What Can Taiwan (and the United States) Expect from Japan?

By Noble, Gregory W. | Journal of East Asian Studies, January-April 2005 | Go to article overview

What Can Taiwan (and the United States) Expect from Japan?


Noble, Gregory W., Journal of East Asian Studies


In the 1990s and into the new century, increased Japanese sympathy toward Taiwan and antipathy toward mainland China led to a series of moves to improve treatment of Taiwan, including enhanced transportation links, a higher level and frequency of official contacts, posting of a military attache, and expressions of support for Taiwan's participation in regional and international organizations. Nevertheless, Japan remains firmly wedded to a One China policy that opposes both the use of force by the mainland and a declaration by Taiwan of independence from China. Japan's willingness to cooperate with the United States to defend Taiwan is increasingly in doubt. The sources of Japan's supportive but restrained policy include the decline of traditional ties with Taiwan, the increasing size of the mainland market, and above all a perception of security risks that ultimately diverges sharply from that of Taiwan. Serious cooperation in defense and diplomacy requires shared (or complementary) threats, not just shared adversaries.

KEYWORDS: Japanese foreign policy, Japan-Taiwan relations, Japan-China relations, Sino-Japanese relations

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Confrontation over the sovereignty of Taiwan is the most likely trigger for superpower conflict in East Asia and perhaps in the entire world. North Korea may brandish a small stock of missiles and nuclear devices for blackmail or deterrence, but only Taiwan sets today's dominant military power, the United States, against its most likely challenger, China. Though all sides proclaim their preference for peace and stability, political leaders in Taiwan insist on interpreting the "status quo" dynamically, while leaders in China ominously vow that they will pay any price to prevent the permanent alienation of Taiwan from China. (1)

Taiwan faces a much larger and more rapidly growing opponent that has succeeded in convincing the United Nations, all major countries, and most international organizations to accept its claim to sovereignty over Taiwan. (2) Taiwan's base of diplomatic and political support is narrow and dwindling. Economically, many multinational electronics companies came to rely heavily on operations in Taiwan in the early 1990s, but within a decade the balance began to swing decisively toward the mainland. (3) Only the informal but powerful backing of the United States has enabled Taiwan to maintain its international position and allowed its citizens to trade, invest, and travel with tolerable security. (4) With the help of the United States, Taiwan gained entrance to the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum (APEC), albeit on less than fully equal terms, and the World Trade Organization (WTO), but recent regional groupings such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Plus Three have excluded Taiwan, a trend that arouses concern in Washington. (5)

In Taiwan's search for additional diplomatic and political support, the most important target is Japan, a close neighbor that is also concerned about the rapid rise in Chinese influence and military capacities. In the Asia Pacific region, Japan is second only to the United States in the range and sophistication of its strategic capabilities. Japanese companies maintain intimate economic relations with Taiwan, and many Japanese feel friendship toward Taiwan and admiration for its steady democratization. Taiwan has tried to build on these bonds and concerns. Soon after assuming office, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) administration of President Chen Shui-bian established task forces on improving relations with Japan in the President's Office, Executive Yuan, and Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In early 2003, President Chen suggested that Japan should enter into trilateral "security alliance relations" with the United States and Taiwan, and should play a more active and constructive role in the maintenance of security in the region. (6) Taiwan's representative to Japan later suggested that an "invisible alliance" already linked Japan, the United States, and Taiwan. …

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