JPRI Critique Vol. XVIII, No. 1 (February 2012)
Taiwan-Japan Relations: Time for a New Strategic Vision?
by Thomas S. Wilkins

Taiwan-Japan relations recently experienced a temporary setback as media sources in Taipei were dominated by allegations that a Japanese companion of Taiwanese-Japanese pop starlet Mayiko beat a city cab driver in a drunken rage. Despite the torrent of popular indignation, expressed most vocally by Taiwan netizens, the Japan-Taiwan relationship remains strong. This verdict extends both to public sentiment and the policy level, making the ties between the two countries arguably the closest in Asia—a fact illustrated by frequent opinion polls. The present paper explores this remarkable relationship, which often escapes the analytical gaze of Western commentators given current preoccupations with rising China and renewed U.S. strategic resolve in Asia.

Japan and Taiwan: “True Friends”
The people of both countries hold very favorable views of one another. This was reflected in the outpouring of Taiwanese sympathy in the aftermath of the Great East Japan Earthquake. Taiwan provided both moral and material support on a scale unmatched by other leading Asia-Pacific countries—notably China and the United States. The Taiwanese government dispatched disaster relief teams to Japan, and private donations from the island country amounted to somewhere between USD 186 million and 260 million (estimate vary). Shūkan Shinchō , a popular weekly magazine in Japan, expressed gratitude for such sympathy, describing Taiwan as a “true friend.” Another expression of Japanese gratitude was the presentation of two rare red-crested cranes to the Taipei Zoo. All these actions exemplify the strong affinity between the two countries based on shared values, culture, and history.

Taiwanese support for Japan, JIA, Taipei

Taiwanese support for Japan, JIA, Taipei

First, as for shared values, both countries are vibrant democracies in a region that contains many authoritarian regimes and flawed democracies. Common adherence to freedom, democracy, rule of law, and human rights smooths relations between the Taiwan and Japan, and gives them a mutual interest in advancing and upholding these values.

Second, Taiwan has developed a dynamic cosmopolitan culture that draws on not only indigenous roots and Chinese Civilization, but also Japanese and other external cultural forms. Japanese influences from both the colonial period and the post-war era can be seen throughout Taiwan. Bathing in hot springs (onsen), partaking in a tea ceremony (cha no yu), enjoying an evening of Karaoke—all are common past times in Taiwan as they are in Japan. Likewise, one can watch anime or read manga while sporting the latest Harajuku fashions, listening to J-Pop, and eating tonkatsu or Mos Burger. Many in the older generation, while clearly critical of injustices experienced under colonialism, find value in their close historic ties to Japan. The younger generation of harizu —“Japanophile geeks”—carries on the tradition. (This is replicated in Japan by the hataizu : “Taiwan-ophile geeks”!)

Third, the Taiwan-Japan relationship is not paralysed by the “history issue,” unlike Japan's interactions with China, North Korea, and South Korea. Indeed, many historic Japanese colonial-era buildings, rather than being torn down as they were in Korea, have been preserved as national treasures, the Presidential Office (pictured below), National Museum, and Control Yuan, being splendid examples. Moreover, Hatta Yōichi (1886-1942), a hydraulic engineer that improved Taiwan's water management system has just been commemorated in a special memorial, the inauguration of which was attended by Taiwan President Ma Ying-Jeou and former Japanese Premier Mori Yoshirō. To a Tokyo weary of brow-beating rhetoric periodically emanating from Beijing, Pyongyang, and Seoul, this is a welcome contrast.

Presidential Offices, Taibei

Taiwan-Japan Relations: “Unofficial” in Name Only?
Though Tokyo terminated official diplomatic recognition of Taiwan (The Republic of China) in the 1970s—instead recognizing the People's Republic of China (PRC) as the sole legitimate government of China, “unofficial” ties between the two countries continue to flourish. This is particularly notable in the political and economic arenas, but less so in the strategic sphere.

