Post War Flux: Analysing the Fluctuation of Relationships Between Taiwan-Japan in the Post-war Period

Written by Wei-Hsiu Huang.

Image credit: Public Domain.

In recent years, the relations between Taiwan and Japan have seemingly been deepened; meanwhile, China is wary of these deepening relations and keeps claiming that the situation means Japan’s support for Taiwan’s independence.

However, the post-war relationship between Taiwan and Japan is not simply a relationship between Taiwan and Japan. Instead, we can consider the relationship between Japan and Taiwan as the dual relationship between Japan and the Republic of China since pre-WWII and the relationship between Taiwan and Japan since pre-WWII. Further, we can subdivide this dual relationship into the relationship between ROC and Japan relations before 1949, the relationship between Japan and Taiwan under Japanese rule, the relationship between Japan and the ROC under Kuomintang one-party dictatorship by Chiang Kai-shek after 1949, the relationship between Taiwan and Japan after Taiwan’s democratisation, and the relationship between Taiwan and Japan since 2011.

In addition, more complicated multilateral relations are involved in this issue. They are the relations between Japan and the People’s Republic of China, cross-Strait relations, and the Japan-US Alliance. As for the Japan-US Alliance, Japan is obligated to abide by the Japan-US Security Treaty, and the US insisted on a peaceful resolution of cross-Strait relations. To make it clear in the discussion, I will divide the developing process into three periods: the first period from the post-war period to the normalisation of diplomatic relations between Japan and China, the second from the normalisation of diplomatic relations between Japan and China to the democratisation of Taiwan, and the third one from the 1990s to the present. This essay will proceed with an overview and analysis of the complex relationship between Japan and Taiwan in the post-war period.

Japan ended its colonial rule in Taiwan at the end of the war. Meanwhile, Chiang Kai-shek led the ROC government to withdraw from Mainland China to Taiwan after he was defeated in the civil war with the Chinese Communist Party in 1949. In 1952, Japan and the Chiang Kai-shek government signed the Treaty of Taipei. Accordingly, Japan restored diplomatic relations and developed economic ties with the ROC, representing China then. At the same time, to rebuild the post-war economy, Japan thought economic ties with mainland China were necessary even during the administrations of Shigeru Yoshida, who promoted cooperation with the United States, and Nobusuke Kishi, who advocated an anti-communist policy. The stance caused the Japanese government to promote relations with the PRC by separating them from politics and the economy. In contrast, the Chiang Kai-shek government had no choice but to accept Japan’s policy.

In addition, as a former suzerain, even by the 1990s, Japan had not settled the issues concerning Taiwanese citizens who were subjects of the former colony. These issues included the military benefits system, all kinds of pensions for former Japanese soldiers of Taiwanese nationality, and the refunds of unpaid salaries and military savings. Meanwhile, under pressure from the Chiang Kai-shek government, the Japanese government cracked down on the Taiwan independence movement in Japan by imposing domestic laws.

Since the late 1960s, global changes in international politics have become more pronounced. US-China Rapprochement was reached. The United Nations agreed on the settlement of the rights of the PRC to represent China at the UN, whereby the ROC was expelled from the UN. Accordingly, Japan gradually reassessed its relations with the PRC. In 1972, it officially recognised the PRC as the representative government of China, normalising diplomatic relations based on the peaceful settlement of cross-Strait relations while severing diplomatic ties with the ROC. After the ROC was expelled from the UN, its diplomatic relations with Japan and US were severed, Mutual Defense Treaty between the United States of America and the Republic of China was also nullified. The ROC had been excluded from the official security framework of the international community since the 1970s.

At the same time, the US Congress enacted the Taiwan Relations Act to mandate the president the obligation to ensure Taiwan’s security. Furthermore, Japan was indirectly involved in Taiwan’s security through The Far East clause of the Japan-US Security Treaty, even though Japan had lost its official diplomatic channels with Taiwan because Japan had broken off diplomatic relations with the ROC. Japan maintained and promoted practical relations with Taiwan in economic and cultural matters.

In this phase, many government-supported organisations, such as the Exchange Association (currently the Japan-Taiwan Exchange Association), the Association for East Asian Relations (currently the Taiwan-Japan Relations Association), were established instead of the channel disseminating the ideology of “anti-communism” propagated by Chiang Kai-shek. At the same time, more semi-official and unofficial were being formed, such as the Japan-Taiwan Diet Members’ Consultative Council. These channels had been institutionalised widely. This framework that comprehensively defined the relationships between Taiwan and China, including Japan and US, is known as the 1972 Regime in Japanese, Chinese, and Taiwanese academic circles. To make it clear, the relationship between Japan and Taiwan was informal in practical areas like economics and culture. However, they gradually deepened their economic ties through these semi-official and unofficial exchange channels under relatively stable international circumstances from 1972 through the 1980s.

