While still a presidential candidate in October 2015, Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen showed her determination to promote Taiwan-Japan relations by taking a four-day trip to Japan dubbed a tour of “Taiwan-Japan friendship” (台日友好). While the phrase “Taiwan-Japan friendship” may not always appear in official remarks, President Tsai has brought alive its substance by listing Taiwan-Japan relations as high on her diplomatic agenda since taking office. Recently, Tsai’s Japan policy seems to have borne fruit with several moves from Japan. Japan’s decision to rename its de facto embassy, the “Interchange Association, Japan” (公益財團法人交流協會), to the “Japan-Taiwan Exchange Association” (公益財團法人日本台灣交流協會), for example, came into effect in January 2017.
Japanese State Minister for Internal Affairs and Communications Jiro Akama’s visit last month to Taiwan for tourism promotion marked the highest-level government official to visit the island since Taiwan and Japan broke formal diplomatic ties in 1972. China has expressed dissatisfaction and has urged Japan to respect its promises regarding the Taiwan situation. Considering the motive behind Japan’s seemingly forward-leaning moves to Taiwan, some media played up the possibility that Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe looks to strengthen strategic relations with Taiwan in the face of a changing security environment marked by an increasingly assertive China. In a recent remark, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe recently referred to Taiwan as “an important partner that shares Japan’s values and interests.” But will a value-sharing partner be so important that it drives Tokyo to embrace Taipei at the expense of relations with Beijing?
A Practical Aspect of Japan’s Taiwan Policy
The recent developments in Taiwan-Japan relations may give the impression that the Abe Cabinet, compared to its previous administrations, is adopting a more active approach to engaging Taiwan. Abe visited Taiwan 2010 and 2011 as a Diet member and as former prime minister (2006-2007). During Tsai’s tour of “Taiwan-Japan friendship” in 2015, Abe’s younger brother, Nobuo Kishi, a member of Japan’s House of Councillors, hosted Tsai in Abe’s hometown in Yamaguchi prefecture. Allegedly, Tsai also secretly met with Abe in Tokyo during her trip as a presidential candidate.
However, not all the moves Japan has made toward Taiwan in the past three months were driven by Abe’s personal connection with Tsai or by geopolitical concerns. Perhaps to a greater extent, Abe’s Taiwan policy has a practical aspect: it is less about an attempt to get cozy with Taiwan in spite of China’s warning, and more about confronting the issues that stand between Japan and Taiwan. To address the differences between the two sides, the Abe Cabinet is open to different policy options, and this flexibility creates an opportunity for a policy approach that looks to be unprecedentedly friendly to Taipei.
For instance, renaming Japan’s de facto embassy in Taiwan has a practical motivating factor: to point out the organization’s substantive functions in Taiwan. The previous name is said to have created confusion because it failed to indicate the entity with which Japan was interchanging, whereas its new name includes the word “Taiwan.”
Furthermore, when Akama visited Taiwan, he did so in an official capacity as an attendee of the opening ceremony of an event promoting Japanese culture and tourism. While the visit was made under the banner of tourism promotion, it was more than that. During his brief visit to Taiwan, Akama repeatedly emphasized the safety of food imports from Japanese radiation zones, hoping to gain understanding from the Taiwan public. By sending a high-ranking official, Japan sought to restore public confidence in food imports from five Japanese prefectures exposed to radiation, which were banned by Taiwan’s government in the wake of the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster. Although several scientific studies have shown that food exposed to radiation in 2011 is safe to eat, people’s anxiety over food contamination put pressure on Taiwan’s government to continue a ban on food imports from the five affected regions in Japan. The controversy over the safety of Japanese radiation-tainted food imports has posed a major obstacle in Taiwan-Japan economic relations for years, hurting Japan’s farming industry that suffered considerable damage from the 2011 disaster. Therefore, despite Beijing’s warnings, Akama’s visit was a decision made to tackle the long-standing economic issues between Japan and Taiwan.
What is Behind a Flexible Policy?
The flexibility of Abe’s policy toward Taiwan is possible because of certain internal and external situations. Domestically, high approval ratings give Abe both a stronger hand to adopt the policy that he wants and also leverage over opposition parties. Although Abe and his wife are currently involved in a power abuse scandal that caused Abe’s approval rating to drop by 10 percentage points in a month, Abe’s approval ratings remain a robust 56 percent, well above disapproval ratings. Pro-Taiwan momentum in Japanese society also forms a power base for Abe to engage with Taiwan. Latest polling has shown that a predominance of Japanese people holds positive views toward Taiwan: 66.5 percent of the Japanese people surveyed “feel close” to Taiwan, and 55.9 percent think Taiwan is “reliable.”
Some Things Do Not Change
Despite an ever-warming relationship between Japan and Taiwan—or an “upgrading of Taiwan-Japan relations,” as some media like to call it—it would be far-fetched to assume that Tokyo is ready to provoke Beijing by moving away from the “One-China” policy. Tokyo certainly understands the risks of approaching Taiwan. When asked whether he received any pressure from China on the recent trip to Taiwan, Akama discreetly answered that it is a “very hard decision” and that he had to “factor in many international situations before making the final decision,” adding that “Japan-China relations are undoubtedly important.”
The main point: Japan’s seemingly forward-leaning moves to Taiwan are less about an attempt to get cozy with Taiwan despite China’s warning, and more about confronting the issues that stand between Japan and Taiwan with a flexible policy approach.