Taiwan, Japan Urged to 'Stand Together' As China Threat Prompts Security Talks

Taiwan and Japan must "stand together and jointly respond" to possible retaliation by Beijing, a Taiwanese lawmaker has said after mutual concerns about China's growing military presence prompted the ruling parties of both countries to hold groundbreaking discussions about regional security last week.

Billed as semi-official "2+2" talks between Japan's Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and Taiwan's Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), the closed-door dialogue took place via video link on August 27 and marked a significant elevation in one of Asia's most culturally simpatico relationships to involve exchanges about defense cooperation, too.

Experts say China's military pressure against Japan, but especially Taiwan, drove the LDP to initiate the landmark meeting, which many wouldn't have thought possible as little as five years ago, given Tokyo's lack of formal diplomatic ties with Taipei and Beijing's penchant to protest even the most benign of gestures toward the democratic island.

China's Foreign Ministry said on August 27 it had made its objections known in Tokyo after the LDP refused to reconsider its decision. But Japan appeared to have weighed the costs—political but likely commercial as well.

"This shows Japan has already made the political preparations necessary to play a more important role in Taiwan Strait issues," said DPP legislator Lo Chih-cheng, who joined Friday's talks alongside fellow lawmaker Tsai Shih-ying. Changes in Japanese public opinion and within the LDP itself have led Tokyo to place more emphasis on Taiwan's vulnerability to China's attempts to isolate it politically and intimidate it militarily, he told Newsweek.

Lo said the unprecedented security dialogue should be viewed through the lens of Japan's desire to see peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait—reflected in joint statements featuring Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, noteworthy remarks by key cabinet members and a Defense Ministry white paper in July that called for a "sense of crisis" over Taiwan.

"As the country closest to Taiwan, its level of concern is naturally higher," added Lo, who heads the DPP's international affairs department and, until recently, sat on the Taiwanese legislature's Foreign and National Defense Committee with Tsai.

Taiwan and Japan Hold Unprecedented Security Dialogue
Taiwan and Japan Hold Unprecedented Security Dialogue
Taiwanese lawmakers Lo Chih-cheng (L) and Tsai Shih-ying represent Taiwan's ruling Democratic Progressive Party in a bilateral security dialogue with Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party on August 27, 2021.

Following the 90-minute security talks—also touching on economic cooperation and Taiwan's hopes of joining the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) trade pact—Lo said both sides had agreed to convene regularly. It would be up to the executive branches in Taiwan and Japan to decide what to do with the meeting's outcomes, he insisted, but his counterparts expressed more optimism.

On Saturday, Masahisa Sato, who was in attendance with fellow LDP parliamentarian Taku Otsuka, intimated that agreements between ruling parties could easily lead to the formation of policies between governments that have no diplomatic relations.

Lo spoke of the DPP's consistent desire to expand dialogue with parties including the LDP. "Whether the other party is willing or able is influenced by many factors and considerations," he added, saying Taiwan "very quickly responded" when approached by Japan. "We were glad to see such a positive response to our many years of appeals."

Taiwan and Japan have "made the necessary assessments," he said, "and we believe that, despite opposition by China, this is something we should and want to do. Whether China takes any concrete countermeasures or even sanctions, there is no way to know—and no need to think for them."

"But we have assessed all the pressures and costs we could face. It is precisely because of this that Taiwan and Japan need to stand together and jointly respond to China's possible countermeasures," he added.

Taiwan and Japan Hold Unprecedented Security Dialogue
Japanese parliamentarians Masahisa Sato (L) and Taku Otsuka represent Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party in a bilateral security dialogue with Taiwan's ruling Democratic Progressive Party on August 27, 2021. Taku Otsuka

Lo said he has seen no criticism of the talks from Taiwan's main opposition Chinese Nationalist Party and was encouraged by the seemingly bipartisan view of the latest exchange with Japan. "To be honest, this is very rare," said the lawmaker, who notes there is potential for real progress with Japan.

"It was definitely not a ceremonial exchange of views. That's why it was done behind closed doors, so everyone could be very frank," said Lo, who thinks endorsement by the United States—Japan's only security treaty ally—will be an important factor going forward. "U.S. policy toward Taiwan will certainly be linked to possible developments in Japan. Japan-Taiwan security cooperation would not happen in isolation," he concluded.

Clarity or Ambiguity?

DPP legislator Tsai said Japan's urgency came across in the meeting. "Japan plans to increase its defense spending to meet what it considers to be the most serious threat—a contingency around Taiwan," he said in a call with Newsweek.

The bilateral talks yielded a clear consensus regarding China's growing military presence southwest of Japan and northeast of Taiwan, where Tokyo plans to maintain its naval and air superiority, Tsai said. Both countries intend to bolster their defenses in the region where Taiwanese and Japanese waters meet.

The lawmaker believes Taiwanese and Japanese interests are deeply linked, further describing Japan as Taiwan's most important relationship after the U.S. "Why didn't these talks happen sooner? The conditions for Taiwan-Japan [security] dialogue had yet to be met and the pressure from China was not as great," Tsai added.

… despite opposition by China, this is something we should and want to do. Whether China takes any concrete countermeasures or even sanctions, there is no way to know—and no need to think for them.
Lo Chih-cheng, Democratic Progressive Party

He said Friday's talks represented a new level of mutual trust reached by the two governments, following a further expansion of bilateral ties after 2016, the year the DPP returned to power in Taiwan.