President Ma's Kuomintang (KMT) government, which just won a new term in the January 2012 elections, described himself on many occasions as “Japan's best friend” and has called for a “special relationship.” He also rushed to visit the Japan Interchange Association (JIA), Tokyo's unofficial embassy in Taiwan, five days after his electoral success—testifying to the importance of bilateral ties. He had previously defended himself against domestic opponents on charges of “anti-Japanese sentiment”—charges presumably tied to the fact that his doctoral dissertation focused on the disputed sovereignty of Japan's Senkaku Islands (known to Taiwan/China as Diaoyutai). Though his policy toward Japan has not been as warm and proactive as his predecessors—Chen Shui-Bian (currently incarcerated for corruption!), let alone the avid Japanophile Lee Teng-Hui—there are large and significant pro-Japanese constituencies in Taiwan and pro-Taiwan constituencies in Japan.

Despite the unofficial nature of diplomatic ties, the JIA in Taiwan and its ROC counterpart in Tokyo TECO (Taipei Economic and Cultural Office) are extremely active interlocutors. Furthermore, former as well as current officials and politicians (below the executive and top ministerial levels) regularly shuttle between Taipei and Tokyo to discuss areas of common interest, often on tourist or “cultural” visas. The importance of Japan as a diplomatic ally, albeit an unofficial one, in securing Taipei's international space was illustrated though Tokyo's endorsement of Taiwan's membership in the World Health Assembly (WHA).

In the economic arena, Japan-Taiwan relations are flourishing, with a healthy USD 70 billion in bilateral trade (as of 2010). The two countries are closely interdependent regarding their supply-chains (as was demonstrated after the 2011 Tohoku earthquake/tsunami disrupted Taiwan's production lines), and Japan has been a major contributor in the field of technology transfer and infrastructure in Taiwan. A prominent example of this is the Taiwan High Speed Rail (THSR) modelled on Japan's Shinkansen bullet train. The Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) between Taiwan and China provides further opportunities to deepen this linkage. Indeed, President Ma called for Taiwan and Japan “to enter China as partners.” There have also been calls for a Taiwan-Japan Free Trade Agreement.

In the strategic sphere, overt cooperation is not possible due to diplomatic non-recognition and concerns about China's response to a Japan-Taiwan military relationship. Yet there is room for alternative forms of cooperation. Taipei and Tokyo both identify the PRC as a serious military threat in their official defense policies and have taken countermeasures. Japan is indirectly tied to Taipei's defense through means of the U.S.-Japan security agreement, which “covers areas surrounding Japan,” and in a 1996 declaration which indicated a “joint strategic interest” in the Taiwan Strait. Japan and Taiwan, moreover, can develop direct cooperation on “non-traditional security” issues, such as pandemic diseases, transnational crime, or natural disasters. Indeed, the latest Defense White Papers of both countries put a premium on the disaster relief response capabilities of their militaries. The vulnerability of Taiwan and Japan to extreme weather systems would make potential bilateral cooperation in this sector highly appealing and serve to consolidate their ties.

Future of Japan-Taiwan Relations: Short-term Economic Advantage or Long-term Strategic Vision?
The re-election of President Ma Ying-jeou will not alter Taiwan's relations with Japan significantly. Especially in the economic sphere, things will be “business as usual.” Tokyo, like Washington, is happy with the stability and predictability of the KMT government. Yet “business as usual” may not be a winning long-term strategy for Japan as well as Taiwan. A friendly, autonomous ROC is critical to Japan's geostrategic position. A former JIA official argued in a recent book that Ma, unwittingly or not, though his “1992 consensus” policy is incrementally ceding the island's sovereignty and perhaps compromising its long-term independence through increasing economic integration with the mainland. Combined with China's increasing military capacity, the fact that Taiwan is only 100km from Japan's vulnerable southern islands and sits across its vital sea lines of communication surely does not escape the attention of strategists in Tokyo. In this connection, it makes sense to move ahead with the collaboration in disaster relief operations and in areas of environmental, scientific, and technical cooperation in order to bolster their already deep economic ties and overall security. The time is ripe for a new strategic vision.

Dr. Thomas S. Wilkins  is tenured Senior Lecturer in the Centre for International Security Studies at University of Sydney, Australia, and non-resident JPRI Fellow in Asia-Pacific Security Studies.

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