Japan-Taiwan relations: A look back on 2021 and look ahead to 2022

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida delivers his policy speech during a ordinary parliamentary session at the National Diet in Tokyo, Japan on January, 17, 2022. (Photo Motoo Naka/AFLO) No Use China. No Use Taiwan. No Use Korea. No Use Japan.
Editor's note:

This piece is part of the Taiwan-U.S. Quarterly Analysis series, which features in-depth analysis of important issues in Taiwan and the U.S.-Taiwan relationship by leading experts, with the goal of providing a range of perspectives on developments relating to Taiwan.

Throughout 2021, U.S. government officials and scholars expressed deepening concerns that China may use its growing military power to force unification with Taiwan. Against this backdrop, Japan-Taiwan relations and Japan’s role in cross-Strait peace and stability — as a close neighbor whose westernmost territory is less than 70 miles from Taiwan, fellow democracy, and U.S. treaty ally hosting roughly 50,000 U.S. military personnel — attracted unprecedented media and policy attention.

In a written conversation with Brookings Senior Fellow and Koo Chair in Taiwan Studies Ryan Hass, Adam P. Liff, an associate professor of East Asian international relations at Indiana University’s Hamilton Lugar School and nonresident senior fellow in Brookings’ Foreign Policy program, reflects on the past year of Japan-Taiwan relations and looks ahead to the rest of 2022.

pt2019_ryan_hass.jpg?w=120&crop=0%2C0px%2C100%2C120px&ssl=1RYAN HASS:
You have several major research projects on Japan-Taiwan relations underway, and also published several pieces last year examining recent developments. How should Americans understand Japan’s approach to Taiwan? Has Tokyo’s approach changed significantly since the April 2021 U.S.-Japan summit declaration “underscore[d] the importance of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait and encourage[d] the peaceful resolution of cross-Strait issues?” What are a few notable developments from the past year?

FP_20180904_adam_liff_square.jpgADAM P. LIFF:
2021 was an important year for Japan-Taiwan relations. I can’t recall their officially “non-governmental” relationship receiving this much attention overseas before — especially in Washington. At the same time, Tokyo’s decades-old public position concerning how it would respond to a possible cross-Strait conflict remains far more nuanced, and intentionally ambiguous, than a lot of the excitable headlines claimed last year.

The first development I’d highlight relates to the remarkable “mainstreaming” in Japan of concerns about peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait, especially after the April summit between President Joe Biden and then-Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga. It wasn’t that Japanese concerns were fundamentally new, especially among Japanese security experts and prominent “Taiwan-friendly” politicians. In fact, since 1972 Japan’s official position calls for “peaceful resolution” of cross-Strait issues through dialogue. And in 2005 — during an earlier period of severe cross-Strait frictions — the U.S. and Japanese governments jointly labeled “peaceful resolution” a “common strategic objective.” That said, worsening frictions across the Taiwan Strait throughout 2021 did focus Japanese media, politicians, and policymakers on the risks and potential impact on Japan of a possible conflict — perhaps to an unprecedented degree.

Beyond security issues, 2021 also saw Japan’s government again express support for democratic Taiwan as “an extremely crucial partner and an important friend, with which [Japan] shares fundamental values,” and its application for membership in the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) and observer status at the World Health Assembly. Japan’s government also continued its formal membership in the U.S. and Taiwan-led Global Cooperation and Training Framework (GCTF). None of these represented a new Japanese position or policy, per se, but especially given Beijing’s active efforts to weaken Taiwan’s international connections, this support was still meaningful.

The last development from 2021 I’d highlight is the continued deepening of politician-centered initiatives. (Since Japan-Taiwan diplomatic relations ended in 1972, legislative exchanges have been the primary venue for political exchange and cooperation.) For example, last February, Japan’s most powerful political party, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), launched its first-ever Taiwan-focused “Project Team.” Over the summer, it delivered policy recommendations to Japan’s prime minister and helped facilitate inter-legislator dialogues, including a virtual meeting pairing LDP politicians with counterparts from Taiwan’s ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) to discuss security issues. Japanese politicians’ quiet coordination with U.S. counterparts also ultimately led to the allies donating a combined eight million COVID-19 vaccines to Taiwan.

So, it was a big year. But context is also key: the incremental deepening of Japan-Taiwan ties is a longer-term trend that significantly predates 2021. And it’s critical to differentiate between that more general trend and the specific matter of how Japan might respond in a possible cross-Strait conflict.

pt2019_ryan_hass.jpg?w=120&crop=0%2C0px%2C100%2C120px&ssl=1RYAN HASS:
I recall from our conversations last year that you were a bit frustrated with some commentary asserting that Japan’s posture toward a possible cross-Strait conflict fundamentally or radically shifted in 2021. What is the source of your concerns, and why is this a problem?

FP_20180904_adam_liff_square.jpgADAM P. LIFF:
As I wrote in a critical analysis last August, the selective and disproportionate focus by international media and commentators on a few choice statements by politicians last year seeded widespread claims — mostly outside Japan — that Japan’s government had somehow taken the unprecedented (and uncharacteristic) step of publicly pre-committing to “defend Taiwan” if China attacks, or to unconditionally backing the U.S. military if Washington decided to intervene in a cross-Strait conflict. If you’ll forgive my candor, those assertions are just not accurate.

