In an exclusive interview on March 2 with the Sankei Shimbun, a major Japanese newspaper ranked fifth in terms of nationwide circulation, President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) significantly troubled the Japanese government, while pleasing the newspaper’s conservative pro-Taiwan readership. Tsai proposed an intergovernmental dialogue about bilateral security cooperation, with a focus on sharing military information.
On March 8, Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga and Minister of Foreign Affairs Taro Kono flatly rejected the proposal, as there is no diplomatic relationship between Japan and Taiwan, and instead reaffirmed a continuation of existing informal bilateral relations.
Sure enough, this misfire was anticipated. On June 27 last year, Suga cited an identical rationale in giving a blunt nay to a similar proposal by Minister of Foreign Affairs Joseph Wu (吳釗燮) that was delivered in an exclusive interview with the same newspaper.
The proposal contradicted Japan’s shifting China policy line, which in October last year saw the two countries holding a summit in Beijing and signing dozens of bilateral agreements.
Behind the shift from confrontation to cooperation, there is an emerging multipolar world consequent on China’s rise and relative the US’ hegemonic decline, which necessitates Japan taking a balance-of-power policy.
No wonder then that a Japan-India summit was held in Tokyo immediately after the Beijing meeting, where very similar agreements were concluded. Evidently, Japan will not antagonize China by openly starting a security dialogue with Taiwan.
This begs the question of why Tsai dared to misfire, most probably intentionally.
Under the evolving security environment in East Asia, there is evidently a strong need for a Japan-Taiwan informal security policy coordination, if not inter-state cooperation, in the context of the Taiwan-US-Japan triangle.
Yet, such coordination has to be conducted in a low-profile and discreet manner through informal channels. Using a newspaper for communication is ineffective and probably counterproductive.
Moreover, the approach indicates that Japanese and Taiwanese diplomatic authorities are reluctant to open a security dialogue through their unofficial representative offices in Tokyo and Taipei.
The state of affairs coincides with Japan’s official position to preclude any inter-state relationship vis-a-vis Taiwan and with Taiwan’s predominant priority to preserve exclusive reliance on the US as sole security guarantor in which Japan may play a secondary role at least and a disturbing role at worst.
Obviously, Tsai is not serious about the security dialogue, at least now.
Nonetheless, it might make sense for Tsai to appeal directly to the Japanese public who would press the government to reinforce the existing informal bilateral relations. Yet, public sentiment toward Taiwan could not be better, with relations very strong and stable.
In contrast, South Korea has recently stepped up its anti-Japan policy line, centered superficially on the so-called historical question, yet perhaps driven materially by China’s overwhelming geopolitical and geoeconomic pull.
Consequently, the Japanese public’s sentiment toward that country could not be worse, which has diverted their attention toward Taiwan. Thus, Tsai’s appeal has produced an extremely marginal impact.
Without any good prospect for military and diplomatic changes to Japan-Taiwan relations, Tsai’s interview was surely aimed at nothing but the domestic audience.
Tsai had long suffered from a low approval rating because, to avoid a decisive confrontation with China, she had only made deliberately equivocal pledges to maintain the “status quo” in cross-strait relations. In so doing, she had alienated a significant portion of Taiwanese who expected her to stand firm against China’s Taiwan unification policy.
However, Tsai recently enjoyed a substantial upturn in her approval ratings when she made a combative statement against Chinese President Xi Jinping’s (習近平) statement on Jan. 2 emphatically calling for unification with Taiwan.
Certainly, she tried with the interview, but failed to obtain a similar bump in ratings given its very limited coverage in the local media. Instead, some anti-Tsai media focused on Japan’s flat rejection of her proposal.
Although this failure was expected, even the negative reports might have appealed to some portion of the public who would like to see stronger security relations with Japan to preserve the cross-strait “status quo.” The public possibly has attributed the failure to China and not to Japan or Tsai.
Yet, Tsai’s most probable target was the pro-independence hardliners within the Democratic Progress Party who have been very dissatisfied with her lukewarm approach against China. Tsai increasingly needed to pull them to her side in light of the legislative by-election on Saturday last week, which was a critical prelude to her presidential re-election bid.
With the DPP retaining two seats out of four, and the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) losing one, Tsai’s risk-taking interview might have been rewarded.
Taiwan is now entering a political season in which even an important foreign and security issue is consumed for domestic politics.
The Japanese government and public received a very confusing message from Tsai, and the unofficial bilateral security dialogue has suffered a setback, at least for now.
The two countries’ governments, especially the defense establishments, should begin to think of how to set up a dialogue mechanism toward informal security and military policy coordination after the season is over.
Masahiro Matsumura is a professor of international politics at St Andrew’s University in Osaka, Japan.
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