Taiwan-Japan Ties Deepen Amid Chinese Assertiveness
Publication: China Brief Volume: 16 Issue: 16
By: Lauren Dickey
The Jamestown Foundation
If there is one issue leaders in Taipei and Tokyo can find common ground on, it is China’s destabilizing and assertive behavior. Beyond the impact of Chinese actions within the region, both Taiwan and Japan also share an economic dependency upon the mainland Chinese market. United by a common perception of the Chinese threat and geostrategic vulnerability, Taiwan has thus sought relations with Japan that are in many ways unofficial in name only.  Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen’s administration recently passed its first one hundred days in office. The months and years ahead offer many opportunities for Taiwan to continue to deepen ties with Tokyo, addressing existing sources of tension while developing more robust defense, economic, and law enforcement cooperation. A closer Taiwan-Japan partnership would further contribute to the U.S.-led regional alliance structure, a strategic objective that is in the national interest of both Taipei and Tokyo.
Intraparty Networks Linking Taipei and Tokyo
Unique to the Taiwan-Japan unofficial relationship is a long tradition of intraparty support between Japanese Diet members and their counterparts located predominantly in Taiwan’s Legislative Yuan and the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). Pro-Taiwan parliamentarians have turned to various working groups that, while ideologically different, all endeavor to support Taiwan at the international level. Arguably the most influential non-partisan group is the Liberal Democratic Party’s (LDP) Youth Division, where current senior LDP members—including Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, former Minister of Finance Shoichi Nakagawa, and former Minister of Economy, Trade, Industry Takeo Hiranuma—once served. This spring, Japan’s main opposition party, the Democratic Party, voted to change its name from Minzhudang to Minjindang (民主党 to 民进党; democratic progressive party), a symbolic transformation that did not disappoint Taiwan’s ruling DPP and offered additional justification for future intraparty cooperation (Phoenix News, March 13). Likely to further bolster future cooperation is the September election of Taiwanese-Japanese journalist and politician, Renho Murata, as the Democratic Party’s leader. Deemed the “Daughter of Taiwan” by Taiwanese media, Renho is known for her links to Taiwan’s Democratic Progressive Party, outspoken critiques of Japan’s handling of the “one China” dilemma, and desire to “play a role on behalf of Taiwan” (Taipei Times, August 16, 2004; TVBS, February 24, 2010; BBC Chinese, September 15).
The extent of the Taiwan-Japan relationship, however, depends just as much upon the stance of Taiwanese politicians as their counterparts in Tokyo. In the 1980s and 90s, former President Lee Teng-hui set a strong precedent for close ties, praising what Japan had done for Taiwan during the colonial period and welcoming Japanese Self-Defense Force (JSDF) officials and diplomats on quasi-official visits. Ties during the Chen Shui-bian period warmed to the point that Chen called upon Tokyo to implement a Japanese Taiwan Relations Act (Epoch Times, November 1, 2006). During the Ma Ying-jeou presidency the tide began to change and cross-Strait ties largely took precedence over Taiwan-Japan. Ma clearly prioritized relations across the Strait, stating in a 2008 meeting with Japan’s then-representative to Taiwan, Masaki Saito, that improvements to Taipei’s relations with Beijing would enable Taiwan and Japan to boost their own “friendly” ties (ROC Office of the President, August 1, 2008).
Even as Ma focused on rapprochement with mainland China, his legacy of gradual improvements to the Taiwan-Japan relationship should not be overlooked. During Ma’s tenure, Taiwan-Japan tourism gained added momentum. Tourists could travel visa-free, drivers licenses were mutually recognized, working holiday opportunities for young people were established, and Japanese tourists to Taiwan exceeded 1.6 million in 2015 (Japan Interchange Association, June 22 and 28, 2010; ROC Tourism Bureau, 2015). Ma’s peace initiative, an effort intended to shelve East China Sea territorial disputes in favor of dialogue and resource sharing, also helped ease pre-existing geopolitical tensions (ROC Ministry of Foreign Affairs, September 7, 2012).
