Hudson Institute

An Interview with Representative Keisuke Suzuki on the Future of Japan-Taiwan Relations

A man stands under Taiwanese flags on a street in the Chinatown section of Yokohama, Kanagawa prefecture, south of Tokyo on January 28, 2024. (Photo by Philip FONG / AFP)
A man stands under Taiwanese flags in Yokohama, Japan, on January 28, 2024. (Photo by Philip Fong/AFP via Getty Images)

Representative Keisuke Suzuki is a member of Japan’s House of Representatives, representing Kanagawa prefecture’s seventh district. He is a former State Minister of Finance and former State Minister of Foreign Affairs. He is currently Chair of the Liberal Democratic Party’s (LDP) Taiwan Policy Review Project Team. Hudson Institute Senior Fellow Riley Walters recently spoke with Representative Suzuki about the future of Japan-Taiwan relations – building off a similar interview Walters had with the former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in 2022. That interview can be found here.

Riley Walters

Thank you for joining us, Representative Suzuki. So today, we're just going to talk about Japan-Taiwan relations. Almost two years ago, I did a similar interview with the former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on his view on the Japan-Taiwan relationship. And he talked very candidly about his deep feelings towards Taiwan, not just the familiarity and friendliness, but also some of the historical and security interests. And so today, we're going to continue a bit on that conversation with you, as one of the younger generations of LDP members. And of course, as the chair of the LDP’s Taiwan policy review project. So, to begin, Representative Suzuki, maybe can you tell us a little bit about your connection with Taiwan? What made you first interested in the Japan-Taiwan relationship?

Representative Keisuke Suzuki

Okay, so, I think that my first contact, or my first visit to Taiwan, was when I was in college. I was a senior and had just retired from the rowing team. I had [free] time then and my grandfather brought me to Taiwan. And I met with his old friends. My grandfather did business in Taiwan. He ran a chemical industry firm. He had many Taiwan business partners then, and old friends in Taiwan, including the family member of the former president of Taiwan, Lee Teng-Hui. I visited a few ministries at that time as well. And that was my first visit to Taiwan. 

My impression was there was a lot of pro-Japan sentiment that was shared broadly among the Taiwanese people. And so that was my first impression and my first contact. 

Since then, I’ve made many friends from Taiwan but that is kind of personal. And so, my next official conduct was after my first election, as a member of parliament. That was my first professional connection after that.


Wonderful. And so how does Tokyo view the situation around Taiwan today? Why is the peace and stability around Taiwan important for Japan?

Rep. Suzuki

Okay, before moving to that topic, I might want to add one point. I had been the head of the youth division of the LDP, and that position is also dominated by big figures in my party. So, like my boss, former prime minister [Taro] Aso, the former prime minister [Shinzo] Abe, or the current prime minister, [Fumio] Kishida. Many of the former prime ministers experienced that position, and this is kind of the wisdom of our party, that the head of the youth division is the kind of the head of the young party members. Or those below 45. Is that young or not? I don’t know [laughter]. 

It means that they’re the parliamentarian, LDP politician, who is recognized as kind of the next generation’s leader and will usually have this role. And that is also a position that has a responsibility to have a kind of official, but not really official, connection with Taiwan. 

So, the frontman who will deliver the message of the Japanese government, and Japan's ruling party, is the head of the youth division. That's a kind of tradition that our party has had over the last 40 or 50 years. So, I think that this makes the LDP, and the parliamentary, basically pro-Taiwan. 

The pro-Taiwan, or pro-Taiwan political attitude, is so old now that it’s kind of institutionalized. And I think this is a very big asset, having this pro-Taiwan type of organization management in our party. 

The youth division has a very long history, actually, since the 1950’s or 1960’s. It's one of the oldest organizations inside our party, and this organization regularly has an official visit to Taiwan. Basically, twice a year. 


So then going back to our first question then about the situation around Taiwan. What is the view from Tokyo?

Rep. Suzuki

I think that unlike 10 or 20 years ago, I think that Taiwan's strategic importance is increasing dramatically, And I think that one of the biggest drivers is that the Chinese are becoming hawkish. This includes their behavior around Japan, including the Senkakus Islands, or the East China Sea, or the Taiwan Strait, or South China Sea. This kind of hawkish behavior makes us have to deal with this kind of pressure from China. And that we need to counter that kind of pressure together, with like-minded countries in this region. 

In that context, the first island chain is composed of Japan, Taiwan, and the Philippines, basically. There’s also a country like Vietnam, that’s had long-term conflict with China, both on land and sea. And I think that, from Japan’s point of view, that the US-Japan alliance, or Australia, or these kind of AUKUS-type of countries, are quite reliable and important. At the same time, while we need to have a very close relationship with those countries, we also have to with Asian countries and Taiwan, because of their geopolitically important position.

Also, because of its pro-Japan history, Taiwan will certainly be a primary partner with Japan. 

