Shinzō Abe and Taiwan-Japan Relations

Written by Ko-Hang Liao.

Image credit: 03.22 日華懇年度大會 蔡總統與日本前首相安倍晉三視訊對談 by 總統府/ Flickr, license: CC BY 2.0.

On 8 July 2022, former Japanese Prime Minister (PM) Shinzō Abe (安倍晋三) was killed by an assassin’s homemade gun during his midspeech of campaign held in Nara to support a Liberal Democratic Party’s (LDP) candidate for upper house election two days later. As a result, this longest-serving Japanese PM (in office (2012-2020) after a brief first tenure (2006-2007), surpassed the record held by his great uncle Eisaku Satō (佐藤栄作) from 1964 to 1972) is recognised by the public as the most Taiwan-friendly premier, a transformational leader, and the founder of Indo-Pacific strategy. By introducing Abe’s distinct roles, this article looks at Taiwan-Japan relations during and after Abe’s administration, the impact he brought to Japan’s postwar pacifism by rebuilding Japan’s role in global power-politics, his legacy in the post-Abe era, and future relations between two countries.

The Abe family’s connection with Taiwan:

Abe was born into a prominent political family: his maternal grandfather Nobusuke Kishi (岸信介) was former PM and father Shintarō Abe (安倍晋太郎) was former foreign minister. Kishi was imprisoned for three years as a suspected Class-A war criminal but eventually released by the American government considering his strong anti-Communist and pro-American stances. Based on the shared anti-Communist ideology, Kishi was a powerful supporter of Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石) and his Kuomintang regime in Taiwan during the Cold War era. Abe’s first meeting with then-Taiwan President Teng-hui Lee (李登輝) happened in 1994, when Abe was a member of the lower house and LDP Youth Division delegation. They met several times thereafter, and Abe praised Lee for leading Taiwan to a democratic transition and overcoming challenges including the Third Taiwan Strait Crisis. Abe regarded Lee as a political mentor who preserved the prewar Japanese spirit of dedicating himself to society and the country for a brighter future.

Abe as the most Taiwan-friendly Japanese PM?

The plot of Te-sheng Wei’s (魏德聖) highest-grossing film in Taiwan, Cape No. 7, which details Taiwanese guy A-Ka’s unrequited love for the Japanese lady Tomoko, resembles postwar Taiwan-Japan relations. However, Abe ‘delicately’ transformed Japan’s relationship with Taiwan by converting this Taiwan’s one-sided affection for Japan into a bilateral relationship upon the amelioration of civic friendship between the two countries when Taiwan became the top two donating country to the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake. Henceforth, Abe and Japanese politicians’ pro-Taiwan stance was no longer a taboo or an inconvenience, despite Chinese pressure. The efforts to strengthen Japan-Taiwan relations during and after Abe’s administration can be seen in the signing of the Japan-Taiwan civil fishery agreement (2013), his calligraphy with the text ‘Taiwan Jiayou’ (台灣加油) and dispatching rescue team after the deadly magnitude 6.0 earthquake in Hualien (2018), and his public support for Taiwan’s pineapples after the fruit was banned by China (2021). Furthermore, when Taiwan faced a severe challenge from the pandemic in June 2021, Abe was the major facilitator for Japan’s donation of the AstraZeneca COVID-19 Vaccine to Taiwan.

Taiwan and Japan’s ‘normalisation’: Former Taiwan President Teng-hui Lee’s influence on Abe

Postwar Japan had long been adopting the Yoshida Doctrine. This was the strategy that Japan adopted under PM Shigeru Yoshida (吉田茂), who put all efforts into reconstructing the domestic economy while depending heavily on its American alliance for national and regional security under his administration (1948-1954). The Yoshida Doctrine had dominated postwar Japan’s grand strategy and national development for decades. As a result, Japan has become an ‘economic giant’ but a ‘political dwarf’. Nevertheless, the escalation of regional instability from China’s rising power and growing coercion and aggression has gradually eroded Japan’s postwar pacifist doctrine. Being one of the first world leaders to perceive China’s threat, Abe noticed the importance of Japan’s role in contributing to regional stability by working closer with democratic partners to contain and counterbalance China’s drastic military expansion. The ‘war-renouncing’ Article 9 of Japan’s postwar peace constitution is a big obstacle for Japan and its anti-China coalition.

As a close East Asian neighbour to Japan, Taiwan’s trajectory of democratisation (or ‘national normalisation’) is a valuable experience that Japan can shed light on. Taiwan is a de facto independent sovereign nation-state while struggling for internal consensus for national identity and international status due to the de jure problem and the historical cross-Strait issues. Lee well understood the dilemma his country faced at the dawn of democracy when he succeeded President Chiang Ching-kuo (蔣經國) upon Chiang’s sudden death in January 1988. Evaluating Taiwan’s circumstances and considering its democratisation as his utmost objective, Lee cleverly responded to the mainstream public opinions and appeals, carefully worked with the opposition party, and adopted them as robust backup support for a steady yet effective pursuit of democracy. This ‘quiet revolution’ (寧靜革命) was crucial to Taiwan’s democratisation. This step-by-step ‘national normalisation’ by making political and juristic reforms enabled the people of Taiwan to have their civil and political freedoms. Six revisions and constitutional amendments under Lee’s administration (1988-2000) have empowered the electorates to directly elect the president and legislators. With three transitions of power in the past 20 years, Taiwan keeps progressing to a full-fledged democracy.

