August 17, 2023
NEW DELHI – Japan-Taiwan relations became big news in Northeast Asia when former Prime Minister of Japan, Taro Aso, currently Vice-President of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, paid a three-day visit to Taiwan from 7 to 9 August and held separate meetings with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen and Vice President Lai Ching-te with the aim of reinforcing relations with the island. Lai is a major candidate from Taiwan’s ruling Democratic Progressive Party in the Presidential election scheduled for January 2024.
When this news broke out, it immediately triggered a backlash from China. Aso, 82, became the highest-ranking LDP member to visit Taiwan, a selfruled democratic island that Communist-led China regards as its own territory, since Tokyo switched diplomatic ties from Taipei to Beijing in 1972. Taiwan and mainland China have been governed separately since they split due to a civil war in 1949.
Ever since, China has resolutely opposed Japanese politicians’ visits to Taiwan. China continues to put military pressure on Taiwan and also opposes any official contact between Taipei and other countries. It has made efforts systematically to internationally isolate Taiwan by luring many smaller nations to switch allegiance by offering monetary benefits liberally, leaving Taiwan with only a dozen diplomatic allies. Aso also met the leaders of the main opposition Nationalist Party and Taiwan People’s Party.
The leaders of these two parties had visited Japan in early 2023. Aso also became the secondhighest ranking LDP official after Prime Minister Fumio Kishida to visit the grave of former Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui. Aso’s visit not only highlighted the solid friendship between Taiwan and Japan but is expected to deepen cooperation between the two sides in various fields.
It may be recalled that when then US House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi made a trip to Taiwan in August 2022 and held talks with Tsai, China responded by conducting large-scale drills around Taiwan. Japan is aware of the US-China geographical rivalry but seeks to cooperate with Taiwan, which is the world’s leading chip supplier, and on economic security issues, such as diversifying semiconductor supply chains.
While in Taiwan and speaking at the Ketagalan Forum security dialogue, Aso made an observation that the Taiwan Strait is “gradually tilting toward a time of emergency” which expectedly irked China. Aso’s remarks were in the wake of China conducting military exercises around Taiwan in August 2022 and April 2023, both of which were interpreted by experts as China’s preparation of invasion of the self-ruled island.
China views Taiwan’s status as a core issue and considers Taiwan as a renegade province that must be brought back into the fold, by force if necessary. Beijing has been heaping diplomatic and military pressure on the island, routinely sending warplanes and warships across the median line of the Taiwan Strait. It was for this reason Aso assured Taiwan that Japan along with its allies and partners would not hesitate to use their growing defence capabilities to deter war and maintain peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait.
What was significant to note is that Japan’s annual Defence Ministry White Paper released in July 2023 and the three key security documents released in December 2022 had clearly expressed concern that Chinese military assertiveness around the democratic island could erupt into a conflict.
These observations were not off the mark as China had been sending fighter jets, bombers and spy aircraft into Taiwan’s air defence identification zone near the island on a near-daily basis, including 24 warplanes in August, 12 of which crossed the median line, a move that had been rare. Taiwan is a major semiconductor-maker and sits astride key shipping lanes that provide Japan with much of its energy.
Any disruption owing to a Chinese attack on Taiwan would present an existential crisis for Japan. Japan is concerned that a conflict akin to the war in Ukraine could be replicated in East Asia because of China’s aggressive postures, which is why Japan has been pushed to bolster its defences, including the introduction of a so-called counter-strike capability and a plan to spend 2 per cent of the GNP on defence by 2027.
Japan has disputes with China over the Senkaku Islands. Although Japan and Taiwan do not have formal diplomatic ties, the two sides have long maintained a robust relationship that includes economic and cultural exchanges. This relationship has assumed greater salience in recent months amid concerns over Chinese military moves. The statement issued in May 2023 at the G-7 leaders’ summit in Hiroshima reaffirmed “the importance of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait”. It may be recalled that in July 2022, Taiwanese vice-president William Lai attended the funeral of the slain Prime Minister of Japan, Abe Shinzo.
The fact that Japan allowed Lai to visit Japan to attend the funeral event reflected Kishida’s willingness to support Abe’s political stance towards the island. As expected, Beijing protested to Tokyo saying Lai’s visit was against the “one China” policy Japan had committed to when the two sides established formal ties in 1972. Subsequently seven legislators from Japan belonging to a cross-party parliamentary security group visited Taiwan to discuss security issues. The purpose of the group to visit Taiwan was to discuss how to prepare for conflict, if it breaks out. Beijing’s piling up pressure on Taipei and warning to take forceful measures on a regular basis has led other stakeholders to be in preparedness to meet the situation if it turns grave.
The United States, on its side, has been addressing Taiwan’s security. In late July 2023, the Biden administration announced $345 million in military aid for Taiwan. This was the first major package drawing on its own stockpiles to help Taiwan counter China. This did not deter China from accusing the US of turning Taiwan into a “powder keg” through the billions of dollars of weapons sales it has pledged. The situation in the Taiwan Strait is destined to remain volatile for quite some time.
(The writer is former Senior Fellow, both at NMML and MP-IDSA, and ICCR Chair Professor at Reitaku University, Japan)