Another thing that makes us understand Taiwan's importance in this recent era, is what happened in Hong Kong several years ago. This was kind of a big alarm for us. 

Also, the physical challenge presented by China’s PLA [People’s Liberation Army], or to the Senkakus, is also one. 

And also, I think that, internationally, the COVID situation makes, more broadly, international players understand what is happening around Taiwan, because Taiwan is not a member of the WHO [World Health Organization]. But it is a country, the only Chinese, how do you say, the only Chinese speaking country who contained the COVID situation successfully. And that it’s really also a democratic, free country. 

So, this kind of positive message is shared internationally, I think. And those are the factors that make Taiwan more important in international politics, I think.


Absolutely. Well, I think we share a lot of that same sentiment, you know, we just recently had the State Department say, request that, once again, Taiwan be included as an observer this year at the WHO's assembly. You know, it is quite alarming that for a country like Taiwan, who's done so well managing a pandemic, that they're not allowed to participate in what's supposed to be an organization representative of global health interests.

Rep. Suzuki

I think so. And also, the geopolitical position of Taiwan is quite important in both the context of Japanese national security, but also for US national security, I think. So for instance, there’s a big PLA submarine base located in Hainan island. But those submarines, with nuclear warheads, can easily access the Pacific Ocean if Taiwan would ever come under their control. For now, the main access routes from Hainan island to the Pacific Ocean is, one, the Bashi strait between the Philippines and Taiwan, and the other is the Miyako strait. It's ancient Japanese territory, but it's very close to Taiwan. So, there is a kind a very strategic importance here.


So then, what are some of the priorities for the LDP, when looking towards Taiwan and China? For example, have you seen a shift in the engagement that Tokyo has, when it's engaging with Taiwan versus how it's engaging with the PRC these days?

Rep. Suzuki

I think that from the viewpoint of Japanese national security, to keep the status quo is quite important. The existence of Taiwan as a free and democratic country, who is really pro-Japan, where those sentiment is shared by the public, a place of more than 20 million population, is a big asset for Japan, actually. And so, we totally share the values, and totally share a national interest. That kind of a neighbor is quite a big, big asset for Japan. 

So, we need to defend the status quo. We shouldn’t allow the PLA or PRC [People’s Republic of China], to conquer Taiwan. That would have a direct negative impact, or a disastrous impact for Japan’s own national interest. So, that is kind of a common recognition, I think. 

And, for instance, the western island of Japan's territory, or Yonaguni, it's only like 100 kilometers from Taiwan. The biggest hospital closest to that island is in Taiwan, actually. It’s much closer to Taiwan than Naha, or the other islands. This means protecting status quo is very important to defend the Japanese people, actually. 

Of course, this doesn't necessarily mean that Taiwan needs to declare its independence or change much. It doesn't mean that. But we need to keep Taiwan’s security, and Taiwan people's dignity. Keeping the status quo is quite important. And so, this kind of thing isbroadly shared amongst the professionals in, of course Tokyo, Washington, and also in Taipei, and with Canberra, I think.


So then, what about within your party then? Can you maybe talk a little bit about your role as the lead for the LDP’s Taiwan policy team?

Rep. Suzuki

Okay, so for the US government to have the Taiwan Relations Act and Taiwan Travel Act, Taiwan is legally binded, in kind of, the US legal system. But in Japan’s case, after we changed our official diplomatic relationship with Taiwan, in the 70s, we didn't have that kind of legal framework. So, the government cannot officially do something on Taiwan. But the situation now, the tension, is getting quite higher and higher. So, we have to seriously think about contingency plans, or something like that. 

In that context, of course, the government is doing something, but they cannot help, in how do you say, an open, official status. So, we play that role as the ruling party. That is the status of the Taiwan task force that I'm leading now. And our goal is basically focusing on what should our government do to protect our citizens lives, or our economy, under different kinds of contingency situations. At the same time, how to protect Taiwan's status in the international arena. You know, all these kinds of issues are included. Also, some kinds of military assessments, but I cannot talk about that officially.


So, it's broad. And so, we're just a day after President Lai has been inaugurated. Did you get to watch the inauguration? What did you think of it?

Rep. Suzuki

Actually, I am personally very good friends with him, and we've known each other quite a long time. And I think that the speech, or the statements, were very, how you say, they were very pragmatic and well balanced. And it's quite a positive message for the future of regional stability, I think. And I think that our government welcomed the new president’s strong commitment to protecting the status quo.


What do you think might be some challenges for his administration going forward? Maybe just pick a few that you think are the most challenging for him over the next four years.

Rep. Suzuki

So, I think that Taiwan is a very important society and economy. I think that many of the topics, or challenges, are the same as in Japan, such like the aging population or how to accept more foreign workers. I think that Taiwan is more advanced than Japan, on this issue. Also, energy security is quite important. They still rely on fossil fuels but they’re also making many large investments in renewables. That is positive. Rationally speaking though, they need to think pragmatically about the future possibility of reintroducing nuclear energy. This would make sense in the context of energy security, I think. These kinds of issues will certainly be there. 

