Taiwan, Japan, and a Turning Point of Cold War Legacies in East Asia

Written by Kuan-Jen Chen.

Image credit: Fumio Kishida delivered a general debate speech during 2022 UNGA by 内閣官房内閣広報室/ Wikimedia Commons, license: CC BY 4.0.

On 8 July 2022, two gunshots not only ended Japan’s former prime minister Abe Shinzo’s life but also convulsed international politics in East Asia. The debates on Kishida Fumio’s diplomatic policy and the power reshuffling within the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) have had the share of the international spotlight for their inextricable connections with Taiwan and the East Asian region. The amicable relationship between Japan and Taiwan is well-renowned. If you stroll in any city in Japan, it is not hard to find a slogan banner of “Thank you, Taiwan!” to express Japan’s appreciation for Taiwan’s help after the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami. Ten years later, when Taiwan underwent the grave hours of the pandemic, Japan, pushed by Abe Shinzo, generously provided vaccines for Taiwan, saving numerous lives. These instances mark that these two countries seemingly have an unbreakable official relationship. However, the fact is that historically and politically speaking, Japan has been maintaining a distant but close relationship with Taiwan.

On the one hand, Japan broke its official relationship with Taipei and turned to Beijing in 1972. Thus Japan de jure does not recognise Taiwan as a country. Yet, on the other hand, Japan has de facto more substantial interactions with Taiwan than China. Enigmatic as it may be, such a subtle relationship is a legacy of the Cold War. However, this legacy could be altered by changes in current East Asian politics.

Japan’s equivocal “Cross-Strait Policy”

Following Emperor Hirohito’s Gyokuon-hōsō (Jewel Voice Broadcast) on 15 August 1945, post-war Japan underwent the dissolution of its empire. The most important matter was to sign a peace treaty with belligerent powers to terminate the state of war. However, the situation was further complicated by the Chinese Civil War and the Cold War in Asia. At the end of 1949, Chiang and his Chinese Nationalist followers retreated to Taiwan due to his failure against Mao Zedong. Adding insult to injury, some US allies, such as the United Kingdom, turned to officially recognise Mao’s regime as China’s only legitimate central government. Japan was also caught between Chiang and Mao. After weighing up international politics against commercial links with Beijing, prime minister Yoshida Shigeru adopted a China policy separating politics and economics: “politics go to Taiwan, economics go to China.” He struck a balance between Cold War ideology and economic development.

On the one hand, Japan recognised Chiang’s regime in Taiwan as the legitimate China but maintained commercial ties with Mao’s regime. On the other hand, in the early Cold War, the US and the Soviet Union asserted propaganda that their junior partners in Beijing or Taipei were the only legitimate China. Japan, in contrast, took a more flexible approach to the thorny cross-strait situation, which was acceptable to both Beijing and Taipei. Such subtle triangular links lasted until 1972, when Japan broke its official relationship with Taiwan.

Japan’s limited role within the Cold War-shaped political contours

The western Pacific has been a platform for superpowers and local powers to play a power-pursuit game now and then. In the early Cold War, in addition to the UK, which attempted to recover its imperial glory, local rising powers, such as Chiang Kai-shek in China, Syngman Rhee in Korea, and Elpidio Quirino in the Philippines, made bids to take leadership over a NATO-like collective security system. However, they failed to achieve their goals because of the lack of American support. Because Chiang and Rhee constantly claimed that they would reunite their countries, the Truman administration found the US at risk of being dragged into the quagmires of these local powers. If the US had a collective security commitment to these two uncontrollable partners, it would open a can of worms. In the end, in the Pacific, the US only created a collective security commitment titled “the Australia, New Zealand, United States Security Treaty (ANZUS)” to ease Canberra and Wellington’s concerns about the revival of Japan’s militarism. In the western Pacific rim, the US instead signed a separate defence treaty with each partner, including Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and the Philippines. The idea was that even if a military conflict broke out, the US could limit its military confrontation to a regional rather than a global war. Accordingly, Japan became one of America’s pawns to maintain Pax Americana against communism in the western Pacific. Though Tokyo evolved into an advanced deployed bastion, its capacities were limited to the Japanese archipelago and other islands concerned, in accordance with Article Nine of the Japanese Constitution and the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security between the United States and Japan. In other words, Washington has had the final say in determining the contours of international politics within its allies in East Asia. America’s hub-and-spoke alliance is one of its Cold War legacies that has lasted until now. 

The Japan-Taiwan link as a fulcrum of changing political contours in East Asia

Given Japan’s limited ability to defend East Asia and its ambiguous cross-strait policy, one might conclude that Japan also takes the same approach to regional security issues. However, that is not the case. Japan takes two-side approaches to Taiwan. Concerning diplomatic recognition and substantial interactions, Japan could stand in an ambiguous position by swaying between Taiwan and China in a roundabout way. However, Japan takes clear-cut attitudes toward Taiwan and the Asian Pacific region regarding regional security. Since the 1960s Kishi Nobusuke administration, Japan has included Taiwan in the “Far Eastern area,” where the US should maintain regional security. This understanding of the inseparable tie between Taiwan’s geostrategic position and Japan’s national security did not change when Japan ended its official relationship with Taiwan in 1972, nor did it change after the Cold War ended in 1991. Instead, Japan repeatedly asserts its determination to prevent Taiwan from a Chinese invasion. In September 2021, the Minister of Defence, Kishi Nobuo, grandson of Kishi Nobusuke, openly stated, “What could happen in Taiwan could likely be an issue for Japan, and in that case, Japan will have to take the necessary response to that situation.” Three months later, his brother, former prime minister Abe Shinzo, said, “A Taiwan emergency is a Japanese emergency, and therefore an emergency for the Japan-U.S. alliance.”

However, China’s blunt ambition to change the “status quo” provides a junction for Tokyo and Taipei to upgrade substantial bilateral interactions. Following the assassination of Abe, LDP and its allies won the two-third majority in the 2022 House of Councillors election, reaching the threshold of Constitutional revision. As a result, Japan may remove the restraints of Article Nine and normalise its military. Moreover, once Japan reinstates its military independence, Tokyo may regard any attack on Taiwan as a threat to Japan’s national security. In such a way, Japan can move beyond the current framework of the Japan-Taiwan relationship, which merely focuses on economic, scholarly, and cultural interaction, to strengthen bilateral military ties more substantially. Predictably, China will frame such a military turn as a “revival of militarism.” Still, Beijing might not admit that its own aggressive foreign policies and military operations are the primary factors behind Japan’s normalisation of its military, which also gradually adjusted its equivocal “Cross-Strait Policy” left from the Cold War. 

Dr Kuan-Jen Chen is the ADI-NIAS Research Fellow at the Nordic Institute of Asian Studies, Copenhagen University, Denmark.

This article was published as part of a special issue on “Taiwan-Japan Relations.”

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