How will Japan balance its relationship with China and Taiwan?

February 21, 2019 08:49
Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is trying to forge a relationship with Taiwan while seeking to improve ties with China. Photo: Reuters

On the second day of the new year, President Xi Jinping delivered a speech in which he called for the fulfillment of the “historic task” of reunifying Taiwan and the mainland, by force if necessary. Days later, Taiwan’s president appealed to the international community for help.

The situation is dire. In mid-January, the Pentagon released a report, China Military Power, whose “most concerning” conclusion, according to a senior defense intelligence official, was that Beijing might soon trust its military capabilities enough to invade Taiwan.

Taiwan’s friends in America have proposed that President Tsai Ing-wen be invited to address a joint meeting of the US Congress, a stunningly provocative move from Beijing’s perspective. Odd, too, since America doesn’t recognize her government.

Tsai has been trying to strengthen US ties since Donald Trump’s election, creating an international incident by telephoning to congratulate him. Trump has talked about Taiwan as a chip in China negotiations. Understandably, Tsai is cultivating other friends as well. While they are numerous, one in particular stands out: Japan.

In late 2015, while a presidential candidate, Tsai met key officials in Tokyo. One thing she lobbied for was Taiwan membership in the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade accord. On Jan. 18, 2016, two days after her electoral triumph, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga indicated Japan’s support for Taiwan in the TPP.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida congratulated Tsai after her election. The Japanese officials called Taiwan “an important partner and a precious friend” who shared basic values. But they were careful to say that deepening of cooperation would be “based on the existing position to maintain Japan-Taiwan relations as working relationship on a non-governmental level”.

The two sides worked to take their relationship to a higher level. In October 2016, they held a maritime cooperation dialogue and, a year later, they signed a memorandum of understanding on maritime search and rescue operations.

In January 2017, there was a notable development. Japan changed the name of its representative office in Taipei from the vague Interchange Association to the Japan-Taiwan Exchange Association. Months later, Taiwan followed suit by changing the name of its unofficial embassy in Japan from the unwieldy Association of East Asian Relations to the Taiwan-Japan Relations Association.

The old names were adopted in 1972 when Japan established relations with China precisely because they did not contain the word “Taiwan” to please Beijing. The new names acknowledge Taiwan’s existence and suggest equality between it and Japan. China issued a protest.

In spring 2017, Jiro Akama, senior vice minister for internal affairs and communications, flew to Taiwan to promote tourism. While the activity was innocuous, Akama was the highest official to visit Taiwan since 1972. This precipitated another Chinese protest.

From Tokyo’s standpoint, the evolving partnership with Taiwan is one of many being forged to deal with challenges posed by China and include such countries as Australia, India, the Philippines and Vietnam. Taiwan, too, is responding to Chinese pressure and is pushing back by strengthening ties with many of the same countries.

The advances in Japan-Taiwan relations took place at a time when China-Japan relations were in the deep freeze because of a territorial dispute over uninhabited rocks.

In 2017, Abe proposed a thaw in Japan-China relations by holding regular summit meetings. He also announced that Japan would join China’s Belt and Road Initiative.

That November, Abe and Xi met on the sidelines of the APEC meeting in Vietnam. Xi told Abe that history and Taiwan were “major issues of principle”. Previously, China gave priority to history. Now, clearly, Taiwan bothered China.

Abe’s plan is working. Premier Li Keqiang visited Japan last May and Abe paid an official visit to China in October. In Beijing, Abe said that the bilateral relationship was shifting “from competition to cooperation”. China and Japan agreed that each should see the other as a partner, not a threat.

However, all the old issues remain unresolved. It will take political will on both sides to set differences aside and face the future together. The question is, how will Japan’s improved relationship with China impact its developing bonds with Taiwan?

Only time will tell. Japan cannot ignore the reality of China, with its rapidly rising military and its huge economy. But Japan will also need to keep this neighbor in check.

One straw in the wind is the way Japan has responded to Taiwan’s request to join the new Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership. Despite its political sensitivity, Japan told Taiwan this month that it welcomed Taiwan’s bid to join the trading bloc.

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Frank Ching opened The Wall Street Journal’s Bureau in China in 1979. He is now a Hong Kong-based writer on Chinese affairs.