Taiwan Looms Large in China-Japan Ties

August 9, 2021 Updated: August 9, 2021


The “Taiwan factor” has been mostly overlooked in understanding Sino-Japanese ties despite its significance. Beijing has stated the “question of Taiwan involves the political foundation of Sino-Japanese relations.” However, the Taiwan issue has taken center stage with the recent release of the Japanese Defense White Paper that makes special mention of Taiwan in the context of the security environment surrounding Japan.

Signaling a strong message to Beijing, the White Paper categorically states: “Stabilizing the situation surrounding Taiwan is important for Japan’s security and the stability of the international community. Therefore, it is necessary that we [Japan] pay close attention to the situation with a sense of crisis more than ever before.” It also specifies that the “overall military balance between China and Taiwan is tilting to China’s favor, and the gap appears to be growing year by year.”

While Japan’s categorical outlining of Taiwan does come as a surprise, Japan’s Taiwan policy has always been an exception. That is, Taiwan is one of the most Japan-friendly states in Asia and Japan has a pro-Taiwan policy—both contradictory to Beijing’s interests. That is, Tokyo’s Taiwan policy directly challenges Beijing’s “one China” policy—making Taiwan an important bone of contention between China and Japan.

Since the end of World War II, Taiwan has been one of the central causal factors of China’s tensions with Japan, mainly attributed to Japan’s security alliance with the United States and Japan’s close ties with the Republic of China (ROC, Taiwan’s official name). The 1972 normalization, which led to the settlement on the Taiwan issue with the original theme for negotiation based on “responsibility of war,” was replaced by China’s “one China” policy. The Joint Communique signed on Sept. 29, 1972, clearly states: “The Government of the People’s Republic of China reiterates that Taiwan is an inalienable part of the territory of the People’s Republic of China. The Government of Japan fully understands and respects this stand of the Government of the People’s Republic of China, and it firmly maintains its stand under Article 8 of the Potsdam Proclamation.”

Since 1949, one of the primary objectives of Beijing’s foreign policy is to preserve China’s independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity. In this respect, Taiwan factors heavily in China’s external relations as it occupies a central place in Beijing’s defined major concerns. Beijing has never treated the Taiwan issue in isolation, and instead has absorbed it as an integral part of its overall strategy, as China officially posits: “There is only one China in the world and Taiwan is an inalienable part of China.”

Beijing has consistently adhered to the “one China” principle in regulating its external relations and strongly opposed any attempt to separate Taiwan from China. In view of this, the Taiwan factor in Sino-Japanese ties can be understood in a five-fold perspective.

First, Taiwan is a historical point of convergence between China and Japan as with the First Sino-Japanese War (1894–95). Under the Qing dynasty, China ceded Taiwan to Japan under the Treaty of Shimonoseki of 1895. This led to the estrangement of Taiwan from mainland China—acting as a major setback in Sino-Japanese ties.

Second, Japan has unofficial ties with Taiwan—while diplomatically Japan recognizes China’s statehood over Taiwan (Beijing’s central concern), it continues to maintain all other aspects of its relations with Taipei. Specifically, Japan has played an instrumental role in the ROC’s economic development. Tokyo and Taipei’s strong economic interdependence is rooted in the signing of the 1952 Treaty of Peace and that of the 2011 agreement on “Arrangement for the Mutual Cooperation on the Liberalization, Promotion, and Protection of Investment.” Japan is Taiwan’s third-largest trading partner and fourth-largest source of foreign investment; while Taiwan is Japan’s fourth-largest trading partner.

Third, the Lee Teng-hui factor has been pivotal in shaping Taipei’s strong links with Tokyo. Taiwan’s fourth President Lee Teng-hui’s charisma, Japanese education background, and fluency in Japanese were instrumental in building the extensive political network and fostering ties with Japan—thus, supplementing the lack of official ties. As a result, the Lee-Japan equation became a concern for China as it posed a threat to Beijing’s “one China” policy.

Fourth, the democratization of Taiwan has acted as a strong convergence point between Tokyo and Taipei and has served as a basis for expanding bilateral ties. Japan’s support for Taiwan’s independence runs in contrast to the “one China” policy. With the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in power, the Taipei-Tokyo democratic outlook further binds the ties between both countries.

And finally, Taiwan as a security aspect between China and Japan, which was mainly prompted in the aftermath of the 1996 Taiwan Strait crisis, led to the U.S.-Japan Joint Declaration on Security-Alliance for the 21st Century. Here, Japan’s future role in the alliance causes concern for Beijing, which worries about Tokyo’s siding with Washington in the event of a confrontation over Taiwan. Moreover, under the shift toward the Indo-Pacific vision, wherein the Japan-U.S. Alliance, as the 2021 White Paper suggests, “will continue to be the cornerstone of peace, security and prosperity” in the region.

Furthermore, both Taiwan and Japan demonstrate cooperation on contentious issues such as the Senkaku islands dispute. For instance, in April 2013, the Kuomintang-led Taiwan and Japan signed the Fisheries Agreement—bypassing China’s issue of sovereignty. Besides, both Japan and Taiwan have a commitment to defending international law, democratic systems, and the U.S.-led alliance network in the Indo-Pacific region. With the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in power, Taipei-Tokyo ties are bound to get closer given their shared democratic values. Thus, Taiwan acts as a significant catalyst that triggers instability in Sino-Japanese ties.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

Amrita Jash
Amrita Jash
Dr. Amrita Jash is a China Analyst. She has been a Pavate Fellow at the Department of POLIS, University of Cambridge. She holds a Ph.D. in Chinese studies from Jawaharlal Nehru University and authored the book “The Concept of Active Defence in China’s Military Strategy” (Pentagon Press, 2021).