Amid major geopolitical and economic uncertainty steadily growing in the Indo-Pacific—including China rising as a strategic challenge—Japan can no longer ignore the realities of the region. Increasingly, Tokyo is acknowledging the reality that Japanese security interests hinge on the preservation of the status quo in the Taiwan Strait. In line with the region’s evolving and multifaceted security dynamics, Tokyo has fewer qualms about expressing its anxieties over Beijing’s disruptions of the regional power balance, which has largely been maintained by the US presence in Asia for much of the post-war era. In seeking to address China’s assertion of its national power and other security challenges, Japan is writing new rules of engagement on how it can forge deeper ties with like-minded partners, including Taiwan.
Japan and Taiwan: A Forward-Leaning Trajectory
While Tokyo switched diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to China in September 1972, Japan and Taiwan are capitalizing on the momentum of their unofficial ties by increasing exchanges on a bilateral level. However, this was not always the case. Until a few years ago, Tokyo gravitated towards eschewing public condemnation of China’s coercive activities in the Taiwan Strait due to concerns that Japan could inadvertently place itself at the receiving end of Beijing’s retaliatory measures. But this way of thinking began to change in 2021, when Japanese decisionmakers became more acutely aware of China’s destabilizing behavior in the Taiwan Strait and the risks it poses to Japanese security interests. This is why the joint statement produced from the US-Japan leadership summit in April 2021 underlined “the importance of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait and the peaceful resolution of cross-Strait issues” as an alliance priority for the first time since 1969. While Taiwan was only mentioned once in this statement, its appearance speaks volumes about Japan’s willingness to step outside of its comfort zone by openly conveying its heightened concerns about Taiwan.
Since then, Japan has made other indications that Japanese national security interests are tethered to Taiwan’s future. For one, the 2021 Japanese defense white paper explicitly made clear for the first time that peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait is linked to Japanese national security. In July 2021, then-Deputy Prime Minister Aso Taro took it a step further by arguing that the United States and Japan need to come to Taiwan’s defense in the event that China orchestrates an unprovoked military contingency. (To be clear, Japan is similar to the United States in that it maintains an ambiguous stance on its involvement in a hypothetical invasion of Taiwan, as well as the island’s political status). Yet perhaps the most notable development was in December 2021, when the late Abe Shinzo, who had already stepped down as prime minister, spoke for an event hosted by the Taiwan-based Institute for National Policy Research (INPR, 國策研究院) and made the short yet sobering pronouncement that a “Taiwan emergency is a Japanese emergency.” His remarks rattled Beijing, and it elicited a negative response from Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Wang Wenbin (汪文斌), who asserted that China “strongly opposes and deplores this.” China was also quite hasty in summoning Japanese Ambassador to China Hideo Tarumi, and conveyed that Abe’s comment infringed on the 1972 joint communique by which the two countries initially established diplomatic relations.
With Japanese officials repeatedly emphasizing their alarm over intensifying regional challenges, Japanese foreign policy thinking has begun to tilt more toward expanding its ties to Taiwan. For the first time last year, a Japanese Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) taskforce published a review of Japan’s strategic approach to Taiwan. The review covered issues relating to security, economics, and people-to-people exchanges. The partnership continued to grow in 2022, when Tokyo and Taipei were able to overcome a major obstacle in their relationship when Taiwan lifted an import ban on Japanese food from Fukushima Prefecture. Given Japan’s outsized role in regional economic integration in the Indo-Pacific, relaxing this ban provided Taiwan with more bandwidth to cooperate with Japan on economic engagement. Meanwhile, Japan continues to state its endorsement of Taiwan joining the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP). Former Prime Minister Abe, an ardent supporter of advancing Japan-Taiwan ties, also virtually met with Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) in March 2022, during which he commended her for relaxing the restrictions on food imports and reaffirmed his hope that Taiwan can finalize its accession into CPTPP as soon as possible.
When Abe was assassinated a few months later, Taiwanese Vice President William Lai (賴淸德) broke with conventional norms by attending Abe’s funeral, becoming the highest-ranking Taiwanese official to pay a visit to Japan since 1972. An official from the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs quickly clarified their awareness of Lai’s trip to Tokyo, maintaining that he came to Japan “in a private visit to pay respects as Abe’s friend.” In light of Abe’s death, Tsai, who had a great affinity for Abe, proclaimed that he was “Taiwan’s most loyal best friend.”
