jilin, Liaoning
and Heilongjiang (former Manchuria), Taiwan and South Korea all underwent
Japanese colonial rule in the first half of the twentieth century, mysteriously, only
Taiwan maintains cordial relations with Japan regardless of historical misdeeds.
Even in the case of the comfort women issue that affected all three countries, in
Taiwan, public outcry over the issue is significantly lower.

Nonetheless, while people to people relations between Japan and Taiwan have
always been well, it is not until recent years that interactions on the individual level
gradually expanded to the state or governmental level. 2011 can be considered a
watershed for the elevation of Japan-Taiwan relations, as Japan was utterly baffled
by the amount of disaster relief assistance Taiwan and its people donated, which
totaled more than countries such as the United States (US), Canada and Germany.
While the international community slowly picked up on the fact – perhaps as
the result of Taiwan’s “abnormal” status – many Japanese observers noticed the
development and revived the question of Taiwan’s role in Japanese foreign policy.
In the aftermath of the Tohoku earthquake, the “thank you Taiwan” (xiexie taiwan)
campaign became almost a nationwide movement in Japan, which played no small
role in redirecting the attention of Tokyo on Taiwan again.

At the same time, international order was changing as well. 2011 was also a
turning point in Japan-China relations as China surpassed Japan to become the
second largest economy in the world. Such development gave way to a new row
of concerns centered on the China threat theory with Japan as a strong supporter.
For example, in the 2011 annual Defense Whitepaper of Japan, China was noted
as “a major political and economic power with important clout… [whose] lack
of transparency of its national defense policies and the military activities are a
matter of concern for the region and the international community.”1 The Japanese
Ministry of Defense reiterated the same statement in the following year, noting
that the China’s military modernization and lack of transparency “could lead to a sense of distrust and misunderstanding by other countries.” 2 On the other hand,
Stefan Halper among other observers noted the China threat in a widely circulated
commentary that pondered over the question of whether the US can make a
peaceful hand-off of power to authoritarian China.

In other words, for Japan, while concerns for the China threat grew, a favorable
image of Taiwan grew simultaneously. In turn, Taiwan’s new image in Japan
translated into the establishment of bilateral agreements and exchanged visits by
incumbent and retired officials from both countries. In 2011, Japan and Taiwan
subsequently concluded a bilateral investment arrangement and an open skies
agreement; in a sense similar to agreements concluded between China and Taiwan at
this time, the agreements deepened functional cooperation between Tokyo and Taipei.
It is important to note that in contrast with other cases of negotiations that usually
begin with trade talks before turning to investment, Japan and Taiwan achieved the
bilateral investment arrangement in different sequence, most likely as the result of
Beijing’s One China Policy and concern over the sovereign status that entry into a
trade agreement can afford Taiwan. Since then, however, noting the establishment
of the China-ASEAN free trade area, Taiwan has expressed a strong interest to
enter into an economic partnership agreement (EPA) with Japan or the Japan led
Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP).

Aside from economic cooperation, political relations warmed between Japan
and Taiwan, evidenced by the conclusion of the Fishery Arrangement and frequent
visits by Japanese officials to Taiwan. In April 2013, the Japan-Taiwan Fishery
Arrangement was concluded between the two governments after 16 rounds of
formal and informal talks that spanned 17 years. Although Japan and Taiwan
continue to hold different sovereign positions regarding the Senkaku/Diaoyu
Islands that sits at the heart of fishery disputes between the two countries, since
2013, maritime incidents involving Japan and Taiwan have greatly decreased. In
addition to the Fishery Arrangement, a number of functional agreements have been
signed between Japan and Taiwan in recent years (see table 1).

Table 1: Taiwan-Japan Cooperation Arrangements and Agreements




Taiwan-Japan Mutual Cooperation on the Liberalization, Promotion and Protection of Investment


Taiwan-Japan Open Skies Agreement


Taiwan-Japan Fisheries Agreement


Taiwan-Japan Memorandum of Understanding on Cooperation on Financial Supervision


Taiwan-Japan Customs Mutual Assistance Agreement


Taiwan-Japan Memorandum of Understanding on Cultural Exchange and Cooperation


Taiwan-Japan Memorandum of Understanding on Maritime Emergency and Rescue Cooperation

While high level exchange between Japan and Taiwan has yet to be realized,
former state leaders from both countries exchanged visits, demonstrating the special
relationship between the two countries despite the absence of formal diplomatic
relations. Besides frequent visits by Japanese diet members to Taiwan, former
Japanese Prime Minister Aso Taro and Noda Yoshihiko visited Taiwan respectively
in 2011 and 2015. It is worthy to note that Aso, currently the incumbent Deputy
Prime Minister and Minister of Finance, stated openly that “Taiwan is a country
with law and order and in many senses share common values with Japan.” In March
2017, Deputy Minister of Japan’s Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communication
Akama Jiro visited Taiwan to attend a public tourism promotion event and became
the most senior level Japanese official to visit Taiwan since the termination of
bilateral relations in 1972. Correspondingly, former Taiwanese President Lee Tenghui
visited Japan in 2014, 2015 and 2016 respectively while former Speaker of
the Legislative Yuan, Wang Jin-pyg, and a number of former senior Taiwanese
statesmen have all visited Japan to consolidate bilateral relations.

