2022.08 The Taiwan Banker NO.152 / By Matthew Fulco
Shinzo Abe had a metamorphic effect on Japan-Taiwan relationsBanker's Digest
The late Japanese prime minister transformed bilateral ties for the better, helping the two nations gradually loosen the constraints of Japan’s once-hidebound one-China policy In July, Taiwanese Vice President William Lai visited Japan to pay respects to erstwhile Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Though Lai’s trip was private, it was still pathbreaking. He is the most senior Taiwanese official to visit Japan since the two nations severed diplomatic ties in 1972. For Lai – a personal friend of Abe – and Taiwan the nation, the brutal assassination of Japan’s longest-serving post-World War 2 prime minister was a tragic loss. He was Taiwan’s paramount supporter in Japanese officialdom, retaining significant influence even after stepping down as prime minister and leader of Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) in August 2020. An official Taiwanese government statement released after Abe’s death said, “Apart from condemning this unjustified act of violence in the strongest possible terms, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) also expresses Taiwan’s deepest and most heartfelt condolences on the passing of former Prime Minister Abe.” The statement described Abe as “an invaluable democratic ally and a staunch friend of Taiwan,” and said that Taiwan’s government “is eternally grateful to former Prime Minister Abe for his efforts and contributions in advancing Taiwan-Japan relations.” About 15,000 people in Taiwan visited the Japan-Taiwan Exchange Association (JTEA) from July 11-17 to pay their respects to Abe, the de facto Japanese embassy said in a Facebook post. "I feel deeply gratified to see that Abe's goodwill toward Taiwan has been well received by many Taiwanese people,” JTEA Representative Hiroyasu Izumi said in the post. Abe worked tirelessly to deepen relations between Japan and Taiwan for both practical and ideological reasons. He intrinsically understood that any cross-Strait conflict would inevitably involve his country given its alliance with the United States and the ability of China to interfere with Japan’s strategic sea lanes if it controlled Taiwan – an unacceptable security threat for Tokyo. At the same time, Abe saw Taiwan as a natural partner of Japan, linked by shared values, history and geographic proximity. In part thanks to Abe’s efforts, Tokyo has begun to loosen the rigid constraints of its one-China policy. This change is most apparent in the willingness of senior Japanese officials, such as the deputy defense minister, the defense minister and prime minister, to speak publicly on Taiwan’s behalf even if it angers China – which it usually does. Beijing has ironically catalyzed Japan’s pro-Taiwan shift with its irredentism. Of particular concern to Tokyo have been the regular incursions of Chinese vessels and aircraft into the waters and skies near the uninhabited Japan-controlled East China Sea islands which the Japanese call “Senkaku” and are known as “Diaoyutai” in Taiwan and China. All three countries claim the islands. Along with a broader military buildup that has included militarization of the South China Sea, this behavior has made clear to Japanese policymakers that China is a revisionist power and threat to the rules-based order that Japan seeks to uphold. Relationship building While Abe’s closest friends in Taiwan were mostly in the pan-green (pro-independence) coalition, his adroit statesmanship allowed him to maintain good ties with Taipei when the China-leaning Kuomintang (KMT) held the presidency as well. Case in point: Abe traveled to Taiwan in November 2010 – in between his two terms as prime minister – with members of Japan's All-party parliamentary group on the inaugural flight between Tokyo's Haneda Airport and Taipei's Songshan Airport. During his first year in office, Abe helped facilitate the launch of that route. Abe knew well the importance then President Ma Ying-jeou placed on the expansion of Songshan Airport. When Ma served as Taipei mayor (1998-2006), it was one of his hallmark policies. He vowed to transform the airport into a “capital city business airport” connected to its counterparts in Shanghai, Seoul and Tokyo. When Abe met with Ma, they discussed the airport initiative and did not touch upon the disputed East China Sea islands. At the time, tensions between Beijing and Tokyo were running high over an incident that occurred near the island chain that September. A Chinese fishing boat captain allegedly rammed two Japanese