In the late 1980s, Taiwan’s democratisation brought about tidal changes in international politics. To counter the “One Country, Two Systems” policy proposed by China, Chiang Ching-kuo decided to initiate democratisation in Taiwan. Lee Teng-hui, who succeeded Chiang Ching-kuo as Taiwan’s president, further promoted and deepened Taiwan’s democratisation. Furthermore, Lee Teng-hui developed pragmatic diplomacy to maintain the present diplomatic relations, strengthen relations with important countries with which Taiwan did not have formal diplomatic relations, and actively seek to return to international organisations. Through intellectual exchanges, Lee Teng-hui also used his connections to strengthen relations with Japanese political, business, and academic communities. Afterwards, intellectual exchanges between Taiwan and Japan have become even more active since the 2000s, with second-track exchanges covering economics, culture, politics, and security. Moreover, Taiwan’s support for the Great East Japan Earthquake on March 11, 2011, has unprecedentedly levelled up a bilateral exchange to the level of “sentiment,” which goes beyond the practical relations between Japan and Taiwan. 

On the other hand, China opposed Lee Teng-hui’s policy so strongly as to arouse the Third Taiwan Strait Crisis in 1995 and 1996, when Taiwan’s first direct general presidential election was being held. Meanwhile, given the 1994 North Korean nuclear crisis, Japan had begun to consider security legislation. After the Third Taiwan Strait Crisis and the redefinition of the Japan-US Security Treaty in 1996, Japan initiated the development of legislation, culminating in the passage of the “Peace and Security Legislation” in 2015. Since then, albeit indirectly, Japan’s role in the Japan-US alliance has increased its involvement in Taiwan’s security.

I want to sum up the relationship between Japan and Taiwan from the post-war period till now. To begin with, from the post-war period to the normalisation of PRC-Japan diplomatic relations, Taiwan-Japan relations were dominated by the so-called Japan-ROC relations, which gradually surpassed the PRC-Japan relations. Next, in the phase from the normalisation of diplomatic PRC-Japanese ties to the democratisation of Taiwan, Taiwan-Japan relations were limited within economic, cultural, and other fields. Still, the efforts to promote bilateral relations and institutionalise mutual channels were made under stable international circumstances. Then, in the third phase after Taiwan’s democratisation, Japan kept its indirect involvement in Taiwan’s security and maintained informal bilateral relations with Taiwan. As a result, the scope of mutual exchanges has expanded not only to the practical fields but also to the security field. 

In recent years, the Xi Jinping regime has been increasingly imposing pressure to force Taiwan to accept China’s claims to unification. Under the current circumstances, the possibility of a peaceful settlement about cross-Strait relations by both sides has diminished. Meanwhile, Japan is also under great political and military pressure from China over the Senkaku Islands issue. Moreover, the recent outbreak of the pandemic of COVID-19 has further heightened the distrust in China from both Japan and Taiwan. Furthermore, with the relative weakening of US deterrence toward China compared to the Korean War period, Japan and Taiwan are facing the most dangerous international environment for security since the Korean War. In Taiwan, many discourses exploit the upheaval of the 1972 regime to further strengthen the bilateral relationship between Japan and Taiwan. However, as mentioned above, Japan-Taiwan relations are not simply a relationship between the two sides. In fact, after the official visit to Taiwan by Nancy Pelosi, the US Speaker of the House of Representatives, China unilaterally attempted to change the status quo by force by conducting military drills in the vicinity of Taiwan immediately. Moreover, although the missiles launched by the Chinese military fell into Japan’s EEZ, China claims that there is no “Japan’s EEZ”. In summary, Taiwan-Japan relations will move into a new phase, but we must gather our wits and overcome many difficulties and obstacles.

Wei-Hsiu Huang is the Project Researcher at the Institute for Advanced Studies on Asia, the University of Tokyo, and the Guest Junior Researcher at Waseda Taiwan Research Institute. He comes from Taiwan. He specialises in politics and foreign relations between the PRC and Taiwan, Cross-Strait Relations, Sino-Japan Relations, Japan-Taiwan Relations, Japan’s foreign and security policies, and the Mainland Policy Decision-Making Process in Taiwan. He is the winner of the sixth Japan Association for Taiwan Studies Award (politic and economic field) in 2011 and the seventeenth Yasuhiro Nakasone Award of Incentive Award in 2021. Please see his website.

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

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