Japan is strongly invested in shaping a rules-based Indo-Pacific. But increasingly, its focus is closer to its backyard. With China’s visible encroachments in the East and South China Seas, Tokyo is understandably concerned about the peace and stability around Taiwan.
So an emergency over Taiwan is an emergency for Japan, as the late Prime Minister Shinzo Abe used to say.
Japan’s long history with Taiwan goes well beyond a shared sense of security and its new National Security Strategy points out that Taiwan isn’t just an extremely important partner, but “a close friend to Japan.” Generally, this close friendship is avoided publicity, but Tokyo is projecting a message that those days are gone.
Going forward, a gradual uptick in dialogue in Tokyo about what the safety of Taiwan means for the safety of Japan and a greater appetite by both Japanese and Taiwanese officials to explore new ways to bolster the Japan-Taiwan economic partnership are expected.
Japan and Taiwan’s relationship has long remained amicable. Japanese and Taiwanese people share an affinity toward one another, each other’s cultures and food and share a rich history. It’s one of the reasons why there are increasing concerns in Japan about what it could mean if what’s happening in Ukraine were to happen in Taiwan. An overwhelming majority of Japanese are concerned that China could invade Taiwan.
When the People’s Liberation Army launched massive military exercises around Taiwan last August, with a handful of ballistic missiles falling just south of Japan’s Yonaguni Island, some analysts regarded this moment as a new “Black Ship” moment for Japan — a reference to when the American Navy arrived in Japan in the 1800’s.
While China’s military action was unprovoked from Japan’s point of view, it didn’t necessarily come as a surprise. For years, Tokyo has been watching as China has increased its military capacity and is now tacitly aiding Russia’s war efforts in Ukraine.
With some of Okinawa Prefecture’s islands situated only 110 kilometers away from Taiwan proper, China’s military exercises generated concerns in Japan that these islands could very well be at the front lines of a Taiwan contingency. While not all residents of Japan’s southwest islands carry a fatalistic attitude toward a war in the Taiwan Strait, the Yonaguni Town Assembly issued a clarion call for the Japanese government to sharpen the island’s defenses by building evacuation shelters for residents.
The unease brought by China’s increasing military presence has also brought the U.S. and Japan closer as partners. That said, Tokyo is also beginning to act on its desire to build its military and diplomatic relationships beyond the U.S. Last year, Japan invested heavily on minilateral networking by hosting the Quadrilateral Leadership Summit; taking part in trilateral security cooperation with the U.S. and Australia; and engaging the U.K. and Italy through the Global Combat Air Program.
By diversifying its security and economic partnerships, Tokyo is signaling that Japan has agency in determining the fate of its security posture by playing a leading role in shaping regional integration in the Indo-Pacific.
These efforts have also included new dialogues between Japanese and Taiwanese lawmakers.
One trend that will likely continue are the political meetings between Japanese, Taiwanese and American officials. In November, lawmakers from across the Pacific met for a second time (virtually) to discuss security and economic matters — including Taiwan’s potential membership in the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership.
These types of summits will likely continue, including bilateral ones. It’s already being reported that Japanese officials will meet with Taiwanese counterparts for a “two-plus-two” consultation, reinforcing the momentum between the ruling parties of both democracies to institutionalize bilateral legislative exchanges.
The benefit of these meetings, besides giving lawmakers the chance to meet each other, is it allows politicians the chance to also think of priorities between Tokyo and Taipei. One such priority for Tokyo has become its economic security, including not becoming too reliant on any one country but also remaining essential to the global economy.
Japanese officials see Taiwanese companies playing an important role in Tokyo’s economic security, especially as Japan looks to rebuild its semiconductor manufacturing capabilities. While Japan is a global leader in producing semiconductor materials and equipment, it has fallen behind its competitors as a semiconductor manufacturer.
Meanwhile, Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company, one of the world’s largest semiconductor foundries, has worked closely with Tokyo to build a research and development center in Ibaraki Prefecture, which opened last June, and a chip manufacturing facility (that is under construction) in Kumamoto Prefecture.
There are other areas where the two democracies can deepen their relationship even more this year.
One example is the return of tourism diplomacy. Before the pandemic, Japan received over 400,000 tourists a month from Taiwan, making it the second largest source of tourists to Japan. And unlike many travel destinations, Japan-Taiwan tourism flows both ways, with over 2 million Japanese tourists visiting Taiwan in 2019, turning Japan into Taiwan’s second largest source of tourists. While it might take a while to return to pre-pandemic levels of travel, there’s still likely to be a significant increase in cross-border travel, boosting both economies’ tourism industries.
For sure, there are still headwinds to the Japan-Taiwan relationship and limits on how far this newly embraced relationship can go. For one thing, both Tokyo and Taipei understand that their economies are significantly intertwined with the Chinese market.
So even as Japan looks to reform its security and defense priorities, with China as its greatest challenge, Tokyo would prefer that Japan-China relations do not continue to follow a downward spiral. Instead, Japan’s modus operandi is still to find some stability in its relationship with China.
Beyond Japan’s resolve to stabilize relations with China, Taiwan’s domestic politics could nominally pacify the momentum of warming Tokyo-Taipei relations.
First, the local elections held last November translated into a stronger performance outcome for the Beijing-friendly Kuomintang (KMT), which is why President Tsai Ing-wen stepped down as the party chair of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). With Taiwan’s presidential election slated to take place in January 2024 and Tsai ineligible to rerun due to term limits, the margins of the election results will likely be tight, though there are not any immediate signs that the DPP will lose. That said, should a KMT candidate defeat the DPP front-runner, one of their lines of focus will be on ironing out differences with Beijing in regard to cross-strait issues.
Despite these political realities in Taiwan, as Tsai frequently shares social media posts in Japanese, one can only hope that her successor will follow in her footsteps to ensure that the self-governed island will still be well-positioned to be a steadfast and reliable partner for Japan.
And with Japan’s outsized role in promoting and preserving a rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific, its strategic agenda with Taiwan will continue to entail more frequent engagements and new avenues of fostering cooperation.