Dr. Kuo Yu-jen is a leading academic in Taiwan and the executive director of the Institute for National Policy Research (INPR) in Taipei. An associate professor at the Institute of China and Asia-Pacific Studies at National Sun Yat-sen University in Kaohsiung, Dr. Kuo’s areas of expertise include Japanese foreign and defense policy, U.S.-Japan relations and military alliance and security issues in Northeast Asia. Taiwan Sentinel contributor Hugo Tierny sat down with Dr. Kuo earlier this month to discuss the future of Taiwan-Japan relations.
What is the status of security ties between Japan and Taiwan?
Current security ties between the two countries are still weak, especially because of the challenges posed by China.
For example, Taiwan and Japan should have strong cooperation in terms of maritime security, but they don’t. Taiwan and Japan should have a certain level of intelligence exchanges, and they don’t. And because Japanese southwestern islands are so close to Taiwan, we should be able to have some sort of mutual logistical support, but we don’t. Taiwan and Japan have very strong ties in industrial cooperation, but both countries do not cooperate in terms of military industry.
Right now, both governments are trying to connect with each other in order to cooperate in these areas. The bright side is that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is very positive about expanding Japan’s ties with Taiwan. The dark side is represented by the Japanese bureaucracy, which has its own ideas about Japan’s national interest and downplays Taiwan as bureaucrats believe that China is far more important for Japan. But given’s Prime Minister Abe’s strong mandate and commitment to expanding ties with Taiwan, he might overrun the bureaucracy and our relationship with Japan will speed up.
What will be the next steps?
Right now, we are working on coast guard cooperation around the Diaoyutai/Senkaku islands [in the East China Sea]. We are starting with fishing rights and law enforcement, and this cooperation should gradually expand to maritime security cooperation and Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR).
The goal at the moment is to build confidence between both countries. The more we cooperate with each other, the more mutual trust and consensus will be established. Then we will be able to move forward.
The Japanese believe that Taiwan is a reliable ally. They call us “special partners” officially and Prime Minister Abe, who is friendly toward Taiwan, will be in power at least until 2021. In the meantime, we can do a lot of things together. As I just mentioned, Abe’s political leadership should gradually prevail over the Japanese bureaucracy. So things are expected to speed up with Taiwan.
There is also a strong incentive from the United States to bring Taiwan and Japan closer. About North Korea, the U.S. is trying to enhance cooperation between South Korea and Japan because both actors share common security interests. The scenario is the same for Japan and Taiwan.
What will be the likely impact of a closer Japan-Taiwan relationship on attitudes in China?
I think China will play two hands. On the one hand, it will play harder in the East China Sea. On the other hand, Beijing will try to talk to Taiwan if communication is possible. If communication with Taiwan fails, like right now, China will punish Taiwan instead of punishing Japan. That’s usually what they do.
Presently we are at the stage of establishing mutual trust with Japan. If we complete this stage and move on to the next one, China will be unable to stop it because the mutual needs of Taiwan and Japan are too strong. Beijing cannot really deter Japan and Taiwan from getting closer. However, the Chinese will be extremely cautious about some areas of cooperation between Japan and Taiwan, especially when it comes to underwater warfare.
Is there any chance of Japan selling weapons to Taiwan?
There are different levels to this question. The answer is not clear cut. Right now, two issues really matter.
Number one, Japan basically lacks experience in exporting weapons, which means they don’t have any domestic platform or institutions for arms exports.
Number two, Taiwan is diplomatically sensitive for Japan, especially for their bureaucracy. We don’t even have a platform for talks yet. To be realistic, talking about buying and selling weapons will come after we establish channels of communication. This is what we are doing right now.
Then buying or selling weapons is not the point. Once the communication channel is established, both countries will be able to build mutual military trust and consensus. So right now, confidence building is the most difficult part.
Once that’s done, then we can talk about establishing some channels for technological exchanges. If I were to give you an estimate, I think the dialogue will take a year or two, as both sides are still trying to find the correct people to talk to. Taiwan’s diplomatic relations are always tricky, so in the beginning it will be difficult and it will take quite a long time. But once this is done, talking about weapons and technological transfers will be easier.
In the longer term, is there any chance of a more formal security partnership between Taiwan and Japan?
Definitely not in the near future. The Japanese want to play the Taiwanese card to cultivate uncertainty with the Chinese. They want China to care about their relation with Taiwan, but they don’t want to make China angry. Therefore, I don’t think Prime Minister Abe will take any unrealistic decisions such as creating a Japanese version of the U.S. Taiwan Relations Act, or any sort of official agreement with Taiwan.
And you have to assess the costs and benefits of such actions. How much benefits can the signature of a security agreement bring for Taiwan? How much political cost would we have to pay? Personally, I do not think it is necessary for the two countries to sign anything formal at this stage. We should be realistic.
China would certainly respond [to a formal treaty] and our policy of rapprochement with Japan would cause a backlash. Beijing would punish Taiwan heavily instead of Tokyo. In the beginning China would take trade and economic measures as a first warning. If Taiwan didn’t heed the warning, they could escalate by imposing restrictions on travel documents. We have approximately 2 million people travelling between Taiwan and China. If they limit the number of travelers to, say, 500,000, then the Taiwanese government would be in big trouble: Taiwanese would get angry and pressure their government.
So instead of risking so much, we can take advantage of ambiguous measures; for example, under-the-table contact designed to make China more cautious in dealing with Taiwan and Japan. That’s more effective and we can benefit more from this type of effort.
Besides a few protests, China’s reaction to a Taiwan-Japan rapprochement has been relatively mild. How do you explain that?
I believe Japan already talked to China about this. It is not sudden. If we take the renaming of Taiwan’s de facto embassy in Tokyo, for example, China probably believes it is just a little step highlighting the current rapprochement. Only the timing of the decision is meaningful, as it takes place in the context of rapprochement and appears as a warning to China.
To define Taiwan and Japan’s rapprochement, we would talk about 陽謀 (Yáng móu) in Chinese, or “fake conspiracy.” The Taiwanese and the Japanese are not hiding, they want China to know they are talking. Aware of this, China doesn’t believe it is necessary yet to overreact over Japan-Taiwan rapprochement.
The Taiwanese and the Japanese are not hiding, they want China to know they are talking.
Moreover, the Chinese cannot get too angry now. If they do, they will fall short of diplomatic options when Taiwan and Japan further cooperate. You cannot escalate verbally forever. Right now, things are still within the range of Chinese tolerance. All of this is about testing China’s bottom line, and we are not there yet.
Any final comments?
Japan is very active and has played the Taiwan card very smartly against China. However, I don’t see Taiwan playing the Japanese card against China that well. I’m worried because I believe Taiwan doesn’t understand Japan’s strategic ambitions well. Taiwanese don’t clearly understand how Japan is handling the rapprochement and are too single-minded when pursuing rapprochement with Japan. Taiwan doesn’t see clearly what’s going on in Tokyo. This is dangerous.
Most people are very optimistic about the future of the partnership between Japan and Taiwan. But they are missing the point, which is two-fold. One, can Taiwan read Tokyo’s intentions clearly? Two, how can Taiwan benefit from Japan? Without these prerequisites, starting anything with Japan makes no sense for Taiwan. You have to ask yourself: what’s good for us in this? Most people don’t ask that question, and that is dangerous.