In the context of the industrial base, Taiwan has many big, good startups, especially in information technology. I think that semiconductors, or those kinds of big firms, are very famous among foreign countries. But they need more industries for further growth. One point for this would be that their domestic demand is very limited. The population is shrinking worse than Japan’s. So, they need more, how do you say, competitive types of industries. I think that these kinds of topics are very big challenges in the coming four years. But I think the most important issue in his [William Lai’s] mind is how to protect the people and how to secure the status quo. International politics and the pressure from the PRC will be big, big issues. The biggest issue, I think. 


That's a great segue into our next question. In the US, many talk about the year 2027 as this potential tipping point for the threat the PRC presents to Taiwan. Does Tokyo share a similar timeline or sense of urgency?

Rep. Suzuki

So, I regularly exchange views in this context with Washington, or with Taipei, and I think that the timeline is quite the same, among those three parties. And it's very important.

What we are now carefully watching is the current Chinese mainland economic situation, which is quite bad. And regarding Xi Jinping, how he is securing his position, or whether he can secure his own security is getting more difficult. These could easily lead him towards a kind of more hawkish external policy. And so, we need to keep communicating with him to prevent any miscommunication. We also need to prevent his miscalculation. This is a very important issue now. Otherwise, something could happen by 2027. That's my perception, though.

But 2025 could be also one of the vulnerable times I think, because it really depends on the US presidential election. There would be the vulnerable transition period, whoever the next President will be, and this could be a potential weak point for the US. So, we need to prepare to make sure there’s no vulnerability during this kind of transition period. 


If Taiwan were ever attacked by China, and the US decided that it would defend Taiwan, it could also potentially mean an end to the normal relationship that the United States and China have. Could the diplomatic relationship between Japan and China change, if there were ever such a large-scale invasion? 

Rep. Suzuki

Of course, it's very difficult to answer these kinds of assumptions. But I think that we need to carefully analyze what could happen in the future. I mentioned about the Taiwan contingency or Taiwan crisis already, but the kind of crisis can really be diverse. For instance, there could be an economic blockade of Taiwan or some partial invasion of the small islands in Taiwan Strait or South China Sea, or a full-scale invasion. 

But we need to think through these situations and we need to make much finer clarification, I think, as we consider the response of the US or of Japan. But it really depends on the situation. At least we need to secure Taiwan's current status quo. And that's important, I think. Of course, diplomatic ties or official relationships with China is important, but the priority is how to secure the current situation. 


So, what more can Japan and Taiwan do to support each other's interests in security, on economic issues, and internationally? For example, Taiwan would like to join the CPTPP. I also think Japan would like more investments from Taiwanese semiconductor manufacturers. What are some potential areas of cooperation or opportunity?

Rep. Suzuki

As you mention, the CPTPP is one of their priorities and we are supportive in many ways. During a period that Canada, Australia, or Vietnam is chairing the CPTPP would be a good window for Taiwan to join, I think. Already during the ministerial meetings among the CPTPP members, we agreed that we would judge whether a one country has the right to join the CPTPP based on not only the current negotiations but also their track record of behavior in international law. Meaning that, all the members of the CPTPP understand that it will be very difficult for the PRC to participate in the CPTPP. And that’s a very big step, I think. 

We, Japan, and of course the other members would, welcome Taiwan’s participation but some countries may oppose this. We are not sure about their success. We are dealing with this kind of situation now. 

There are many other things that we can do together, I think. Of course, the political stability in Japan and in the US is very important for this too. Whoever the president or prime minister will be, I think the relationship with Taiwan, or their commitment to regional security, will be unchanged, I hope. We especially would like that, on the US side, whoever the next President is, does not change the basic diplomatic or security policy. That the commitment towards east Asia does not change. 

That is our view, though, we hope that our party will continue to stay in power. What we saw after the last change of government in Japan in 2009 was kind of the nightmare type of international political management. So, we will do our best to keep our administration to keep this continuity.


Any final thoughts or messages?

Rep. Suzuki

I think that, thinking about how to secure the current status quo situation in east Asia is very vital, not only for Taiwan but for Japan. It’s also vital for the US, I think. 

I hope that the US public broadly understands this kind of situation. Sharing common values is very important for all the citizens in the US, Japan, and Taiwan. And I think that the transition of the Taiwanese president from President Tsai to President Lai, I think the transition is going successfully. And that its smooth transition could be a very, very big indicator that we can work together more closely. I personally know William Lai and his character is quite pragmatic, so he can deal with the current situation quite well, I think. 


Thank you, that was wonderful. We hope to have you back at Hudson Institute sometime soon.