Can Taiwan be a “Natural Partner” in Advancing Japan’s Indo-Pacific Strategy?

Can Taiwan be a “Natural Partner” in Advancing Japan’s Indo-Pacific Strategy?

Can Taiwan be a “Natural Partner” in Advancing Japan’s Indo-Pacific Strategy?

Emily S. Chen is a Ph.D. student at the University of Tokyo focusing on international relations and comparative politics in East Asia. Previously, she was a fellow with the Hoover Institution and the Center for the National Interest. She holds a Master’s degree in East Asian Studies from Stanford University.

While US President Donald Trump’s articulation of a “free and open Indo-Pacific” since his first Asia tour last November has garnered a good deal of notice, the geopolitical concept of Indo-Pacific in the twenty-first century had been given a head start on the other side of the world. More recently, in August 2016, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe declared a “free and open Indo-Pacific Strategy.” To promote global stability and prosperity, Japan sees a need to enhance connectivity between the “two continents” of vast population and economic potential, Asia and Africa, through a free and open maritime order between the “two oceans,” the Pacific and Indian Oceans. While this geostrategic term “Indo-Pacific” is nothing new to Japan—with the idea dating back to Prime Minister Abe’s speech titled “The Confluence of the Two Seas” delivered to the Indian parliament in August 2007—the most recent articulation of the concept has drawn more attention, as the idea was echoed by the United States, India, and Australia.

Taiwan, given its geographical location between the Indian and Pacific Oceans, is an inalienable part of the Indo-Pacific region. As a free and democratic society, Taiwan seems to be a natural partner—or a “natural stakeholder,” in the words of Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen—in Japan’s Indo-Pacific Strategy. Furthermore, Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen has also expressed Taiwan’s intention to work to promote the “free and open Indo-Pacific Strategy” in a meeting with Chairman James Moriarty of the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT) last December. Taken together, will Taiwan’s strategically important location, the values of freedom and democracy it shares with Japan, and its intention to cooperate make it a partner in promoting Japan’s free and open Indo-Pacific Strategy? And how can Taiwan and Japan cooperate in promoting the strategy?

The China factor

Despite frequent exchanges and the deep affinity between the Taiwanese and Japanese societies, when it comes to official interactions with Taiwan, Japan has to proceed with caution and take a balanced approach in consideration of its relations with China. It has been especially cautious because 2018 marks the 40th anniversary of the conclusion of the Treaty of Peace and Friendship between Japan and China, and both countries seem intent on capitalizing on the anniversary to seek a rapprochement. In his speech delivered at a New Year’s event in Tokyo on January 5, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe declared his intention “to make this year one for people in both countries able to recognize a major improvement in Japan-China relations.” Likewise, at a meeting with his Japanese counterpart Taro Kono later that month, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi stressed the importance of “improving and developing” bilateral relations, and expressed his hope to work with Japan to establish more cordial ties.

Despite a consensual willingness to improve strained relations, this momentum for improving bilateral ties between Japan and China remains fragile. As Wang Yi pointed out in the January meeting with his counterpart, while there has been positive progress, there are also many “disturbances and obstacles” in the China-Japan relations. In particular, as with its suspicion toward Abe’s persistent attempts to revise Japan’s postwar pacifist Constitution, China has not taken well to Japan’s Indo-Pacific Strategy. Chinese official media have often portrayed the Indo-Pacific Strategy as a joint attempt by the United States, India, and Australia to “compete with and contain” China, and to “counterbalance” China’s growing influence and presence in Eurasia and Africa under China’s Belt and Road Initiative.

It is undeniable that Taiwan, as a free and democratic society in the Indo-Pacific region, seems to be a natural player in Japan’s Indo-Pacific Strategy. However, considering the nascent momentum for a Sino-Japanese rapprochement, coupled with China’s suspicion regarding the intent of Japan’s Strategy, Japan is unlikely to risk touching a nerve in China by officially inviting or recognizing Taiwan to be a partner in promoting the Indo-Pacific Strategy. From China’s perspective, an explicit partnership between Japan and Taiwan challenges its core territorial and political interest in Taiwan. However, that does not mean that Taiwan will be left out of the picture.   

Joint work is what matters

While Japan may not openly identify Taiwan as an official partner in promoting a free and open maritime order in the Indo-Pacific region, this does not suggest that a bilateral cooperation under the framework of the Indo-Pacific Strategy is impossible. At a February forum in Tokyo on Northeast Asia’s security, one panelist suggested looking at Japan’s Indo-Pacific Strategy as an abstract concept that “only exists in the minds of the beholder” and reminded us of the importance of the concrete actions taken under the umbrella of the strategy. Indeed, as a concept, the strategy can be political and strategic, but what matters are the actions that are tangible and real. This idea is especially helpful in positioning Taiwan in Japan’s Indo-Pacific Strategy and finding a leeway for bilateral cooperation between Taipei and Tokyo, given official cooperation between the two sides is limited by both institutional constraints—the absence of formal diplomatic relations—and China’s sensitivity to Taiwan’s external relationships.

So, where can bilateral cooperation be fostered? According to the Special Advisor to Prime Minister Abe, Kentaro Sonoura, Japan’s Indo-Pacific Strategy has three main courses of action: 1) to promote the freedom of navigation and the rule of law in the Indo-Pacific region; 2) to seek economic prosperity by expanding infrastructure development and trade and investment from a rapidly growing Asia to a developing Africa; and 3) to secure peace and stability through providing capacity building assistance for maritime law enforcement and disaster prevention. How can Taiwan take part in these three approaches? Unlike what can be achieved between the governments of Japan and some ASEAN countries (like Malaysia), the institutional limitation and the China factor have made it hard for Taipei and Tokyo to jointly work in such areas as maritime security capacity building and defense cooperation. However, there is room for Taiwan and Japan to work together in the areas of business and developmental assistance, with a starting focus on countries in Southeast Asia and South Asia.

The two areas reflect the overlapping interests and policy alignment between Japan’s Indo-Pacific Strategy and Taiwan’s New Southbound Policy (NSP), a concerted effort to expand Taiwan’s presence through economic and people-to-people exchanges in countries of ASEAN, South Asia, as well as Australia, and New Zealand. Similar to Japan’s attempt to expand infrastructure development and business opportunities in the Indo-Pacific region, Taiwan has signaled that commerce, tourism, and infrastructure are the “three potential-laden fields of cooperation” with the targeted countries under the NSP. Taiwan has also created a series of funds to expand business investments and infrastructure developments under the NSP framework, including President Tsai’s pledge last October to establish an investment fund of US$3.5 billion to assist NSP targeted countries with infrastructure and development projects. In fact, there are signs of budding cooperation between Japan and Taiwan on jointly exploring business opportunities. Sources from the Taiwan government have indicated that Tokyo has expressed interest in cooperating with Taipei on helping small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) of both countries to venture into Southeast Asian markets.


Given Taiwan’s location, its values of freedom and democracy, and its intention to promote peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific region, it is not an overstatement to say that Taiwan is a natural partner in Japan’s Indo-Pacific Strategy. But the absence of diplomatic ties and Japan’s concerns about China will likely limit Taiwan’s role in Japan’s Indo-Pacific Strategy. However, rather than fixating on the political and strategic aspects of the Strategy, Japan and Taiwan can find opportunities for cooperation by focusing on the tangible work that can be done, starting in the areas of business and developmental assistance in Southeast Asia and South Asia.

The main point: While the absence of diplomatic ties and Japan’s concerns about China will likely limit Taiwan’s role in Japan’s Indo-Pacific Strategy, there are many opportunities for cooperation in areas such as business and developmental assistance.