The U.S. has long maintained a position of "strategic ambiguity" on the question of whether America would defend Taiwan in the event of a Chinese attack. Despite Japan's openly linking Taiwan's security to its own survival, Tsai argues this does not undermine the U.S.'s purposely opaque policy, which he suggests falls on a spectrum and trends toward clarity as China's military threats increase.

"Japan is saying it would be concerned and would act, but it's not saying it will send troops to Taiwan," said Tsai. "It's saying Japan could assist the U.S. if it chooses to intervene in a Taiwan Strait conflict."

"To a certain degree, Japan has gone from taking no position to adopting strategic ambiguity," he added.

Taiwan and Japan Hold Unprecedented Security Dialogue
A U.S.-made F-16 fighter jet launches a flare during the 35th Han Kuang military drill in Pingtung County, Taiwan, on May 30, 2019. Sam YEH/AFP via Getty Images

Time to Talk to Taiwan

Tsun-yen Wang, an associate fellow at the Institute for National Defense and Security Research think tank in Taipei, said Tokyo's Taiwan outreach is driven by the larger "China threat" and Beijing's "gray zone" activity targeting the Japan-controlled Senkaku Islands, around which Chinese coast guard vessels have logged record intrusions this year.

Japan is acutely aware that its proximity to Taiwan means it wouldn't escape the impact of a Chinese offensive to take the island by force. Wang believes it is in Japan's national interest to play the role of a "stabilizer" to ensure peace in the region and, by extension, in Japan.

"If it weren't a necessity, Tokyo wouldn't publicly involve itself in security issues with Taipei," said Wang. If it were to fall into Beijing's hands, a hypothetical Chinese province of Taiwan would sit less than 70 miles from the closet Japanese island, Yonaguni. "That would be a nightmare from which Tokyo would never awaken."

The leadership in Taipei has for years called for security dialogue with Tokyo, according to Wang. The 2+2, which usually designates official dialogue between foreign and defense officials, "reflects Japan's internal security concerns and the belief that 'it's time to talk to Taiwan,'" he added.

The analyst said Taiwan and Japan are "sleeping in different beds but having the same dreams," in a play on the "same bed, different dreams" Chinese idiom describing estranged couples or individuals with divergent interests.

Wang and others believe the DPP and LDP are both "experienced and wise" enough to manage possible stumbling blocks such as the dispute over the Senkaku Islands, which Taiwan calls Diaoyutai. China asserts its own sovereignty over the uninhabited islets—it calls them Diaoyu—but says they are part of Taiwan's eastern county of Yilan.

Corey Wallace, an assistant professor at Kanagawa University, said the neighbors appear to have compartmentalized the issue since the 2013 Taiwan-Japan Fisheries Agreement on resource-sharing. Since 2016 and before the pandemic, the two governments had also held four rounds of the annual Taiwan-Japan Maritime Affairs Cooperation Dialogue.

"One of the characteristics of the last decade has been a diversification of Japan's military partnerships beyond the United States, so in many ways this new type of engagement with Taiwan fits within that trend," said Wallace, who is a researcher of Japanese security politics.

Growing negative sentiment toward China within the international community, "skepticism of China's intentions within Japanese society and politics alongside ever increasing affinity for democratic Taiwan" constitute some of the external and internal factors that have created the perfect conditions for Japan to strengthen its relations with Taiwan, he added.

"In short, I think while the international situation and atmosphere allow it, there is an opportunity for the LDP as the ruling party in government to establish a precedent that will be sustainable and valuable to facilitate broader Taiwan-Japan engagement going forward," said Wallace.

Taiwan and Japan Hold Unprecedented Security Dialogue
U.S. 7th Fleet flagship USS Blue Ridge conducts a bilateral exercise with Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force guided-missile destroyer JS Kongo on March 29, 2021, in the East China Sea. Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Matt Hall/U.S. Navy

The DPP's Tsai said the parties see coast guard cooperation in humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR) as a suitable area to grow the unofficial relationship, following the model set by the U.S.-Taiwan Coast Guard Working Group established in March.

HADR "is an excellent idea and a good starting point," said Grant Newsham, a retired U.S. Marine and former liaison officer to the Japan Self-Defense Forces. Currently a fellow with the Japan Forum for Strategic Studies, Newsham notes that HADR training and response have "practical, real-world applicability" in the region where natural disasters frequently occur.

"One would have to be exceedingly churlish to object to the idea of saving lives," he told Newsweek.

"Start with planning meetings, then move to table-top exercises, field exercises and then actual bilateral and multilateral response to actual disasters," he added, suggesting that the initiative should also involve the U.S. Coast Guard for additional resources and expertise.

Newsham agrees there is potential for realistic defense cooperation between Taipei and Tokyo. "It just takes a little imagination and backbone on Japan's part," he said, arguing that Japan will also be watching what the U.S. does to elevate its relationship with Taiwan.

"Japan is capable of doing, and will do, what's necessary to defend itself," Newsham said. "The Americans have long wanted Japan to 'do more.' These talks with Taiwan are 'doing more,' and the Americans are supportive."

In the immediate term, Newsham lists as a possibility the exchange of liaison officers and meetings between defense officials. Overt military cooperation, he said, "is perhaps some ways off."

"Not so long ago, Japan would have hamstrung itself out of fear of the Chinese reaction," Newsham said. On the likelihood of a diplomatic backlash and costs to Japanese business interests, he added: "Japan knows what might be coming on this front, and they went ahead with the Taiwan talks anyway. That ought to tell you something about Japan's state of mind. China is frightening them into action."

"Times are changing. Whether Japan is changing fast enough is another question," he said.