Why Taiwan should prioritize closer ties with Japan

As a former Taiwanese President calls for closer links between Japan and Taiwan, shared values, culture, and national security interests suggest he is right.


(CNA photo)

KAOHSIUNG (Taiwan News) -- Former President Lee Teng-hui (李登輝) is a curious figure in Taiwan’s black and white political scene.

A former Chairman of the Kuomintang (KMT) and President of Taiwan for twelve years from 1988 to 2000, he founded the Taiwan Solidarity Union (TSU - 台灣團結聯盟), which advocates Taiwanese independence, within a year of leaving office.

He has subsequently espoused a number of strong views on how Taiwan can survive the ever-present threat from Communist China including advocating the adoption of a clear Taiwanese identity and a formal name change from the Republic of China to the Republic of Taiwan.

He has also held a long and warm relationship with Japan and Japanese culture, which he retained throughout the periods of strong anti-Japanese resentment in Taiwan in the decades following the Second World War and the end of the Japanese colonial occupation of Taiwan.

Occasionally his closeness to Japan has overstepped the mark. He has on occasion described Japan and Taiwan as one country, which few Taiwanese people would agree with and has also claimed that the delicate issue of Comfort Women has been solved, which many survivors of that period would strongly dispute.

Nevertheless, his close working relationship with both the DPP Government and Japan made him the natural person to represent Taiwan in Okinawa at the unveiling of a statue to fallen Taiwanese soldiers at the Battle of Okinawa in 1945.

Lee at the ceremony in Okinawa (CNA Image)

And it should come as no surprise that he took the opportunity of a public engagement in Japan to advocate closer relations between Japan and Taiwan once more, at the same time attacking Communist China as the most unstable element in present-day Asia.

On both counts, he is absolutely right.

It is refreshing to see a politician with such strong KMT roots, and who has held the most senior politician position in the land for more than a decade, who can not only see the reality of the open hostility of Communist China and its damaging impact on Taiwan and the whole of East Asia but is willing to express it publicly. It is to be hoped that more KMT politicians and supporters can follow his lead and begin to see the light too.

But it is his views on building closer ties with Japan which are more pertinent to Taiwan at the moment. The period of anti-Japanese sentiment in Taiwan is now largely confined to the past. And while it is important not to forget the wrongs that were brought on Taiwan by the occupying Japanese forces, modern-day Japan is a very different country from its Imperial predecessor.

And far from being hostile to Japanese influences, in recent years they have been enthusiastically embraced by many in Taiwan. Japanese culture now plays a major role in Taiwanese life, Japanese food is prevalent across the country, and Japan is a popular tourist destination for Taiwanese holiday-makers.

The feeling is mutual, with many Japanese people embracing Taiwanese culture and food too. And at the recent Taiwan-Japan Tourism Forum, which took place in Taichung earlier this month, an ambitious goal of 7 million two-way tourist exchanges between the two countries by 2019 was set. It feels like a more-than achievable target.

But Taiwan and Japan have a lot more in common than this. Both are separated from their huge Communist superpower neighbor by a narrow stretch of ocean. And both hold deeply skeptical views about the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and its aims for the region.

The CCP’s recent annexation and militarization of islands in the South China Sea has not just alarmed the likes of Taiwan, the Philippines, and Vietnam. Japan too is watching closely, conscious that the CCP also maintains spurious claims to the Senkaku Islands (or Diaoyu Islands).

At least in part as a result of these claims, Japan also has a vested interest in Taiwan not falling under CCP occupation too. Having a hostile superpower, with territorial claims to their sovereign lands, to both the south and west of Japan would be a distinctly uncomfortable position for Japan to be in.

So, there is plenty of motivation for Japan to want to build closer ties with Taiwan. And for Taiwan, the opportunity to forge links with a free and democratic neighbor, which carries considerable global economic clout, and which it shares close cultural and historical links, is a hugely appealing one.

While Japan formally recognizes China over Taiwan, it has shown a willingness to build closer links with Taiwan, despite the opposition of the CCP. Last year, Japan chose to rename its representative office in Taiwan as the Japan-Taiwan Exchange Association, ignoring protest from China.

This was a sign of friendship and something which the Taiwanese and Japanese authorities should be looking to build on. Off the back of this move, there is scope to deepen cultural and diplomatic ties between Taiwan and Japan on a number of different levels, without the need for formal diplomatic recognition.

Trade barriers between the two countries could be eased, or lifted altogether, to allow business and startups from both countries easy access to both markets.

Educational links between Japan and Taiwan could be strengthened, with incentives for students to study in the other country. School link-ups and exchanges between Japan and Taiwan could also help to foster closer links between the two countries.

One of the issues that exist between Taiwan and Japan is on fishery demarcation, so effort should be put into resolving this issue once and for all and finding a way for Japanese and Taiwanese fisherman to co-exist, whilst working together to prevent Chinese incursion into the fishing territories of both countries.

Japan has also been stepping its military developments under the leadership of current President Shinzo Abe, including proposing amendments to its constitution to permit the development of military forces for the purposes of self-defense.

Japanese PM observes a military parade Dec. 2017 (Associated Press Image)

With Taiwan and Japan sharing many of the same national security threats, most explicitly from Communist China but also North Korea and elsewhere, it would make sense for the two countries to build closer military links too. This could be achieved through military exchanges, the sale and purchase of military equipment, and even shared training exercises.

Finally, both Japan and Taiwan have close relations with the USA these days, and this is a link which is in the interests of all three. A closer and more formal Japan-Taiwan-US triumvirate could have a hugely positive influence on the East Asian and Pacific political scene as well as curtail some of the CCPs malign influence in the region.

These closer ties will not be developed overnight and will take time and careful diplomacy. But all are achievable goals and also offer mutual benefits to both Taiwan and Japan.

While Taiwan’s Southbound policy is a laudable one and should undoubtedly be continued, there is another neighbor to the north worth focusing on too. It has many shared interests and values, offers a strong and fully developed economy, and most importantly of all, has the same concerns about the CCP as Taiwan.

Lee Teng-hui is now 95 years old. His affection towards Japan stems from growing up under Japanese occupation in Taiwan. But modern-day Taiwan is moving closer to Japan once again. And it is in everyone’s best interests for this process to continue.