The Odd Couple: Japan & Taiwan’s Unlikely Friendship (The Diplomat)

Co-author: Misato Matsuoka*.

Japan does not have it easy among its neighbors. Koreans (from both Koreas) and Chinese won’t miss a chance to slam Japan for lack of repentance for Japan’s war-time crimes (needless to say, public figures in Japan give them a good reason every now and then), and relations with Russia, while not being as bad, still face the unresolved dispute over Kuril Islands. However, one relationships stands out in the otherwise awkward position of Japan in the region. Its relationship with Taiwan, while unofficial due to the peculiar status of Taiwan, is unlike any other Japanese bilateral relationship in Northeast Asia. Indeed, it would not be far-fetched to call Taiwan the most Japan-friendly state in Asia.

Naturally, there is no single explanation for why Taiwan does not join its neighbors in their collective dislike of Tokyo. There is certainly a mutual understanding that Taiwan needs Japan’s support should relations between Taiwan and China deteriorate. Likewise – and in the face of Beijing’s pressure on Tokyo regarding Diaoyutai/Senkaku despite – Japanese policymakers understand that Japan’s security would be seriously challenged should Taiwan fall under Beijing’s control. With the return of Shinzo Abe to premiership, there has been remarkable acknowledgment of the importance of Taiwan for Japan’s security. In a January 2013 White Paper, Japan’s defense ministry included a PRC attack on Taiwan as one of the scenarios that could prompt a Japanese conflict with China. Yet, the same could be said about South Korea. That is, it would be hard to imagine another Korean War that would see Japan cooperating with Seoul in one way or another. But relations between South Korea and Japan are a far cry from Tokyo’s relationship with Taiwan.

Another argument can be made that ties to Washington help to facilitate relations between Tokyo and Taipei. The U.S. would certainly not be pleased if Taiwan’s President ran on an anti-Japanese agenda. Taiwan needs the U.S. for its defense, hence, it is sound to assume that whoever is in charge in Taipei will moderate their policy toward Japan. Yet again, however, the same could be said about South Korea, which maintains a formal defense alliance with Washington and hosts a sizable contingency of U.S. troops. Yet, these factors have not resulted in cordial relations between Korea and Japan. Washington is certainly trying to decrease the level of antipathy between its two treaty allies, but it can’t claim much success on that front.

Democracy may also play a role in smoothing relations between Taiwan and Japan. But this too fails to account for why Japan and South Korea don’t have as positive of a relationship as Tokyo and Taipei. Indeed, as the case of Korea and Japan shows, democracy might actually help sow discord between two states as politicians feel the need to cater to public opinion.

Economics also cannot fully account for Japan and Taiwan’s strong bilateral relationship. Japan is Taiwan’s second largest trading partner, while Taiwan is the fifth largest for Japan. But Taiwan and China as well as Japan and China maintain even more extensive economic ties.  This can’t overcome the fact that China is Taiwan’s principal security threat and, as the recent Sunflower Movement reminds us, Taiwanese are having serious second thoughts about the direction of cross-strait relations. And China may be Japan’s largest trading partner but this has done little to prevent prolonged tensions over disputed islands in the East China Sea.

Another reason that Taiwan and Japan’s bilateral relationship has been so positive is that successive Taiwanese heads of state have held a positive view of Japan. Lee Teng-hui (Taiwan’s President 1988-2000) represents a generation of Taiwanese who received their education from Japan during the colonial period (1895-1945) and who speak Japanese fluently. Lee’s successor, Chen Shui-bian, from Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) also held a favorable view of Japan and sought closer security ties with Tokyo.

Yet, when the Kuomintang (KMT) party came to power under Ma Ying-jeou in 2008, many expected the new Taiwanese government to reduce ties with Japan at least at the very senior levels of government. This was not an unreasonable position given that the KMT of 2008 was a fundamentally different party from Lee Teng-hui’s KMT in the 1990s. Frustrated with its loss of the presidency for two terms, KMT embraced China (and the CCP) with Lien Chan’s visit in 2005. Moreover, the rapid improvement of cross-strait ties during the first years of Ma’s presidency puzzled Tokyo about where Taipei stood. Thus, the scene was set for a deterioration in bilateral relations.

Yet, nothing of the sort has happened. On the contrary, last April Taipei and Tokyo signed a fisheries agreement that laid down the rules under which Taiwanese fishermen can operate around the Diaoyutai/Senkaku islands. This is a remarkable agreement especially when seen within the broader context of maritime disputes in East and Southeast Asia. Japan signing a similar agreement with South Korea or China would be virtually unthinkable at the present time.

In short, then, their relationship with the U.S., economic ties, similar political systems and an affinity between national leaders all play a role in facilitating Taiwan and Japan’s strong bilateral relationship. But, as noted above, those factors are present with other nations, including some like South Korea which have strained relations with Japan. Perhaps the largest reason for the positive bilateral relationship, then, is that—unlike in other countries, ties with Japan are cherished by Taiwanese of all different groups. (article continues here.)

This article was originally published in The Diplomat on May 15.

*Misato Matsuoka is a Ph.D. candidate at the Department of Politics and International Studies at the University of Warwick and CPI blog’s Emerging Scholar. Research interests cover the U.S.-Japan alliance, neo-Gramscianism and regionalism in Asia-Pacific.

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