Despite Abe’s sudden death, Japan continued to augment its bilateral engagements with Taiwan by increasing legislative exchanges (which include parliamentary delegations traveling to the island) and convening intra-party talks between Japan’s LDP and Taiwan’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP, 民進黨). Not long after China’s highly provocative military operations in the wake of US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, Furuya Keiji, a Japanese LDP lawmaker who chairs the Japan-ROC Diet Members’ Consultative Council, led a Diet delegation to Taiwan. Kihara Minoru, another LDP lawmaker who accompanied Furuya to Taiwan, confirmed that Taiwan gave the Diet members the green light to commence dialogue on facilitating evacuations of Japanese citizens should a military contingency occur. Furuya subsequently embarked to Taiwan in October to participate in the festivities for Taiwan’s de facto National Day on October 10.
In December 2022, Hagiuda Koichi, the chair of the LDP Policy Research Council, became the highest-ranking member from the ruling party to visit Taiwan since 2003. According to the press release issued by President Tsai’s office, Hagiuda is considered “a good friend of Taiwan.” The release also stated that the two democracies pledged to coordinate more closely on security and other causes. And just last month, LDP lawmakers Iwao Horii and Konosuke Kokuba traveled to Taipei to meet their Taiwanese counterparts and convened their first two-plus-two intra-party talks in-person. (Japan and Taiwan launched their inaugural security dialogues virtually in August 2021.) Based on press reports, the purpose of this dialogue was less about generating substantive deliverables and more about emphasizing alignment and committing to schedule another discussion in Tokyo.
All in all, trendlines suggest Japan will not taper its engagement efforts with Taiwan in the near future. If anything, Tokyo and Taipei are likely to work toward consolidating future bilateral engagements, especially as China continues to exert its influence in coercive ways. Importantly, Japanese parliamentary exchanges transcend party lines, as evidenced by a Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan lawmaker Aoyama Yamata leading a delegation on a four-day visit to Taiwan in January.
That being said, Japan-Taiwan relations are not without constraints. Besides the obvious lack of formal diplomatic relations, Japan continues to grapple with where to draw the line between cooperating with and condemning China. Despite China’s deteriorating political image in the West, the country is of great strategic importance to Japan, as the two are economically interdependent.
More recently, the detainment of a Japanese national working for Astellas Pharma Inc. in China last month has deeply vexed Japanese leadership, and Foreign Minister Hayashi Yoshimasa paid a visit to Beijing earlier this month to meet newly-appointed Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang (秦剛) and Premier Li Keqiang (李克強). To Tokyo’s dismay, the Japanese diplomats could not convince the Chinese government to immediately release the detained citizen. However, according to media reports, Hayashi suggested that Chinese General Secretary Xi Jinping (習近平) and Prime Minister Kishida schedule a phone call, presumably with the hopes that Kishida can persuade the Chinese leader to relent. Japan is deeply invested in keeping high-level lines of communication open with China, which is also why the two countries recently operationalized a defense hotline with an eye toward averting a crisis. Japanese media also reported that lawmakers from the Komeito party, the junior partner of the LDP, are planning a trip to China in May. If this visit pans out, it will be the first time a Japanese parliamentary delegation visits the People’s Republic of China since the outbreak of COVID-19.
While Tokyo remains committed to paving a pathway toward fostering a constructive and enduring relationship with Beijing across the spectrum, there are not any immediate indications that this foreign policy objective will stymie Japan’s endeavor to bolster ties with Taiwan. And with China’s escalating military activities in the Taiwan Strait and Japan’s geographical propinquity to both China and Taiwan, the multifaceted, triangular dynamic between Japan, Taiwan, and China deserves more attention.
The main point: Japan’s long-term aspiration is to enhance its partnership with Taiwan in an unofficial capacity, while also working to dial down tensions with China. For now, it is safe to say that Japan’s foreign policy approach vis-á-vis China will not fundamentally constrain Tokyo’s ability to strengthen cooperation and advance shared interests with Taipei.