The China Factor

The succession of China’s fifth generation leaders in 2013 brought along
uncertainties to Cross-strait relations that in turn implicate Taiwan-Japan relations.
Despite the Singapore summit in 2015 (the so called “Ma-Xi Summit”), which
perhaps symbolized the pinnacle of reconciliation between Beijing and Taipei
in recent decades, China seemed adamant in his position towards Taiwan. China
made its intention clear at the APEC meeting in 2013, when Beijing expressed its
approval for “China and Taiwan being one family” and that “political differences across the Strait cannot pass from generation to generation and must be resolved
gradually.” In other words, China was keen on putting an end to the issue of

Cross-strait relations quickly deteriorated into stagnation following government
turnover in Taiwan in 2016. Unsatisfied by President Tsai Ing-wen’s failure to
address the 1992 Consensus and no doubt unimpressed with the Democratic
Progressive Party’s (DPP) traditional image of pro-independence, China increased
pressure on Taiwan in hopes of forcing the island to bend and commence political
negotiations with Beijing. In addition to the suspension of all negotiations
and official communication between the Association for Relations Across the
Taiwan Strait (ARATS) and Strait Economic Foundation (SEF), China reinitiated
diplomatic warfare against Taiwan and successfully induced Panama (2017),
Dominican Republic (2017), Burkina Faso (2018), El Salvador (2018), Kiribati
(2019) and Solomon Islands (2019) to switch their recognition to the People’s
Republic of China (PRC).

Speculations abound on when the “final solution” would be carried out.
Michael Pillsbury suggests 2049, or the centenary of the establishment of the
CCP may be the time when things should be put to an end. While the CCP never
announced a specific time when reunification would happen, the fact that 2049
has been floated is sufficient to generate instability in Cross-strait relations and for
Taipei to consider its response strategy towards China. As such, noting the close
relationship that Taiwan shares with Japan, it was easy for Taipei to look towards
Tokyo as an important regional partner for balancing the challenge of Beijing.

From Japan’s perspective, however, the situation is not as simple. Despite
strengthened relations between Japan and Taiwan and long standing historical and
political contentions between Japan and China, China’s continued rise puts Japan
in a difficult position. While Japan-Taiwan relations is strong, China serves as the
biggest market for Japanese exports and its transformation into a global power
means that Japan, regardless of bilateral tensions, cannot simply adopt a strategy of neglect towards China. On the other hand, a peaceful Taiwan Strait before 2016
was favorable for Japan, as Tokyo was relieved of the threat of military crisis
that would destabilize regional security. Since 2016, however, as Cross-strait
relations deteriorated, progress in Japan-Taiwan relations inevitably pit Tokyo
against Beijing while the maintenance of trade remains a priority for Japan. In
other words, for Japan, political and economic interests turn against each other
when the relationship between China and Taiwan sours, which in turn puts Tokyo
in an awkward position. Such awkwardness can be observed from the Shinzo Abe
administration’s policy towards China.

Perhaps in light of China’s leading economic status, in response to China’s
active pursuit of improved foreign relations and global image, Abe adopted
a similar strategy as well. Adopting the “diplomacy that takes a panoramic
perspective of the world’s map,” or the “diplomacy with a bird’s eye view of the
globe,” since 2013, Abe has traveled to different regions of the world, making
him the most energetic Japanese leader in recent memory. Abe visited Africa,
Central Asia and Latin America, and sought cooperation while promising Japanese
assistance and investment. Such competition extended to the BRI, which Japan,
along with India, matched with their own proposal of the Asia-Africa Growth
Corridor (AAGC). In terms of infrastructure construction, a prominent example
was Japan and China’s competition over Indonesia’s need to build a high speed
railway in the country. Despite losing a bid to China for railway construction
in 2015, after Abe’s state visit to Indonesia two years later, in 2019, Japan won
a contract from the latter to modernize the railway line connecting Jakarta and
Surabaya. Competition was clear.

Since 2016, the dynamics between Japan and China shifted due to new
developments. Donald Trump’s ascension as US President and adjustments in
foreign policy towards the Asia Pacific generated strong uncertainties among
Washington’s allies in the region, particularly Japan and South Korea. The ensuing
US-China trade war was not only a wrestling match between the giants, an
additional effect was disruption to the regional supply chain that involves Japan. Noting Washington’s boldness in re-negotiating international agreements such as
the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) with other states and security
responsibilities with Japan and South Korea, Tokyo found itself in a position that
suggests increasing mutual interests with China - its long term competitor – and
increasing interest to put itself at some distance away from the US. Concurrently,
in the face of strong pressure from the US, China also had increased motivation to
improve relations with Japan.

