Thanks to China, Japan-Taiwan relations will deepen

In 1997, a group of lawmakers from the youth division of the long-ruling Japanese Liberal Democratic Party visited Taiwan. The evening reception got watered down, as the hosts raised their cups several times and invited their guests to join them in emptying the contents in one fell swoop, accompanied by the usual toast of kan pei, who literally means “dry glass”.

The head of the PLD delegation was none other than Abe Shinzo, who had just been elected to the Japanese legislature, the Diet, four years earlier and would become the country’s longest-serving prime minister. Abe is known to drink little or no drink at all, so in his place, Kishida Fumio, a representative from Hiroshima with a reputation for being something of a drinker, stepped in to handle the toast. He allegedly consumed an almost mythical amount of alcohol that night, which made him endearing to the Taiwanese dignitaries present.

This story has been circulating again since Kishida took office as Prime Minister of Japan last week, after winning the LDP leadership election days before. The Taiwanese National Archives marked the occasion by posting footage of the 1997 visit as well as an earlier exchange in 1994, in which a smiling Kishida posed for a photo alongside then Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui, known locally as “Mr. Democracy” for his role in overseeing the country’s transition from authoritarian rule.

Anecdotes like these are more than just historical anecdotes. They illustrate the close relationship Japan has enjoyed with its former colony over the decades, even after official relations broke off in favor of diplomatic normalization with Beijing in 1972.

Building on that relationship and motivated by a common concern over China’s aggressive behavior in the region in recent times, Tokyo and Taipei have stepped up their coordination on a range of economic and security issues. Everything points to this trend continuing under Kishida, who recently called rising tensions in the Taiwan Strait the “next big problem.”

Japanese officials have watched with concern as China fly increasing numbers of warplanes in airspace near Taiwan, as President Xi Jinping reiterates threats to annex the autonomous island – by force , if necessary. Concerns in Tokyo over the situation are part of what led Kishida’s predecessor, Suga Yoshihide, to note “the importance of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait” in his joint statement with the US president. Joe Biden during his visit to the White House in April – the first such reference in a joint statement between the leaders of the two countries since 1969.

In August, PLD lawmakers held their first bilateral talks on security issues with their counterparts from the ruling Progressive Democratic Party in Taiwan, initiated by the Japanese side. One of the attendees, Sato Masahisa, who heads the PLD’s National Security Committee, told the Financial Times that he saw the dialogue as necessary because Taiwan’s future would “have a serious impact” on Japan.

According to Shihoko Goto, a senior member of the Wilson Center’s Asia Program, the recent party-to-party talks have been “a remarkable development,” both for the fact that they have made progress and for Beijing’s relative lack of hindsight. , which in the past has not hesitated to use its economic weight to sanction countries which are approaching Taiwan. It was a sign that Tokyo and Taipei are “more willing and able to have stronger political ties and closer relations when it comes to discussing issues of common interest,” he told me. she says. “They are also able to sense temporarily where the red line may be” vis-à-vis China.

Other recent statements by Japanese officials have referred to Taiwan’s security as being “directly linked” to that of Japan. In its annual defense white paper released this summer, the Japanese Defense Ministry first mentioned Taiwan, noting that “the stability of the situation around Taiwan is important, not only for the security of our country, but for the stability of the international community. community. ”Japan’s westernmost municipality, on Yonaguni Island, is just 70 miles from Taiwan.

“Instead of just monitoring the situation, we hope to weigh the different possible scenarios to consider the options available to us, as well as the preparations we need to make,” Foreign Minister Motegi Toshimitsu told reporters earlier this month. this. Regional analysts were quick to note the explicit reference to possible Japanese action in the event of a contingency, which officials had not openly discussed in the past.

Everything indicates that Japan will continue to pursue a closer dialogue with Taiwan under Kishida.

Japan’s ties with Taiwan will take a back seat in the coming weeks, as the PLD and its coalition partner, the Komeito, prepare for a general election on October 31. They are virtually guaranteed to retain their majority in the lower house of the Diet. because of the structural advantages enjoyed by the ruling coalition, as well as the permanent schisms between the opposition parties.

Once the polls are behind him, there are a number of signs that Kishida is likely to continue pushing for closer ties with Taiwan, Goto said.

In his ministerial formation, Kishida replaced almost all of his ministers, retaining only Motegi and Defense Minister Kishi Nobuo. This indicates Kishida’s intention to continue Suga’s foreign policy, which in turn was inherited from Abe: to maintain the US-Japan alliance as the foundation of the country’s national security, while also reaching out to neighbors. like-minded and concerned about China’s aggression.

Kishida has also appointed a lawmaker for a third term as the newly appointed Minister of Economic Security, responsible for securing sensitive technologies and infrastructure while strengthening supply chains that have been disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic. As one of the world’s leading producers of semiconductors, a key component for Japanese companies, Taiwan is likely to play an important role in these efforts.

Then there is the crucial question of Japan’s overall security posture. Ahead of the elections, the PLD called for doubling defense spending to 2% of GDP, breaking with the post-war tradition of keeping military budgets capped at 1%. Such an unprecedented increase probably wouldn’t be realized right away, but it still signals a “seismic shift in Japan on what it really needs to do to ensure its own defense capabilities,” Goto said. This will have important implications for Taiwan – and for China’s risk calculation as it weighs the military escalation against the island.

Kishida has not always been a supporter of increased defense spending. At the head of a conciliatory faction of the PLD called the Kochikai, he is from Hiroshima, traditionally a liberal stronghold. Influenced by the history of his hometown, he has long been a strong advocate for a world free of nuclear weapons. During his five-year tenure as Foreign Minister under Abe, he helped facilitate the first-ever visit to Hiroshima by a sitting US president in 2016.

Although many PLD members have come to see China’s military build-up and assertive behavior in the region, including near the Japanese-administered Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, which China claims to be the Diaoyu , Kishida pleaded for a balanced relationship between Beijing and Washington.

But his publicly expressed views on national security issues have evolved in recent years along with the PLD’s right turn. During the party’s recent leadership race, he said fighting China would be a top priority as prime minister. In his first call with Xi since taking office, he agreed to continue a “constructive and stable” relationship, even though he raised issues such as human rights violations in China and “made Japan’s position known. on Taiwan, ”Kyodo News reported.

Going forward, a tough stance on Beijing raises tough choices for Tokyo. “One of the most difficult issues we will face is, ‘How do we define China as a threat?’ Goto said. Few Japanese would say Beijing poses a security threat, but it is also an important trading partner, a fact that has led Japan to pursue a forked approach to China, dealing with economic and social issues. security as separate domains.

This distinction could become more difficult to maintain as Japan’s main ally, the United States, doubles “extreme competition” with China – a global effort that involves economic policy as well as hard power. The debate in Japan is further complicated by the candidacies of China and Taiwan to join the 11-country Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership, the regional trading bloc in which Tokyo plays a leading role. How Japan handles the dueling offers will be an important indication of its course towards Beijing.

From Taiwan’s perspective, it continues to face a huge psychological burden caused by China’s saber strikes, and it has also seen its diplomatic allies regularly poached by Beijing in recent years. Given the relentless pressure, it will likely welcome whatever support regional powers like Japan are willing to offer.

Elliot Waldman is the editor of World Politics Review. Follow him on Twitter at @ElliotWaldman.

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