While the Tsai administration should continue to build upon past efforts to deepen the Taiwan-Japan relationship, her administration’s comparative advantage lies in its intraparty connections and non-official channels maintained by the DPP over the last several decades. Just as a faction of anti-Japan, pro-China exists within the pan-blue KMT-led constituency, so too does a pro-Japan, anti-China cohort reside within the pan-green DPP-led network. Tsai reinforced the role of this network in her pre-election trip to Japan, where she met with the Democratic Party of Japan’s secretary general, visited the Japanese cabinet offices, and held a closed-door conversation with Prime Minister Abe (CRNTT, October 8, 2015; Storm Magazine, October 9, 2015; author interview, July 2016). Her resolve to promote strong interpersonal relationships as a mechanism for further developing the overall Taiwan-Japan relationship is clear—a priority reciprocated by a Japanese envoy shortly after her election (Taipei Times, January 18).
Stumbling Blocks Between Taiwan and Japan
The Tsai administration’s push to broaden Taiwan-Japan cooperation will not, however, be obstacle-free. Even if Tokyo rationalizes exchanges with Taipei as both “private and regional”—as in the 1998 Japan-China joint declaration—it is nonetheless likely to face staunch opposition from Beijing (Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan, November 26, 1998). Moreover, some have argued that Tokyo’s orientation toward Taiwan is inseparable from the status of Sino-Japan and Japan-U.S. relations, which may constrain attempts to deepen relations. 
These macro-level challenges are further complicated by ongoing sore spots in the Taiwan-Japan relationship. While both share concerns over Chinese incursions into territorial waters, Taipei and Tokyo remain separated over the disputed Diaoyutai/Senkakus in the East China Sea with both staking claims as sovereign territory (Phoenix News, October 10, 2015; Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan, April 13). Further at sea is Okinotori reef, what Japan has asserted to be an island and thereby entitled to an exclusive economic zone for its fishers (Central News Agency, April 26). After a Taiwanese fishing vessel and its crew was arrested for encroachment of Japanese waters at Okinotori, Tsai pragmatically decided to pursue negotiations rather than legal recourse to resolve fishery disputes—a stark departure from Ma’s dispatch of military vessels to safeguard Taiwanese fishermen. Stalled since late July, press reports suggest the maritime dialogue has yet to materialize because Taipei has requested more time to prepare its agenda (United Daily News, April 28; BBC Chinese, May 1; Focus Taiwan News, July 26; China Post, August 10).
At the social level, the Tsai administration will encounter one of the few negative historical memories older generations of Taiwanese still retain of the Japanese. During World War II, over 2,000 Taiwanese comfort women provided services under duress at Japanese military brothels; of the 58 women that survived the war years, only three are still alive in Taiwan today (Focus Taiwan News Channel, December 29, 2015). While Tokyo recently agreed to pay reparations to South Korean comfort women, Taipei’s pursuit of a similar solution has heretofore been unsuccessful (United Daily News, December 30, 2015). Nevertheless, Taiwanese sentiment toward the Japanese remains largely favorable—with a record 56 percent of Taiwanese claiming Japan as their favorite country—a boon to the Tsai administration as it works to sustain momentum for its redefinition of ties with Japan (Japan Times, July 20).
Building a More Robust—But Still Unofficial—Relationship
Despite the aforementioned impediments, there is reason to remain optimistic for expansion of Taiwan-Japan linkages. Turning first to defense cooperation, Japan has been committed to defend the waters around Japan since the cross-Strait missile crisis of 1995–96, codifying its security concern in a joint statement with the United States in 2005 (Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan, February 19, 2005). The “gray zone” situations in northeast Asia highlighted in Japan’s 2013 National Defense Program Guidelines incentivize greater military-to-military links, as does the reality that a Chinese-reclaimed Taiwan will put Beijing’s forces significantly closer to Japanese territory. 
