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William Lai Has Big Shoes to Fill to Sustain Momentum in Japan – Taiwan Relations

08 Jul 2024
By Eleanor Shiori Hughes
Vice President William Lai. Source: Chien Chih-Hung/Flickr/

Japan has focused on increasing ties with Taiwan in response to changing regional power dynamics. A key question is if the new Taiwanese leadership will be able to sustain the momentum behind this partnership.

Over the past few years, Japan has quietly utilised its diplomatic and economic toolbox to manage strategic challenges in the Indo-Pacific, particularly with respect to the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) growing influence across economic and military domains. Against this backdrop, Tokyo is enhancing its external balancing efforts by actively fostering closer relations with its partners, including Taiwan. From a foreign policy standpoint, both polities share similar strategic imperatives to preserve a regional balance of power, and they also embrace democratic principles as enshrined in the “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” vision. Japan and Taiwan also have a vested interest in ensuring that China does not change the status quo in the Taiwan Strait through military means or otherwise.  

Now that unofficial relations between Japan and Taiwan have reached a critical juncture, a key question is whether the new Taiwanese leadership under Lai Ching-te from the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) will be able to sustain the momentum behind this partnership.   

A strong affinity for one another 

It was a curious thing to observe that one of the first events over which President Lai presided after reciting his inauguration speech was to host a private luncheon for a record number of Japanese parliamentarians who attended his inauguration. According to Furuya Keiji, who chairs the Japan-ROC Diet Members’ Consultative Council, the Taiwanese side proposed this celebration. To state the obvious, this symbolises the deep affinity that the Taiwanese leadership has towards Japan, and the Taiwanese public feels similarly, too. According to a poll conducted by the Japan-Taiwan Exchange Association’s office in 2022, Japan was deemed Taiwan’s favourite country. In addition, the Japan Tourism Agency found that Taiwanese tourists surpassed China as the biggest spenders in Japan last year.  

Earlier this year, I wrote about how Japan and Taiwan have been drawn closer together for reasons stemming from China’s search for regional hegemony. However, it is also critical to note that not all the people-to-people linkages between Japan and Taiwan are byproducts of concerns stemming from Chinese expansionism. To be sure, they should not be framed solely in those terms. Take natural disasters, for example. This year, both Taiwan and Japan suffered deadly earthquakes. On New Year’s Day, Japan’s Noto Prefecture was struck by a 7.6 magnitude earthquake. Within days, Taiwan deployed a four-person medical team from the Taiwan Development Association for Disaster Medical Teams (TDADMT) to the small town of Suzu, which lies on the Sea of Japan. In the aftermath of this tragedy, Taiwanese corporate stakeholders raised over USD$17 million to send to Japan. Meanwhile, on 3 April a 7.4 earthquake hit a zone 18 kilometres from Hualien on Taiwan’s east coast—the biggest near the island in 25 years. In response, the Japanese government provided USD$1 million of aid to Taiwan. More recently, given significant disruption to Hualien, a group of Japanese nationals made a two-day trip to the Hualian area as a broader effort to revive their tourism industry there.  

It is important to note that these efforts do not reflect a partisan-specific cause in either Taiwan or Japan. For instance, during her first trip to Taiwan since 2016, Tokyo governor Koike Yuriko met Taipei mayor Chiang Wan-an, who is considered a rising star in the opposition Kuomintang (KMT) party. When Koike met with then-Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, both politicians conveyed the necessity for Tokyo and Taiwan to continue advancing disaster prevention programs, such as fire drills, at the city level. Koike’s opponent, Renho, who has ties to the opposing Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDP), and whose father is Taiwanese, applauded the island’s swift response to lend a hand to Japan in disaster situations. Considering that natural disasters will continue to magnify in the region, this year’s earthquakes—and their aftershocks—are raising awareness of the merits of Taiwanese and Japanese officials, from the subnational level, to exchange best practices and strengthen other cooperative efforts in order to tackle disaster preparedness and resiliency head-on.  

The Sky Has Limits 

Japan and Taiwan have a multilayered relationship that is reaching new heights, but there are limits to how much the relationship can progress. Aside from the fact that Tokyo changed diplomatic relations from Taipei to Beijing in September 1972, there are other political sensitivities in Japan that are replete with important nuances—of which I will name two. First, the new leadership in Taipei cannot change the fact that China can steer the course of Japanese foreign policy decision-making, which is why Tokyo must walk a careful line with Beijing, especially from an economic perspective. Japan cannot undergo a full-fledged decoupling from China because its own national security interests hinge on regular access to the Chinese market. On top of that, there are diverging interests between the Japanese corporate world and government bureaucracies about how to counterbalance Chinese coercion without irrevocably damaging the critical bilateral relationship, especially since China is Japan’s largest trading partner.  

While this quandary will remain an enduring feature of how Japan approaches issues regarding China, Tokyo can no longer afford to address economic and security considerations as wholly distinct from one another (otherwise known as seikei bunri), and there are surveys that capture these sentiments. For example, a poll conducted by Nikkei last year indicates that over 60 percent of Japanese C-suite executives agree with the statement that there are growing commercial risks associated with having a presence in China. Another poll from the Japan External Trade Organisation shows that for the first time, less than 30 percent of Japanese companies intend to augment their investment flows into China.  

The good news for Taiwan is that these strategic circumstances are giving the Japanese government more breathing room to pursue business exchanges with Taiwan—the most notable one being via the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC)’s entrenchment in Kumamoto Prefecture. While Japan had a 50 percent share of global chip revenue in the 1980s and 1990s, this has since plummeted to a mere ten percent. In essence, the Japanese government is championing a Taiwanese firm to reinstate a domestic chip industry, so there is reason to be hopeful that Tokyo and Taipei will push for stronger commercial ties.  

A tough act to follow  

President Lai has big shoes to fill when it comes to enhancing Japan-Taiwan relations because his predecessor, Tsai Ing-wen, will prove a tough act to follow. It was during her tenure that many countries began to multilateralise the necessity to preserve the cross-Strait status quo; TSMC became recognised as one of the world’s most important companies; and the Japan – Taiwan partnership flourished in unprecedented ways. Considering the many moving pieces to regional dynamics, it is impossible to decipher exactly what Japan – Taiwan relations will look like in granular terms while Lai is in office over the next four years. What is certain, however, is that the strong cohesion between Taipei and Tokyo will remain intact, and that officials from both capitals will gradually find creative and practical ways by which to foster cooperation—and not just on security issues. 

Eleanor Shiori Hughes is a non-resident fellow at  EconVue, which is a think tank based in Chicago. Her research interests span a wide range of subjects including U.S. engagement in the Indo-Pacific; Japan and Australia’s foreign policy; and the intersection of business, tech and geopolitics. She has previously worked at The Asia Group, Asia Society Policy Institute, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy. Her works have appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The Japan Times, The Lowy Institute’s Interpreter, among other outlets.  

This review is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.