However, the only question is Taiwan: how should or should not Japan deal
with the island? The challenge runs deeper than the simple calculation of market
size, as Taiwan, like Japan, is straddled between China and the US and serves as
a useful partner for spiting and curbing the influence of China. As US-Taiwan
relations made considerable progress since 2016 following the adoption of the
Taiwan Travel Act (2018) and the unanimous passing of the Taipei Act by the US
Congress (2020) among other actions, Japan finds itself trapped in the dilemma
of whether to seek the favor of China and shun the US – turning a blind eye or
simply pay lip service to the interests of Taiwan in the process – or to fight off the
temptation to reconcile relations with China and return in full support of relations
with the US and Taiwan.

Japan is hedging at the moment, trying to maintain good relations with the US
and Taiwan while searching for better ground with China. Meanwhile, Japan is also
deliberately neglecting the contradictions in the region that have persisted since
the end of the Cold War. In such context lies challenges and opportunities for the
development of Taiwan-Japan relations.

Towards the Future: Challenges and Opportunities

Looking into the near future, two challenges may hinder the progress of
Taiwan-Japan relations. First, whether Japan can move towards a more independent
foreign policy that balances its relations with the US and China will be critical for
the development of Taiwan-Japan relations. In other words, the real challenge is for Japan to maintain equal distanced relations with the US and China, which would
in turn provide Japan with sufficient policy space to expand relations with Taiwan.
Unfortunately, at the moment, Japan is entangled between its reliance on the US
for security assurance in the region and on China for trade and economic growth.
Such position offers little bearing for Japan to improve relations with Taiwan, as
Taiwan complicates the balance in US-China-Japan relations and seems to be more
of a liability than an asset. Hence it is vital for Japan to take the initiative if better
prospects for Taiwan-Japan relations are to be expected.

Another challenge for Taiwan-Japan relations is the development of Cross-strait
relations. Compared with the US, several issues make Japan more vulnerable to
changes in the Taiwan Strait. Geographic proximity suggests that military conflict
in the Taiwan Strait can easily spillover to Japan, and forced to react, Japan will
have to decide which side of the Strait to invest its support in. Meanwhile, the
ghost of militarism continues to haunt Japan and challenges any resort to the use of
military force by Japan. While a peaceful Taiwan Strait is in the interest of Japan,
China’s growing impatience and domestic political changes in Taiwan seem to be
pushing the Strait towards conflict than otherwise. In any event, Japan would be
implicated. While Taiwan-Japan relations can continue to develop regardless of
developments between China and Taiwan, both Tokyo and Taipei’s policy space
for strengthening bilateral relations would be greatly expanded in time of peace.
Conversely, Taiwan-Japan relations seem to be constantly shrouded by the looming
shadow of China.

Politics aside, recent developments suggest opportunities for the expansion of
Taiwan-Japan relations through functional cooperation. A timely example comes
from the coronavirus pandemic outbreak in 2020, which witnessed Taiwan’s
exceptional performance in the distribution of face masks and border management.
Taiwan’s experience garnered global attention; headed by Digital Minister Audrey
Tang, Taiwan’s technical team of software programmers cooperated with the
Japanese government to develop a digital management system to monitor mask
supplies in Japan. In addition to the success in digital management, Taiwan has also developed a vaccine for the coronavirus successfully. Such success led the
US and the European Union to approach Taiwan for cooperation on joint research
and development of pandemic vaccine. In short, public health and the prevention
of disease is a politically non-sensitive area with much potential for cooperation
where Taiwan and Japan can jointly explore. 

The coronavirus outbreak exposed the risk of tight economic integration with
China and the loss for the international community without the participation of
Taiwan in regional integration projects. As such, noting the inclusiveness of the
Japan-led CPTPP, it remains to be observed whether Taiwan has the opportunity to
participate in the project. APEC is worth mentioning here. While APEC is aimed
at economic integration on the outset, over the years, integration has widened
into community building that includes functional fields for cooperation such
as education, food security, gender issues and health. Therefore, in addition to
regional integration projects being forums for multilateral discussions on economic
and financial issues, they should also be viewed as interfaces for discussions on
issues concerning human security.

In terms of functional cooperation, the “proper” title of Taiwan is a mere
technicality that can be overcome, as the APEC model demonstrates. What matters
more is Taiwan’s meaningful participation in international organizations. From an
alternative perspective, as globalization connects many of the world’s problems
today, more participation by Taiwan in the international community can potentially
offer solutions to global issues, such as public health, that are often politicized to
no real benefit for the situation. The effect raised by the coronavirus pandemic
once again serves as a good example. During the early outbreak of the pandemic,
many Asian countries placed travel bans against Taiwan, only to find out later that
the situation in China was much more severe than in Taiwan and the World Health
Organization (WHO) failed to release timely and accurate information on the
situation. It is clear that the world can truly benefit from more cooperation and less

* This paper is based on the outcome of short term research conducted at the University of Tokyo, supported by the Sumitomo Foundation grant for Japan related research projects. This author thanks the foundation for its generous support.
1.Ministry of Defense Japan, Defense of Japan 2011 (Annual White Paper) (Tokyo: Ministry of Defense,
2011), p.26.
2.Ibid., p.3.

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