Building a Viable Taiwan-Japan Security Relationship
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Building a Viable Taiwan-Japan Security Relationship

Taiwan and Japan are seeking a closer security relationship. Many of the building blocks of such are manifest: people-to-people relations, political continuity, and geo-strategic concerns. However, the absence of formal diplomatic relations impedes closer military cooperation.

The lack of military preparedness exhibited by Taiwan and Japan renders the US role as imperative.

Despite the fact that Taiwan was a Japanese colony from 1895 to 1945, the relationship between the two countries has always been amicable. Japanese rule in Taiwan was characterized by the building of harbors, dams, railroads, and other infrastructure projects.

Japanese feel comfortable visiting Taiwan, where they are warmly received. Asked what their favorite country is, many Taiwanese would respond “Japan.” Both are democratic countries that share an antipathy for communism.

The Chinese Nationalist Party (Kuomintang, or KMT) has a few members with strong anti-Japanese feelings due to memories of World War II and the disputed sovereignty of the Diaoyutai or Senkaku Islands. However, even during the KMT administration of Ma Ying-jeou from 2008 to 2016, the Taiwan-Japan relationship was stable.

Nevertheless, Japan was glad to see the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) come to power in the election of 2016. The same was true after the 2020 election. Japan has always found the DPP easier to deal with than the KMT.

Strong friendship

In January 2024, there will be a presidential, vice-presidential, and legislative election in Taiwan. According to Taiwanese Foreign Minister Joseph Wu, no matter if the DPP maintains power or the KMT gains power, the relationship with Japan will likely remain cooperative.

Throughout Japan there are Taiwan-Japan friendship clubs. In 2021, the Kobe Declaration evidenced the bonhomie by Japan for Taiwan. The declaration called for a Japan-Taiwan Relations Act, modeled on the American Taiwan Relations Act, and drew cross-party support including from the Communist Party of Japan. 

Moreover, much of Taiwanese culture has been influenced by Japan, including daily life, basic government organization, the national voting system, and the recently adopted Japanese jury system known as the “citizen judge law.” 

In Japan, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) has a comfortable majority in the powerful House of Representatives. Of the 465 seats in the House, the LDP has 260 and its junior coalition partner Komeito (Clean Government Party) has 32.

Given the relative weakness of Japanese opposition parties, the LDP seems to have no immediate challengers. The current factional balance of the LDP favors promoting relations with Taiwan. However, Komeito (which is the political arm of the Buddhist Soka Gakkai) promotes peace and is friendly with mainland China. 

Perceived China threat

Geo-strategically, if China were to take control, it would turn Taiwan, the keystone of the First Island Chain, into a huge naval base. The Chinese navy could easily send its ships into the Western Pacific, threatening the status quo and Okinawa prefecture.

Japan’s southernmost island, Yonaguni, is only 146 kilometers from Hualien, Taiwan. Okinawa, which China lays claim to, is uncomfortably close to Taiwan. Moreover, Okinawa is the site of important US military bases and the majority of US troops stationed in Japan.

Tokyo and Taipei have a mutual interest in maintaining the status quo of the Taiwan Strait. To Taiwan, the strait is a buffer zone between Taiwan proper and mainland China. To Japan, the strait is a vital trade artery through which Middle Eastern oil is transported to Japan. Chinese control of the Taiwan Strait would threaten access to the South China Sea and to the Bashi Channel.

In the wake of growing Chinese military assertiveness, Japan and Taiwan seek a closer security relationship.

The late Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe was instrumental in raising Japanese popular consciousness about the growing danger of China. At the same time, Taiwan has experienced growing Chinese infiltration of society, more bellicose Chinese statements, and a clear intent by Communist Party of China and Secretary General Xi Jinping to incorporate Taiwan into China, what he calls the “great rejuvenation of China.” 

Taiwan toughens military

Taiwan has undertaken a number of military reforms. The conscription law has been extended to one year of mandatory service for men, effective in January 2024. Such extended training will focus on cultivating relevant military skills and give those who are conscripted the sense that their time is not wasted.

The 2023 military budget has been increased to the equivalent of US$19 billion, a rise of almost 15%. New weapons systems have been purchased such as 66 F-16Vs, 108 M1A2T Abrams main battle tanks, and 400 Harpoon missiles.

There is a suggestion that the US and Taiwan might start co-production of weapons systems. Under the current Tsai Ing-wen administration, Taiwan has launched an enhanced industrial defense base including a new jet trainer, mine sweepers, naval corvettes, and the multipurpose naval vessel the Yushan.

The Taiwanese military has created a new reserve command and increased the time required and frequency of reserve training. However, a lot of dissension exists within the Ministry of National Defense concerning doctrine. Should the MND go with traditional warfare which emphasizes expensive, large weapons systems like F-16s and tanks or adopt more of asymmetrical model of warfare? 

 Japan has entered a new strategic age where the guiding Yoshida Doctrine, which emphasized economic growth over security concerns, has been replaced by three updated security documents by Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida.

Jeffrey W Hornung of the RAND Corporation has pointed out that Japan’s National Security Strategy (NSS), National Defense Strategy (NDS), and Defense Build Up (DBU) collectively seek to increase the Japanese defense budget by 60% over five years, abandoning an informal budget cap of 1% of GDP, and acquire counterstrike missiles as long-range precision-guided munitions designed to deter an adversary’s attack.

Other key changes include the creation of a permanent joint operational headquarters, the transfer of authority over the Japan Coast Guard to the Ministry of Defense during any conflict, the establishment of robust cyber defense, and a new commitment to intelligence capabilities. The NSS also is concerned with economic security, energy security, and food security.

Despite the above, Taiwan and Japan need to overcome major obstacles to develop a viable security relationship:

  1. In the absence of formal diplomatic relations, which makes interaction difficult, look for alternative channels to interact.
  2. Increase weapons interoperability. 
  3. While there has been some improvement in intelligence sharing, still more needs to be done.
  4. Homogenize military doctrines.
  5. Create joint training between the Taiwanese and Japanese militaries.
  6. Improve Taiwanese counterintelligence against Chinese espionage to create greater Japanese confidence in Taiwan as a reliable partner.
  7. Reduce Japanese dependence on China as an export market.
  8. Clarify Japanese policy vis-à-vis both Taiwan and China.

These hurdles cast the US in a central role to encourage Taiwan and Japan to cooperate in their mutual interest.  

Both Tokyo and Taipei are walking a tightrope in their relations with Beijing, which compels them to take into consideration the reactions and responses of China and the US. Mutual geo-strategic sensitivities and shared democratic beliefs will enhance the continued development of Taiwan-Japan relations.

Nevertheless, the Taiwan-Japan security relationship is in a nascent stage. To develop a viable security relationship fully, many obstacles must be negotiated. Finally, the role of the US is crucial.

Source : Asia Times