Coast Guard ships and its captain was detained by Japan for roughly two weeks. Of the incident, the Ma administration had said it was unnecessary to object to China’s claim to the islands since the Republic of China (ROC) Constitution states that China is still considered a territory of the ROC on Taiwan. China’s aggressive response, notably a temporary ban on the export of rare earth minerals to Japan, was a harbinger of the pugnacious “wolf-warrior diplomacy” for which it would become known in subsequent years. During a visit to the U.S. after the incident but before he traveled to Taiwan, Abe described Beijing’s approach to disputed territories as “lebensraum,” the German concept closely associated with Nazism that emphasizes the paramountcy of territorial expansion for a nation’s survival. Despite not seeing eye to eye with Ma on the disputed East China Sea islands, Abe still made progress on the issue with Taiwan early in his second term as prime minister. In April 2013, Taiwan and Japan signed a fisheries agreement intended to minimize friction over fishing in waters near the island chain. The agreement includes an escape clause that allows both Taipei and Tokyo to put aside disputes over their competing sovereignty claims. After President Tsai took office in 2016, ties between Taiwan and Japan steadily improved. In March 2017, Abe referred to Taiwan as "an important partner that shares Japan's values and interests.” In its 2020 foreign policy report, Japan described Taiwan as an “extremely important partner.” Further, Japan has advocated for Taiwan’s inclusion in the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) while Taipei finally scrapped its 11-year-old ban on imports from areas affected by Japan’s Fukushima nuclear disaster in February. Enduring legacy After leaving office in August 2020, Shinzo Abe became increasingly outspoken about the threat China’s aggression poses to both Taiwan and Japan. "A Taiwan emergency is a Japanese emergency, and therefore an emergency for the Japan-U.S. alliance," Abe said in December 2021 at a virtual event held by the Institute for National Policy Research, a Taiwanese think tank. “The leadership in Beijing, President Xi Jinping in particular, must not misjudge this understanding." He added: "Japan, Taiwan and all who believe in democracy must repeatedly urge President Xi Jinping and the Chinese Communist Party leadership not to go astray." Abe also dispensed some candid advice to the United States, which has long maintained a policy of “strategic ambiguity” with regards to a cross-Strait conflict in which it will not explicitly agree to defend Taiwan. While the policy may have once helped reduce the chances of war, it is probably past its expiration date. In an April commentary published by The Los Angeles Times, Abe called on the U.S. to jettison strategic ambiguity, noting that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine “has reminded many people of the fraught relationship between China and Taiwan.” While strategic ambiguity may have worked when U.S. military power far exceeded China’s, that is no longer the case. As such, Abe said that the policy “is now fostering instability in the Indo-Pacific region, by encouraging China to underestimate U.S. resolve, while making the government in Taipei unnecessarily anxious.” Though the U.S. officially maintains strategic ambiguity, President Joe Biden has said explicitly on several occasions that the U.S. will defend Taiwan if it is attacked by China. Additionally, Congress, which the U.S. Constitution gives the power to declare war, is strongly pro-Taiwan. Had he lived longer, it is almost certain that Shinzo Abe would have continued to advocate for closer Japan-Taiwan ties and trilateral security cooperation with the U.S. to deter Beijing from using force against Taipei. However, Abe’s legacy will endure. Indeed, Japan has come out firmly in favor of upholding the rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific, even if it requires greater multilateral efforts to check Chinese aggression. His younger brotherNobuo Kishi is Japan’s defense minister and last year urged the international community to pay closer attention the “survival of Taiwan” amid China’s relentless military buildup. Kishi had a frank message for China at the Shangri-La Dialogue security summit held in Singapore in June. “The peace and stability of the Taiwan Strait is not only important to my country, but to the whole international community as well,” he told Chinese Minister of National Defense General Wei Fenghe in a meeting held on the summit’s sidelines.