The COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent changes in international relations have led to a new phase in Japan-Taiwan relations. A distinct change in orientation is visible in Japan’s policies towards China and Taiwan. Amid the increasing tensions in the cross-Strait relations, Japan has shown concerns over the security situation in the Indo-Pacific region and exchanges between Japan and Taiwan have become more frequent.
In April 2021, at the US-Japan leaders’ summit, both leaders underlined: “We underscore the importance of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait and encourage the peaceful resolution of cross-Strait issues.” This is the first time in 52 years that Taiwan was mentioned in a joint statement by the leaders. In June, the defence chief of Japan and Australia emphasised the “importance of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait”. Once again, this was the first statement by the two countries foreign and defence ministers on Taiwan. In July, the Japanese deputy PM said, “if a major problem took place in Taiwan, it would not be too much to say that it could relate to a survival threatening situation (for Japan)”.
In July, Japan released a White Defence paper in which for the first time, they had linked Taiwan directly to its security. The White Paper stated: “stabilising the situation surrounding Taiwan is important for Japan's security and the stability of the international community” and raises alarm to pay attention to the development before it turns into a crisis. In August 2021, the Liberal Democratic Party of Japan and Democratic Progressive Party of Taiwan held virtual party-to-party security talks to discuss handling of Chinese aggression in the region. Amongst many other things, they agreed on the possibility of military exchanges between the two sides.
Recently, Japan has supported Taiwanese application to Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP). Japanese Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi said Tokyo will respond to Taiwan’s bid “based on a strategic point of view and with the public's understanding.” Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen tweeted in Japanese about the CPTPP application and wrote, “We want our friends in Japan to support our efforts.” At a time when Taiwan is facing serious international isolation, its efforts to participate in the multilateral organisation is very crucial.Also, positive statements in favour of Taiwan boost their resistance against China.
Japan is constantly supporting Taiwanese participation in the multilateral organiastion. It may be recalled that Taiwan, the US and the Japan-Taiwan Exchange Association are part of the Global Cooperation and Training Framework (GCTF). Japan joined the framework in 2019. It is a platform through which Taiwan shares its experience with other countries. Since its inception, GCTF has held 34 international workshops on public health, law enforcement cooperation, cybersecurity HADR and other topical issues. Almost, 88 countries have participated in these events.
In 1972, Japan switched diplomatic relations from the Republic of China to the People’s Republic of China. Ever sincethen Japan has been following the One-China policy. Yet, on the other hand,Japan has maintained cordial unofficial ties with Taiwan but there is no defence pact, nor does Japan sell arms to Taiwan, or has any treaty like Taiwan Regulations Act between the US and Taiwan.
The Japanese office in Taiwan is called the Japanese Representative Office and the Taiwanese office in Japan is called the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office. Japan is Taiwan’s one of the most important trade and investment partners. Japan is Taiwan’s third-largest trading partner. In 2019, the bilateral trade was USD 67.3 billion. During the pre-COVID-19 period, over two million Japanese tourists visited Taiwan.
There has been a lot of quid pro quo from both sides on issues such as the Tsunami, pineapple exports and the COVID-19 vaccine. At the time of Tsunami 2011 in Japan 2011, Taiwan providedmaximumaid to Japan more than any other country in the world. Altogether, USD 170 million was given by Taiwan. In 2021, China banned imports of pineapples from Taiwan on the pretext of certain pesticides found in tropical fruit. As aresponse,Japan agreed to import the pineapples and preordered over 6,000 metric tons. Also, Japan has donated the COVID-19 vaccine in five phases to Taiwan.The first donation of AstraZeneca from Japan to Taiwan was 1.24 million, followed by 1.13 million in July and the third batch of 970,000doses was also delivered in the same month. Japan has donated the vaccines in five batches, bringing the total contribution to 3.9 million.
As Japan is refocusing its security imperatives in the region, it is striking a balance between US-Japan and China-Japan. China and Japan are embroiled in a dispute over the East China Sea and according to Japanese sources, Chinese Coast guard vessels have entered the Japanese territorial waters 88 times from January to August and 851 times in contiguous zone.The Japanese defence minister has said such actions are “unacceptable” and “we will take all possible measures for vigilant monitoring and intelligence gathering”.
While Japan is gradually being vocal about the Chinese aggression towards Taiwan, there is high economic interdependence between Japan and China. In 2019, Japanese exports to China were worth USD128 billion and Chinese exports were USD152 billion to Japan.Any extreme step by Japan might lead to sharp Chinese action against Japan.
Until now, there is no strong direct statement from Japan asking China to stop aggression or reconsider its moves towards Taiwan.There still appears to be ambiguity in its relations with Taiwan. Hence, a total change in Japanese outlook towards Taiwan is unlikely in the near future. Dr Teshu Singh is a Research Fellow at Indian Council of World Affairs, New Delhi.