Hudson Institute

Shinzo Abe’s Taiwan Legacy

The following is from an interview the authors had with the former prime minister Shinzo Abe.

Then-Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe speaks during a press conference at the prime minister's official residence in Tokyo on August 28, 2020. (Photo by STR/JIJI PRESS/AFP via Getty Images)
Then-Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe speaks during a press conference at the prime minister's official residence in Tokyo on August 28, 2020. (Photo by STR/JIJI PRESS/AFP via Getty Images)

The following is from an interview between the authors and former Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe.

Although this year marks the 50th anniversary of when Japan switched its formal diplomatic relations from the Republic of China (Taiwan) to the People’s Republic of China (PRC), recently Japanese officials have been busy building a new relationship with Taiwan. They identify many of Taiwan’s problems as being Japan’s problems. No one has acknowledged this more, and made greater efforts to bring these two Asian democracies closer together than the former prime minister of Japan Shinzo Abe.

Tensions between Taiwan and the PRC have been nothing short of endemic in recent years. Beijing has been upping its coercive campaign to diminish Taiwan’s international space since President Tsai Ing-wen’s first election win in 2016 - whether through increased military activity in the Taiwan Strait, objecting to Taiwan’s membership in the World Health Organization, or taking coercive trade measures against Taiwanese pineapples. Just last October, the PRC sent 150 aircraft towards Taiwan to send a message of intimidation before Taiwan’s 110th national anniversary.

Against the backdrop of increasing friction between Taipei and Beijing, the PRC has also conspicuously upped its saber-rattling across Asia in order to alter the dimensions of the Indo-Pacific region to its favor across multiple frontiers - from border skirmishes with India to trade bouts with Australia. Meanwhile, Tokyo has watched PRC forces become more brazen closer to home. Every year since Xi Jinping came into power in 2012, Japanese Self-Defense Forces have had to up their defensive measures and scramble over 400 aircraft in response to approaching Chinese aircraft.

Given all that has been going on, it is not surprising that Abe is worried that China is expanding its military capabilities and trying to change the region unilaterally. In fact, he sees much of Beijing’s new militarism being driven by the ambitions of Xi himself.

“Xi Jinping is consolidating his power base and he’s no longer hiding his ambitions toward Taiwan,” says Abe.

Abe is worried that as Xi makes political gains in Beijing, unification with Taiwan (either by force or otherwise), may not be far behind. Certainly, this is a view also held by some who foresee a PRC invasion of Taiwan as possible within just a few short years - though a similar feeling of imminent invasion may not be held by those actually living in Taiwan. Disputed territories in the South China Sea or the Senkaku Islands may also be Xi’s next target.

Perhaps that is why, for the first time in fifty-two years, American and Japanese officials underscored the importance of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait in a leader’s joint statement just last year. Or why Taiwan has become a major focus for Abe’s vision for a free and open Indo-Pacific - an initiative now shared with the U.S., Japan, Australia, and India through the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue.

While Abe’s vision for the Indo-Pacific may have only been revealed a few years ago, his concern for Taiwan is not new. In fact, he sees his efforts to make a stronger Japan-Taiwan relationship as 28 years in the making – starting when he first became a member of Japan’s Diet back in 1993. “Ever since I was elected into the Japanese Diet, I have had a view that we need to strengthen our relationship between Japan and Taiwan,” he says.

“Years ago, there were many people who had learned, and were very literate in Japanese at the center of the political, economic, and social fabrics of Taiwan. My view was that we need to be able to maintain this very pro Japan atmosphere that’s prevailing in Taiwan.”

For now, this shouldn’t be too hard to do. According to one poll, Japan is viewed more positively than any other country in Taiwan - even more than the U.S. The feeling is mutual in Japan. Nearly three quarters of Japanese support engagement with Taiwan.

“In strengthening our relationship with Taiwan, I have come to the view that having interest in the security of Taiwan, and making a commitment to the security of Taiwan, will contribute to the peace and stability throughout the region,” Abe continued.

After serving eight years as Japan’s longest serving prime minister, his efforts are now well-underway, moving both his own political party, and what can sometimes be a sluggish Japanese bureaucracy, to take bold new steps towards stronger Japan-Taiwan relations.

Just last June, a Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) task force published a review of Japan’s Taiwan policy. The document touched on all aspects of the relationship, from military to economic affairs. Most importantly, it emphasized greater people-to-people interaction. “Within the LDP there is an abundance of Diet members who have strong sympathy for Taiwan,” Abe noted. And so for the first time last August, representatives from the LDP and Taiwan’s ruling party, the Democratic Progressive Party, held a virtual dialogue where both sides addressed the need to work in concert with each other to respond to China’s intransigence in the region.

Another summit between Japanese and Taiwanese lawmakers was just held in January.

Besides the LDP, those most vocal about their concern for Taiwan’s safety are the leaders of Japan’s defense forces. In June, Japan’s deputy defense minister Yasuhide Nakayama said Taiwan, as a fellow democracy, needs to be protected. Deputy prime minister at the time Taro Aso, shared this sentiment just a few days later adding ,”Okinawa could be next.”

These statements made by high-ranking officials speak volumes about a fundamental shift in Japan’s policy vis-a-vis Taiwan. Japan’s annual defense paper noted for the first time ever the importance of stability in the Taiwan Strait.

And while the tides in Tokyo are shifting, Abe hasn’t found it easy convincing everyone that Japan’s Taiwan policy needs to change. “There are Diet members who place importance with our relationship with the PRC. As such, there are those who are very cautious about strengthening the relationship with Taiwan. Even inside the government, there are many people who have very cautious views regarding our relationship with China,” Abe noted.

Japan, like many other countries, is earnestly attempting to thread the needle: deepening its cooperation with Taiwan while maintaining stable relations with the PRC. Japan-PRC relations remain a sensitive issue since many Japanese businesses and entities remain tied to the PRC market.

However, continuing business-as-usual with China presents a new set of challenges these days. Abe argues that if the PRC is too integral to Japan’s supply chain, “there is a possibility that China will take hold of [Japan’s] chokepoints,” potentially cutting off critical materials during times of need.

This, to Abe, is why it is a matter of urgency for Japan to increase its supply chain resilience. There is no doubt that Taiwan will be a critical piece of this multifaceted puzzle with renewed emphasis on global diversification in Japan. It is one of the reasons why Japanese officials, including Abe, have been so welcoming of Taiwan’s potential membership in the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement.

In another huge step to further strengthen its direct economic exchanges, Tokyo has been busy attracting the business of one of Taiwan’s (and arguably the world’s) most important companies, Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC). In early 2021, TSMC first announced it would be building a research and development lab near Tokyo. Then in November, it announced plans to co-create a multi-billion-dollar semiconductor plant in Japan’s southern prefecture of Kumamoto.

Abe noted this is one of the first times the government of Japan will provide assistance to a foreign firm investing in Japan. But he also noted that he hopes that Taiwan can be integrated more into these types of multilateral efforts - particularly in the context of the U.S.-Japan alliance.

Japan and Taiwan share a rich history that has remained relatively amicable over the years. Abe is confident the new government in Tokyo, under the leadership of his former foreign minister and now current prime minister Fumio Kishida, can maintain this good relationship and continue the work he started so long ago. For Abe, “Taiwan is very important geopolitically.”

While Abe doesn’t expect the new prime minister to rock any boats, vis-a-vis either Taiwan or the PRC, he’s confident that Kishida will make the right decision when it comes to the future of Japan-Taiwan relations. And just as importantly, that Abe’s efforts in reshaping the Japan-Taiwan relationship can continue with the next generation of leaders from Tokyo and Taipei.