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  • The Japan-Taiwan Relationship:An Unstable Stability
  • June Teufel Dreyer (bio)

Japan's relations with Taiwan (Republic of China, or ROC) have been shaped by both countries' relationships with the People's Republic of China (PRC) and the United States. Despite President Chiang Kai-shek's adversarial relationship with Japan during World War II, relations between Japan and his ROC (first on the mainland and then on the island of Taiwan) were cordial during the postwar period. Shared opposition to Communism provided a common bond. An estimated twenty thousand Japanese troops under Japanese command wore Chinese Nationalist (Kuomintang, or KMT) uniforms and fought against the Chinese Communist troops until 1948.1 Strategic reasons also reinforced ties: the city of Hualien on Taiwan is but 69 miles from Japan's Yonaguni Island. Were Taiwan to be absorbed into the PRC, the territorial waters of Japan and China would be uncomfortably close.

This essay argues that strategic calculations, shared democratic values, and generally pleasant memories of colonial history will foster the continued development of Taiwan-Japan relations, although these will remain constrained by each side's fear of unduly angering China. The first section situates the relationship in a historical context, while the second section examines the development of relations under Shinzo Abe and Tsai Ing-wen. The essay concludes by considering the outlook for the Taiwan-Japan relationship.

The Past Is Prologue

As the PRC began its ambitious industrialization program, Japanese businesses saw lucrative opportunities and pressed for the normalization of diplomatic relations that would facilitate these. Tokyo's 1972 derecognition of the ROC in favor of the PRC dealt a sharp blow to the Taipei government, but economic and other ties continued informally. When Chiang Kai-shek's son and heir Chiang Ching-kuo died in office in 1988, he was succeeded [End Page 161] by his Taiwanese vice president. Born in Taiwan when the island was a Japanese colony, Lee Teng-hui infuriated Beijing by saying, correctly, that he had been a Japanese citizen for most of his life. In deference to Japan's acceptance of Beijing's one-China policy, Lee agreed not to visit Japan officially so long as he was in office, though he was able to use his language fluency to arrange informal meetings with Japanese officials. Under his administration, the ban on Japanese-language media programming was lifted, with the Taiwanese quickly becoming enthusiastic consumers of the latest Japanese television programs as well as Japanese fads and fashions. A new Taiwanese word, harizu (Japan mania), came into being. After a Chinese show of force in the Taiwan Strait ahead of Taiwan's 1996 election, Japanese officials, aware of the implications for their own security, committed to the United States to help defend the shuhen jitai (the waters around Japan), refusing Beijing's demand that Taiwan be explicitly excluded from the definition thereof. By 1999, retired members of the Japan Self-Defense Forces had become frequent visitors to Taiwan.

As China became less Communist and more prosperous, formerly anti-PRC elements in Taiwan became attracted by the mainland's nationalistic message. Overwhelmingly composed of those who had come to Taiwan with Chiang Kai-shek and their descendants, this group tended to identify as Chinese and favored unification with China, albeit under a variety of improbable scenarios (such as the PRC accepting ROC rule or the complete democratization of the PRC). Native-born Taiwanese, by contrast, were more resistant to incorporation into a country they had never been part of. The former became known as the "blues" and the latter as the "greens," with Lee, the first popularly elected president, as the standard bearer of the greens. In 2000, the term-limited Lee was succeeded by another Taiwanese, Chen Shui-bian, who continued his de-Sinification policy and moved still closer to Japan. These developments not only angered China, which from time to time accused Japan of wanting to bring Taiwan back under its control, but also upset the George H.W. Bush administration, which feared that Chen might provoke a war that could involve the United States.

Chen's successor, Ma Ying-jeou, born to a family from the mainland, reversed this process, declaring unification...


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