Sharing his experience on Taiwan’s constitutional amendments, Lee strongly encouraged Abe to endeavour to revise the outdated Constitution of Japan, which has never been amended even a word since its enactment in 1947. The ‘normalisation’ of Japan’s global standing or ‘take back Japan’ if borrowing his political slogan for elections became Abe’s ultimate goal.

From Asia-Pacific to Indo-Pacific: Japan’s grand strategy for regional stability under Abe

To depart from the China-centred Asia-Pacific geopolitical strategy, Abe suggested a broader scope by incorporating India and Southeast Asia into the Indo-Pacific framework. Furthermore, to contain Chinese military expansion in the East and South China Seas, which threatens regional stability, Abe advocated Free and Open Indo-Pacific in 2016. Before that, he had proposed or promoted a series of strategic, intelligence, and military cooperations or alliances, including the Arc of Freedom and Prosperity (2007), Quadrilateral Security Dialogue or QUAD (2007), Asia’s Democratic Security Diamond (2012), and Five Eyes Plus. Japan also played a crucial role in promoting and consolidating the Comprehensive Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) after the US withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Abe also looked forward to Taiwan’s accession to the CPTPP over a video meeting with Taiwan President Ing-wen Tsai (蔡英文) this March. The value-oriented diplomacy by cooperating closely with partners sharing universal values such as freedom, democracy, human rights, the rule of law, and market economy illustrated how Abe paved the way for Japan to restore its global standing, which echoes the title of his speech at CSIS in February 2013: ‘Japan is back’.

‘A Taiwan emergency is an emergency for Japan and for the Japan-US alliance’: US strategic ambiguity toward Taiwan must end

In December 2021, Abe brought up the concept that ‘a Taiwan emergency is an emergency for Japan and the Japan-US alliance’ in a forum of a Taiwanese think tank. Since then, this ‘a Taiwan emergency is a Japanese emergency’ has become a hot topic in both countries. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine this February once again aroused everyone’s attention to the fraught cross-Strait relations, including Abe’s. This April, he wrote in the Los Angeles Times about his concerns for American policy of strategic ambiguity toward Taiwan and urged US government to opt for strategic clarity that it will defend Taiwan against Chinese invasion.

Whether US policy toward Taiwan will opt for strategic clarity is yet to be determined. However, the Biden administration has been adopting Trump’s Anti-Communist stance on China. As House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan on her trip to Asia this August showed, US support for Taiwan has been unwavering. US President Joe Biden’s remarks that the US would defend Taiwan in the event of a Chinese invasion in a CBS 60 Minutes interview broadcast on 18 September seems to mark an end to strategic ambiguity.

Abe’s legacy: LDP’s supermajority for constitutional amendments and the prospect of Taiwan-Japan relations in the post-Abe era

The parliamentary elections on 10 July gave the LDP the supermajority it needed, in both lower and upper houses, for constitutional amendments. According to polls that Asahi Shimbun (朝日新聞) and Yomiuri Shimbun (読売新聞) published this May. Although pros to constitutional amendments from both polls reached a record high (56% and 60%, respectively), opinions were still divided: a majority still oppose revising war-renouncing Article 9. Moreover, the assassination of Abe had been involved in his connection with the controversial South Korean-based Unification Church, which started to backfire on LDP. The following three ‘golden years’ with no national elections will allow current PM Fumio Kishida (岸田文雄) to fully concentrate on his policies. This explains why he quickly cut ties to the church by reshuffling his cabinet to purge seven ministers linked to it, including Abe’s younger brother, former Minister of Defence Nobuo Kishi (岸信夫), after Abe’s death. Abe’s state funeral, to be held on 27 September, has turned controversial as his and other LDP officials’ link to the church has spurred opposition to the event.

Certainly, Abe’s passing is a huge loss to Taiwan, not only personal friendship but, more importantly, his strong buttress as a world-renowned and influential leader that can hardly be found again in Japan or elsewhere. Nevertheless, the Japan-ROC Diet Members’ Consultative Council, the pro-Taiwan all-party parliamentary group established in 1973 in Japan, will keep consolidating Japan-Taiwan relations. Furthermore, a survey from Pew Research Center published this June showed that Japanese people’s unfavourable views of China reached 87%, the highest among the 19 countries for 17 consecutive years since 2006. In other words, a hawkish stance toward China will be the dominant voice in Japanese politics in the coming years, albeit Kishida has been deemed a dove from Hiroshima. The trend of constitutional amendments is inevitable; nonetheless, what, and how to amend are still yet to be determined. The Abe legacy is just about to be continued and testified in the post-Abe era.

Ko-Hang Liao is a PhD candidate in the Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies at Cambridge University. His research looks at the Imperial Japanese legacy in postwar Taiwan by tracing the genealogy and impact of the White Group (白團), Chiang Kai-shek’s Japanese military advisory group consisting of defeated Imperial Japanese military officers, on the ROC in Taiwan and argues for its centrality to the Nationalist nation-building and developmental state forged after 1949. He also writes column articles in Mandarin on Crossing. You can contact him at khl57@cam.ac.uk.

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

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