It is thus in Tokyo’s own strategic interests to ensure Taipei can acquire greater ability to deter against reunification through military might. Japan could support Taiwan, for instance, by lending current or retired shipbuilding experts and engineers from Mitsubishi and Kawasaki to Taiwan as it launches its indigenous submarine program. Technology from the Soryu-class of diesel-electric submarines is less likely to be shared with or sold to Taiwan—given the risk of Chinese espionage—but that does not restrict Japan from offering knowledge and guidance to Taipei. Additionally, while some experts have suggested Japan could support Taiwanese development of unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs) for littoral patrols, it is presently unrealistic to expect such cooperation to materialize since Japan’s UUV fleet is still a work-in-progress.
Given the rapid speed at which the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) is developing its submarine fleet, of greater assistance to Taiwan than additional anti-surface warfare capabilities would be increased anti-submarine capabilities, such as the multi-mission Kawasaki P-1. A more robust ability to detect PLAN submarines would benefit both sides’ interest in tracking movement of the East Sea fleet; Taiwanese defense officials would be better able to notify their counterparts in Tokyo, as in 2004 when Tokyo was notified of PLAN nuclear submarines entering Japan’s territorial waters (People.com.cn, June 21, 2007).
Potential defense cooperation between Taiwan and Japan extends well beyond the realm of new platforms and capabilities; a forthcoming memorandum of understanding on humanitarian assistance between private organizations from both sides is case in point (China Post, September 27). The Japanese Self-Defense Forces regularly conduct humanitarian aid and disaster relief (HA/DR) training—oftentimes in partnership with U.S. forces—and could readily include the Taiwanese armed forces. Taiwan is suitably qualified to participate, given its frequent military deployments in response to earthquakes, typhoons, and other natural disasters in the region.  The two militaries previously cooperated in Taiwan’s annual Han Kuang exercises (漢光演習)—partaking in cyber simulations in 2005 and 2006, notably during then-DPP President Chen Shui-bian’s second term. As any savvy China watcher would expect, the Japanese presence at Han Kuang both years was taken by Beijing as an intentional strengthening of Taiwan’s interoperability with Japanese and U.S. forces (People.com.cn, June 21, 2007; International Pioneer Guide, February 25, 2005). A decade later, with Beijing’s perception and misperception of defense cooperation guaranteed to persist, the Tsai administration would nonetheless benefit greatly from resurrecting joint training with Japanese forces in the Han Kuang exercises.
Additionally, Japan is in the midst of a two-year process to stand up its own Amphibious Rapid Deployment Brigade (ARDB), a force modeled after the U.S. Marine Corps and reliant upon Japanese Ground Self-Defense Force soldiers to build a new unit of 3,000 rapidly deployable troops (USNI News, January 25). In the long-term as the operational capabilities of Japanese marines deepen and it can operate farther afield, perhaps Tokyo can aid Taiwan in reversing the self-destruction to its own thinning Marine Corps. The reinterpretation of Japan’s constitution could further enable the ARDB to assist in the defense of a partner nation like Taiwan (Japan Times, September 26). In the near-term, however, as Tokyo defines the missions set of its marines and trains the new unit accordingly, the Japanese Self-Defense Forces can instead support joint training with the Taiwanese in the maritime and air domains. This could entail assisting the Taiwanese military in a transition to light artillery and anti-ship cruise missile missions, in exploring the feasibility for both a 30,000-ton landing helicopter dock and alternatives to expensive precision-guided weapons and targeting systems. Finally, in the cyber domain, Taiwan’s Computer Emergency Response Team Coordination Center (國家電腦事件處理中心) and the Japanese National Information Security Center would benefit from an institutionalized relationship and information sharing, enabling identification of at-risk networks and developing response mechanisms to Chinese cyber incursions.  All defense cooperation must be adroitly handled, however, as Tokyo cannot officially send a defense attaché to its representative office in Taipei, nor will it be likely to collaborate on big-ticket defense items despite ending its ban on weapons sales abroad.
