Japan must strengthen its relationship with Taiwan
Forty years ago this month, the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) went into effect in the United States. The TRA was first introduced in February 1979 for debate and was passed in early April. So angry was Congress at president Jimmy Carter’s abrogation of the defense treaty with the Republic of China (Taiwan) and the ending of diplomatic relations on December 31, 1978, that the TRA went into force retroactively, effective
January 1, 1979.
Among other things, the TRA calls for the US government to continue to promote a host of commercial, cultural, and other relations with Taiwan and “to maintain the capacity of the United States to resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion that would jeopardize the security, or the social or economic system, of the people on Taiwan” through providing the latter with “arms of a defensive character.”
In contrast, Japan, which also chose diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China over Taiwan, has no similar laws governing its relations with Taiwan, despite the historic, geographic, and socially close ties it has with Taiwan. So, while the United States passed the TRA in a matter of weeks, Japan has been unable to do it over the course of four decades. This is a great shame. Japan is the country Taiwanese most respect, according to numerous public opinion polls, and the country they most want to travel to and live in.
The Japanese people also have a high respect for Taiwan, with 64.7%,
according to one official poll conducted in November (2018) by Taiwan’s de facto embassy in Tokyo and released in December, liking Taiwan the most out of all countries in Asia, 74% feeling close to Taiwan, and 60.4% believing they can trust Taiwan. Of those who feel an affinity toward Taiwan, 79.1% say that Taiwanese are friendly, and 45.8% cited the long history of exchanges between the two countries.
Among those who think Taiwan is reliable, 67.5% said so because they think Taiwan is friendly toward Japan, 52% cited the fact that the two countries share the same values of freedom and democracy, and 49.7% said they are both peace-loving countries. Regarding bilateral relations, 71% of the respondents believe that relations between the two countries are sound, and 59.3% expect bilateral ties will develop further in the future. Areas respondents cited as needing to be strengthened, 64.6% named tourism, 52.8% chose trade, and 41.8% cited political exchanges and security.
The people of both countries have also matched words with deeds, as seen after times of national crises and disasters. The Japanese have been deeply touched by the generous support Taiwan showed Japan following the March 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake, for example, in terms of both money donated and personnel dispatched, as well as other acts of kindness. In fact, these efforts were seen before and after that tragedy, and have been quite reciprocal.
This mutual respect and affection were most apparent to me during my most recent trip this fall to Taiwan for security dialogues, meetings with current and former senior officials, and historical site and cultural visits, to include a ceremony for victims of the Imperial Japanese Navy ship, Matsushima, which exploded in 1908 off Mako (today’s Magong City in the Pescadores Islands) killing more than 200 crew members. This was the first time in decades for Japanese to participate in the ceremony. However, during those many years, local residents kept the memory alive, participating annually.
Further, last month, I was privileged to attend and speak at the Japan-US-Taiwan Exchange Forum in Tokyo, sponsored by the Japan Institute for National Fundamentals, headed by the well-known conservative commentator, Sakurai Yoshiko, a close ally of Prime Minister Abe Shinzō. Importantly, Abe himself is close to Taiwan, as is his younger brother Kishi Nobuo.
It is time to end the strategic ambiguity and make America’s intentions crystal clear
There is much interaction between Taiwan and the Japanese prime minister his ruling Liberal Democratic Party, although most of it is unpublicized, and business is conducted through personal and private emissaries, due to the political restrictions on closer relations between the two countries. This is truly unfortunate and is thus one of the reasons why the TRA is necessary – as a way to upgrade official or semi-official relations. In this sense, it is certainly appropriate and timely to take the relationship to the next level, through a Japan-Taiwan Relations Act. Critics will say it will raise tensions, but China’s arguments about Taiwan being an integral part of China among other statements are based on false assertions that only blur the debate and buy time for China.
It is time to end the strategic ambiguity and make America’s intentions crystal clear. Politically, the window may close in the next year or two. All three countries have leaders who value the relationship with the other two more highly than at any other time in the past half-century. However, Taiwan and the United States will face presidential elections in 2020, and Japan will have to hold general elections by the fall of 2021. If a leader is chosen in one of the three countries that does not feel the same way or as strongly, the opportunity to deepen relations will be lost.
Japan, Taiwan, and the United States share a common destiny, symbolized by President Donald Trump’s recent signing into law this week the “Asia Reassurance Initiative Act.” The trilateral relationship, however, is only as strong as its weakest link. Japan and Taiwan need to solidify their relations with a Japanese TRA for when – not if – China makes moves on Taiwan. Japan tends to value its relationship with China at the expense of Japan. But no economic relationship is worth selling your soul and giving up your security. Japan, beware of China. And be cognizant of Taiwan!