Prospects for Taiwan-Japan Relations after the 2024 Election

Prospects for Taiwan-Japan Relations after the 2024 Election

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Prospects for Taiwan-Japan Relations after the 2024 Election

Historically, Japan has responded somewhat passively to interactions between the United States, China, and Taiwan in the Taiwan Strait. [1] Therefore, examining US-China-Taiwan relations within the context of the larger international environment in the Indo-Pacific is crucial when considering the future of Japan-Taiwan relations. In addition to this, it is also essential to consider the bilateral relationship formed by the various common interests between Japan and Taiwan, as well as the influence of their respective domestic politics on the bilateral relationship. In other words, three factors—the international environment, bilateral interests, and the internal politics of both sides—interact to define the state of Taiwan-Japan relations at any given time. [2]

In recent years, the ongoing competition between the United States and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and concerns about further tensions in the Taiwan Strait have created a situation in which both sides have sought assurances from the other that tensions would not escalate. Generally, the United States is demanding that China exercise restraint in its military actions in the Taiwan Strait—while China, in return, is demanding that the United States make it clear that it does not support “Taiwan independence.” The new Taiwanese government’s expectations of Japan will likely grow in this volatile environment. However, as cross-Strait relations become even increasingly strained, it will be difficult for the Japanese government to improve its cooperative relationship with Taiwan. As a result, it is unlikely that Japan and Taiwan will be able to meet each other’s expectations.

Expanding Japan-Taiwan Ties

Regarding the bilateral relationship, Japan and Taiwan face many common challenges, especially with US-China competition continuing to mount. The biggest challenge is how to respond to China’s politico-military configuration that seeks to change the status quo in the region. China’s recent operations around Taiwan—most recently around Kinmen—have much in common with its approach to the Senkaku Islands. It is imperative that both Japan and Taiwan consider how to deal effectively with these operations, individually or jointly. Japan and Taiwan should have channels and mechanisms for the proper exchange of information and experience gained from each other.

There are also many similarities in the policies required of Japan and Taiwan by the United States in the context of US-China competition, particularly as it pertains to economic security. Economic relations between Japan and Taiwan have developed steadily since Tokyo severed diplomatic ties in 1972. Cooperation in the semiconductor industry is centered on Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC, 台灣積體電路製造股份有限公司)—which recently opened a new plant in Kumamoto Prefecture in Japan—as well as the expansion of new sales channels to Japan, such as increased exports of Taiwanese pineapples to Japan following restrictions on pineapple imports made by China. Both are examples of cooperation that strengthen economic security in a way that suits the economic interests of both Japan and Taiwan.

In addition to China’s politico-military activities, Japan and Taiwan must respond to new gray-zone threats such as cyber-attacks and cognitive warfare. There is room to share each other’s experiences and cooperate in response to common social challenges, including declining birthrates and aging populations, rural development, and natural disasters. Regarding these economic and social exchanges, several working agreements have already been concluded between the Japan-Taiwan Exchange Association and the Taiwan-Japan Relations Association (the working contact organizations representing Japan and Taiwan, respectively).

Despite this alignment, recent parliamentary exchanges and other dialogues have resulted in limited breakthroughs. One major issue is how—and to what extent—Japan can support Taiwan’s accession to the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP). Another is Taiwan’s consistent request to have an upgraded security dialogue. In addition, Taipei has pushed Tokyo to raise the level of bureaucrats and ministers who can visit each other. However, the Japanese government has not been able to meet these demands immediately—largely due to pressure from China, which has worked tirelessly to stymie Japan-Taiwan ties. While building on efforts on other economic and social issues, it is also essential to continue discussions on these more controversial issues.

Implications of the 2024 Taiwanese Elections

Looking at the internal political factors on both sides is also essential. In Taiwan, the focus is currently on what kind of security policy team President-elect Lai Ching-te (賴清德) will organize when he comes to power. At this point, there is considerable uncertainty regarding the selection of team members. Still, some believe that Lai should utilize President Tsai Ing-wens’s (蔡英文) current team as much as possible, given the stability of US-Taiwan relations during her administration. However, Lai is likely reluctant to take over his predecessor’s team, despite their shared political allegiances, so it remains to be seen what kind of officials the new team will include and who will be in charge of relations with Japan.

Another potentially destabilizing factor on the Taiwanese side is the shifting balance of power between political parties in the Legislative Yuan. As a result of the 2024 election, Lai’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP, 民進黨) will become the minority party, while the Kuomintang (KMT, 國民黨) will take the lead in the legislature. In the past, the KMT frequently used Japan-related issues to attack the ruling DPP: prominent examples have included the issue of food imports from Fukushima and surrounding areas, territorial disputes around as the Senkaku Islands, and historical topics linked to colonialism and World War II. While the KMT has since become less critical of Japan, it remains to be seen how the party’s legislative caucus will seek to handle relations with Tokyo.

In the Taiwanese policy community, the recent political upheaval in Japan would be perceived as a more significant variable than the new government in Taiwan. To a large extent, relations between Japan and Taiwan depend on legislative exchanges and political connections. Initially, former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was considered a significant influence on the Liberal Democratic Party’s (LDP) policy toward Taiwan. Therefore, it was unclear who would promote Taiwan-Japan relations after Abe’s death. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, several influential members of Abe’s faction—for example, Koichi Hagiuda and Hironari Seko—visited Taiwan. However, since the end of last year, many leading Abe faction members have been under pressure over issues relating to political fund irregularities, taking their attention away from Taiwan. As a result, there are fears that no leading lawmakers will promote Japan-Taiwan relations. In addition, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s approval rating has declined, and some are even questioning his ability to stay in the position.

Finally, while much attention in the foreign policy community has focused on whether or not a Japanese version of the Taiwan Relations Act will be enacted, there has been limited discussion of such legislation in Japan. Unlike the United States, Japan has not been in a position to be directly involved in Taiwan’s defense—even before 1972, Japan was only indirectly involved in the security of the Taiwan Strait through the Japan-US Security Treaty. In terms of the political system, unlike the US presidential system, Japan has a parliamentary cabinet system—so the Diet will likely have a far more significant role in shaping Taiwan policy than does the Congress in the United States. Even without legislation corresponding to the Taiwan Relations Act, Japan will still be able to develop cooperative relations with Taiwan: Japan shares the values of freedom and democracy, and will continue to have an interest in peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait in the framework of the Japan-US security treaty.

The main point: Though Chinese pressure and internal political dynamics have long hindered the development of Japan-Taiwan relations, the two nations have nevertheless been able to build a promising foundation. If the two sides are able to maintain mutual interest and overcome hurdles, they can further expand their partnership.

[1] Several leading Japanese scholars pointed out this trend. For example, Yasuhiro Matsuda, “New Developments in the Japan-China-Taiwan Relations in the Post-Cold-War Period: Japan as a Reactive Balancer (Chinese version),” Contemporary Japan and East-Asian Studies, Vol. 6, No. 1 (http://jeast.ioc.u-tokyo.ac.jp/numbers/20220401-01.html).

[2] For the author’s basic views on Taiwan-Japan relations, see Madoka Fukuda, “Recent Developments in Japan-Taiwan Relations,” Yuki Tatsumi and Pamela Kennedy eds., Japan-Taiwan Relations: Opportunities and Challenges (Stimson Center, 2021), pp.12-21.