Taiwan and Japan could also tap into joint law enforcement mechanisms. In the maritime domain, the growth of China’s maritime militia—and swarm tactics in Japanese waters—requires investment to keep pace with the demands of maritime patrols (Japan Times, August 7). The Chinese tactic of shifting the onus of coercion to Tokyo will succeed insofar as the Japanese coast guard and naval forces are deterred from mounting a response adequate to defend their territorial waters; and the same can be said for Taiwanese-claimed waters. On land, increased joint cooperation between criminal investigation agencies has recently gained new momentum after Taiwanese authorities busted a drug ring responsible for smuggling amphetamines to Japan and Taiwan via fishing boats, human bodies, and luggage. Links between the crime ring and Japanese crime gangs compelled the Taiwanese authorities to seek the cooperation of their Japanese counterparts—a positive step that could be further developed to encompass human trafficking and the sex trade in both countries (United Daily News, September 5).
As a final area for deepening their unofficial relationship, Taiwan’s place as Japan’s third largest trading partner and tenth largest customer suggests there is ample room for greater economic coordination. Both stand to benefit from the other being more integrated into the regional economic order, particularly given the extent of interdependence within the semiconductor and small electronics manufacturing industry.  To this end, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga offered his support for Taiwan’s bid to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) (Office of the Prime Minister and His Cabinet, January 18). Perhaps even longer-term, the possibility for a Japan-Taiwan free trade agreement (FTA) would further integrate Taiwan into the Asia-Pacific economic order. In the near-term, however, Tsai must re-evaluate a Ma-era decision to cut off food imports from Fukushima and its neighboring prefectures after the 2011 Dai-ichi nuclear power plant meltdown. Japanese authorities are eager to boost economic well-being in the affected areas—even going so far as to purchase U.S.-made equipment to run tests to prove food product safety (Taipei Times, April 27, 2015).
While the risks of increased unofficial Taiwan-Japan collaboration are significant—endeavors that would undoubtedly stoke the ire of Beijing—the rewards of pursuing greater cooperation should not be underestimated. Closer Taiwan-Japan ties offsets Taipei’s dependence on both the United States and China. For Washington, such ties are also in the American interest of rebalancing within Asia: more robust Taiwan-Japan ties effectively reinforce the U.S. hub-and-spoke system by aligning Taipei with one of the United States’ most important regional allies. Defense ties are of particular importance in this regard, with both Japan and the United States eager to protect the Tokyo-Guam-Taipei (TGT) triangle encompassing maritime disputes and enabling regional power projection. Economic cooperation and greater collaboration across law enforcement agencies will but further strengthen Taipei’s ties to an important U.S. partner in the face of continued Chinese assertiveness. The task ahead for President Tsai is thus not whether closer collaboration with Japan should be sought out, but how to effectively initiate and sustain such coordination to the benefit of both countries and the United States.
Lauren Dickey is a Ph.D. candidate in War Studies at King’s College London and the National University of Singapore where she focuses on relations between China and Taiwan. She is also a member of the Pacific Forum Young Leaders Program at CSIS.
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- Thomas S. Wilkins, “Taiwan-Japan Relations in an Era of Uncertainty,” Asia Policy 13 (2012): pp. 113–132.
- Alain Guilloux, “Taiwan’s humanitarian aid/disaster relief: Wither or prosper?,” Brookings Institution, August 2016, https://www.brookings.edu/opinions/taiwans-humanitarian-aiddisaster-relief-wither-or-prosper/.
- Julia Cunico et al., “Cybersecurity Cooperation with Taiwan: An Opportunity for the US-Japan Alliance,” PacNet no. 4 (2015), https://www.csis.org/analysis/pacnet-4-cybersecurity-cooperation-taiwan-opportunity-us-japan-alliance.
- June Teufel Dreyer, “Taiwan-Japan Relations in the Tsai Era,” Orbis (2016).
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Photo Source: Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-Wen and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe have met on several occasions prior to her election in January was uploaded in the original article by The Jamestown Foundation.