Perhaps the most high-profile and consequential example was a global headline-making July 5 remark from Japan’s then-deputy prime minister, Taro Aso. I can’t go into a full post-mortem but suffice it to say that much reporting and commentary left out critical context and/or misrepresented what Aso actually said: For starters, Aso’s remark was made at an LDP political party fundraiser in a Tokyo hotel, not in Japan’s parliament, as some claimed. This suggests that the famously outspoken Aso appeared to be speaking as an LDP politician, not a government representative. Second, what Aso actually said appears to have been widely misunderstood or exaggerated, at least sometimes due to poor or incomplete translations. What he appeared to present as a conditional possibility (“could”) — namely, if an attack on Taiwan occurred and Japan’s political leaders judged that it posed an “existential threat” to Japan — was widely misrepresented as an unconditional commitment (“would”). Unfortunately, this comment was widely cited as alleged evidence that Japan’s government had somehow radically departed from its decades-old posture and publicly committed to defending Taiwan alongside the U.S. It did not. To be sure, the content and rarity of such a remark certainly made it newsworthy and notable. But that fact, too, counseled additional caution.

Also problematic: unambiguously authoritative evidence of the government’s nuanced official position did not receive nearly as much attention as a few attention-grabbing remarks like Aso’s. Yet throughout 2021, top Cabinet officials, including the prime minister and chief Cabinet secretary, repeatedly reaffirmed the basic ambiguity at the heart of Japan’s decades-old posture: Japan wishes to see a peaceful resolution through direct dialogue between Beijing and Taipei, and does not pre-commit to any particular course of action if war breaks out.

To sum up: in 2021, did Japan’s government publicly pledge to “defend Taiwan,” or to back the United States if China attacks Taiwan? No. Did it say it won’t back the United States if China attacks Taiwan and the U.S. decides to intervene? Also no. Rather, Japan’s government repeatedly signaled that whether and how Japan would respond, and under what legal authorities it might consider deploying its Self-Defense Forces, will depend on political leaders’ judgment about the particulars of the contingency.

Japan’s reluctance to publicly go beyond this ambiguous posture should not be interpreted as apathy, or ambivalence. Nor should it be surprising — after all, even the U.S.’ famously forward-leaning posture is “strategically ambiguous,” and certainly not unconditional.

But it’s important to get the nuances of Japan’s official position right. This is not some academic distinction. Going forward, accurately assessing where Japan’s government stands on these issues is critically important for policymakers to make sound judgments. The stakes are extremely high. Careful parsing of what was actually said, who said it, and in what capacity, is essential.

pt2019_ryan_hass.jpg?w=120&crop=0%2C0px%2C100%2C120px&ssl=1RYAN HASS:
Can you share with us a few issues you will be tracking in Japan-Taiwan relations in 2022?

FP_20180904_adam_liff_square.jpgADAM P. LIFF:
How actively will Japan support Taiwan’s September 2021 application to join CPTPP, and will there be concrete progress? Though Tokyo has been publicly supportive, Taiwan’s longstanding ban on imports of food from five Japanese prefectures near the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster site remains a major thorn in otherwise generally positive relations. If the ban persists, Taiwan’s path to CPTPP membership may be even rockier than it otherwise would (due to Beijing’s opposition).

To what extent will the U.S. and Japan deepen cooperation with third parties in support of Taiwan? For example, might another U.S. democratic ally or India follow Japan (2019) and Australia (2021) and formally join GCTF or otherwise deepen its cooperation to support Taiwan’s international engagement? Or as Australia-Japan security ties deepen and Australia’s leaders become increasingly vocal expressing concerns about Taiwan, is deeper trilateral coordination in the cards?

Will Japan agree to more explicit statements of support for Taiwan in a U.S.-Japan bilateral statement? Though in recent years Japan’s government officially identifies Taiwan as an “an extremely crucial partner and an important friend,” in a U.S.-Japan alliance joint statement it has resisted explicitly referring to “Taiwan” (as opposed to relatively anodyne statements about “peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait”) or criticizing Beijing’s attempted intimidation of Taipei. The January 2022 2+2 statement’s reiteration of last year’s language suggests this may not change anytime soon.

What, if any, public evidence is there of deepening Japan-Taiwan(-U.S.) security cooperation, or U.S.-Japan alliance planning for a Taiwan contingency? Throughout 2021, Japanese security experts and “Taiwan-friendly” politicians expressed concerns about the lack of Japan-Taiwan security cooperation and/or U.S.-Japan contingency planning specifically for a cross-Strait contingency. Though a few media reports suggest some forward movement on the latter, it is tough to draw clear conclusions from the public record. Meanwhile, some voices on both sides continue to bemoan the continued obstacles to Japan-Taiwan security cooperation.

Finally, will efforts by Tokyo and Beijing to commemorate the 50th anniversary of their diplomatic normalization negatively affect prospects for Japan-Taiwan cooperation this year? Despite significant frictions in the East China Sea and elsewhere, China remains a hugely important country for Japan, and Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has called for a “stable relationship.” How will Tokyo and Beijing mark the anniversary? Will there be any breakthroughs?