Despite the complicated legacy of colonialism, relations between Taipei and Tokyo continue to blossom in these troubled times. As East Asia continues to battle the COVID-19 pandemic and struggles to contain an increasingly aggressive China, our democratic archipelago benefits from a new high in its security relations with Japan. Remarkably, with its generous vaccine diplomacy and the unprecedented explicit mention of the situation surrounding Taiwan in Japan’s annual defense white paper, Tokyo began to embrace a novel, two-track, comprehensive approach for engaging Taiwan.
The first track deals with non-traditional security such as public health and vaccine donations. Japan has generously supported Taiwan by donating sorely needed COVID-19 vaccines, with three batches of AstraZeneca vaccines offered to Taiwan so far. The third batch arrived in Taiwan on Thursday last week, and included 970,000 doses. The combined number of COVID-19 jabs that Japan has donated to Taiwan has reached 3.34 million doses.
Japan’s vaccine diplomacy is timely, as it contributes to the protection of the health of Taiwanese and helps buttress Taiwan’s efforts in navigating the pandemic. Taiwan has faced difficulty securing vaccines due to its precarious relationship with China. Amid a global shortage of coronavirus vaccines, the assistance offered by the administration of Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga helped consolidate the Taiwan-Japan relationship as one of “traditional friends” and showcased how the true friendship of regional powers can generate unwavering support.
While the importance of non-traditional security issues, including global public health, has gained prominence since the onset of the pandemic, Japan also considers the growing importance of peace and stability in Taiwan in its more orthodox security strategy.
In particular, the annual Defense of Japan white paper, released on Wednesday last week, could be seen as complementary to Tokyo’s vaccine diplomacy vis-a-vis Taipei. More concretely, the Japanese Ministry of Defense clearly demonstrated Tokyo’s alertness on security in the Taiwan Strait and expressed the need to support Taiwan amid China’s coercive behavior.
In the document, the importance of Taiwan is mentioned in the context of “Security Environment Surrounding Japan,” demonstrating that Taiwan is an indispensable part of Japan’s regional strategy.
Such a pressing need to support Taiwan while containing China has not been a constant in Japan’s defense policy. On the contrary, the current state of affairs has been induced by Beijing’s futile attempts to bully Tokyo.
In the white paper, Japan criticized China for intensifying “military activities around Taiwan,” especially the intrusion of Chinese aircraft into “the southwestern airspace of Taipei.”
By calling out China’s intimidating behavior, Japan took an explicit and tough stance on this contentious issue. This indicates a pronounced departure from the usual strategy of refraining from engaging in the cross-strait dispute and seeking balance between Washington and Beijing.
With the increasing intervention of China’s military forces into Taiwan’s maritime zone and airspace, military experts remain concerned about the possibility of China’s multi-directional strikes on the democratic nation.
For example, it cannot be ruled out that China would seize an opportunity to take over the Senkaku Islands [Diaoyutais, 釣魚台], which are claimed by Japan. Japan and China have recently stepped up their claims over disputed islands in the East China Sea, leading to a gradual deterioration of the bilateral relationship. In its defense white paper, Japan openly denounced “China’s attempt to change the status quo in the East China Sea” as Beijing continues to rapidly expand its military activities.
Strategically, the security of Taiwan and regional stability are, more than ever, inviting the close attention of Japanese leaders. Japan, while stressing that its eye is on the regional environment near Taiwan, seems to send an implicit message that Tokyo would not remain idle were a crisis to break out.
In a meeting with the US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin on March 16, Japanese Minister of Defense Nobuo Kishi underlined the need to study ways for the Japan Self-Defense Forces to cooperate with the US military to defend Taiwan in the event of Chinese aggression.
The security and stability of the areas surrounding Taiwan and Japan were also mentioned in a US-Japan joint statement in April, which proclaimed that Washington and Tokyo “underscored the importance of peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait” and would work “alongside one another to maintain peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific region.”
The main message remains clear: The Suga administration is likely to be in concert with its counterparts in Washington regarding regional security and shared challenges.
This is in the preface of the white paper. Kishi wrote that Japan should “closely cooperate with countries that share the same fundamental values,” which includes, Australia, Canada, India, New Zealand, the UK and the US, as well as EU members such as France and Germany.
Kishi’s strong voice is, without doubt, a warning aimed at countering Beijing’s military clout in the region.
Japanese Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso this month echoed this sentiment and argued that Japan should cooperate with the US to defend Taiwan.
Taiwan’s security has been made a factor in the security of Japan, and China’s assertiveness has clearly become a shared military challenge.
Alarmed by China’s military threat, Japan could benefit from sustained support of Taiwan amid China’s military pressure.
Kishi last month said in an interview that “the peace and stability of Taiwan are directly connected to Japan, and we are closely monitoring ties between China and Taiwan, as well as Chinese military activity.”
His statement could be decoded as an affirmation of Japan’s solid awareness of Taiwan’s geopolitical importance and their intertwined strategic ties in any regional conflict.
The developments have been promising, as Tokyo has embraced a truly holistic approach to supporting Taiwan — elevating traditional security discourse about the unique bond and shared challenges between the two nations, while simultaneously responding to the novel security challenge embodied by the COVID-19 pandemic.
As China’s military provocations are escalating, an enforced relationship between Japan and Taiwan might be interpreted as an in-the-making alignment aimed at countering Beijing’s military adventurism.
President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) said that “Taiwan and Japan are confronted with the same threats in the East Asian region” and advocated raising the level of talks to that of a security cooperation.
Taipei and Tokyo should pursue a multifaceted alliance of democracies aimed at defense against unilateral aggressive actions.
Huynh Tam Sang, an international relations lecturer and research fellow at the Center for International Studies at Ho Chi Minh City University of Social Sciences and Humanities, is a junior researcher at the Taiwan NextGen Foundation.
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