Sun, Jun 03, 2018 - Page 6 News List

Taiwan-Japan dynamic is complex

By John Lim 林泉忠

During his official visit to Japan from May 9 to May 12, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang (李克強) received a very high-profile welcome from Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. The two sides signed 10 cooperation agreements, signaling that relations between China and Japan have recovered to the level they were at before 2012, when the two countries clashed over the Diaoyutai Islands (釣魚台).

The “China factor” has always been an important variable that influences Taiwan’s relations with Japan, so will the full recovery that has taken place in China-Japan relations impede the normal development of ties between Taiwan and Japan?

Among academics who specialize in Japan, there is a widespread idea that “when relations across the Taiwan Strait are good, Taiwan-Japan relations will also be good.” The basic thinking behind this is that when cross-strait relations are cordial, China will turn a blind eye to moves that Taiwan makes to strengthen its relations with the US and Japan.

To prove the point, those who support this idea would point to the 28 agreements that Taiwan signed with Japan during former president Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) eight years in office.

While this idea does have some merit, another factor is that China’s rise is creating an ever-greater imbalance of power between the two sides of the Taiwan Strait. This is a strategic worry for the US and Japan, and gives them a motive to bolster their relations with Taiwan.

China is displeased with President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) for her refusal to recognize the so-called “1992 consensus,” so it keeps stepping up its pressure on Taiwan militarily, diplomatically and even with respect to people-to-people exchanges.

In view of this tension, the US has taken a series of steps to reinforce its relations with Taiwan, including passing the 2018 US National Defense Authorization Bill and the Taiwan Travel Act, and agreeing to provide Taiwan with the technical assistance it needs to build its own submarines.

Admittedly, the factors that influence Taiwan-Japan and Taiwan-US relations are not exactly the same. Japan has no law comparable to the US’ Taiwan Relations Act.

It has been 46 years since Japan broke off diplomatic relations with the Republic of China in favor of the People’s Republic of China, and since that time, Japan has been extremely cautious about how it handles its relations with Taiwan, not daring to go beyond the bounds of its pledge to Beijing to only maintain people-to-people relations with Taipei.

This has made it difficult for Japan to expand its political relations with Taiwan, especially regarding the sensitive matter of regional security.

However, Japan is uneasy about China’s rise and worried about the growing power imbalance across the Taiwan Strait. Abe has proved to be the most Taiwan-friendly of Japanese prime ministers and since he took office, there has been a marked atmospheric change in Japan’s efforts to boost its relations with Taiwan.

Even during the presidency of Ma, who never enjoyed Japan’s full confidence, Japan still made great efforts to bolster its relations with Taiwan, rather than see the Ma administration lean heavily toward China.

After Tsai took charge of the Presidential Office, Taiwan-Japan relations entered a mini-golden age not seen for several decades, with Tokyo holding great expectations of her administration.

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