Shinzo Abe transformed Japan’s relationship with Taiwan to counter China’s threats

Shinzo Abe left an indelible mark on Japanese foreign policy, leading the country from one that was largely reactive to events in the Indo-Pacific to one that actively shaped its regional environment. For all his achievements, Abe’s most important legacy may be the profound adjustment of Japanese policy toward Taiwan.

Prior to Abe’s tenure as prime minister, Japanese officials were deeply uncomfortable discussing a possible use of force by China against Taiwan, the implications of such a move for Japanese security, and how Japan should respond to such a scenario. However, recognizing the threat that an increasingly assertive China posed to Taiwan, Abe sought to reorient Japanese policy toward the island. He began by publicly emphasizing the shared values ​​between Japan and Taiwan. In 2015, Abe began referring to Taiwan as an “important partner” and a “precious friend,” a formulation the government later adopted. Although it was a seemingly small step, he helped reframe the Taiwan conversation in Tokyo.

Beyond the declarations, under Abe’s leadership, Japan and Taiwan addressed one of the most important irritants in their bilateral relationship. After 17 years of negotiations, in 2013 Japan and Taiwan concluded a landmark agreement addressing fishing rights in the East China Sea (Taiwan formally shares the same territorial claims as China in the East China Sea, meaning it maintains a claim to the Senkaku Islands). This also helped usher in a new era of closer bilateral ties. In 2019, for example, Japan became a co-sponsor of the Global Cooperation and Training Framework (GCTF), an initiative that Taiwan and the United States established in 2015 to host workshops that allow Taiwan to showcase its expertise in fields such as public health, disaster relief, women’s empowerment, and good governance.

After resigning, Abe continued to use his influence within the Liberal Democratic Party to push forward the political debate on Taiwan. In November 2021, he forcefully argued: “A Taiwan emergency is a Japanese emergency, and therefore an emergency for the Japan-US alliance. People in Beijing, President Xi Jinping in particular, should never have a misunderstanding in acknowledging this.” He participated in trilateral talks with lawmakers from the United States and Taiwan and stressed that “what happened in Hong Kong should never happen in Taiwan.” In a show of solidarity with Taiwan after China banned the import of Taiwanese pineapples, Abe posted a photo on Twitter showing him holding the fruit. One of the last pieces he wrote was an opinion piece in the Los Angeles Timeswhere he argued that the US policy of strategic ambiguity towards Taiwan was “fostering instability in the Indo-Pacific region” and called on the US “to make it clear that it will defend Taiwan against any Chinese invasion attempt.”

Abe’s efforts were largely successful, and his successors picked up where he left off. The joint statement issued by his immediate successor Yoshihide Suga and President Joe Biden in April 2021 included a clause on Taiwan, the first time the two countries had mentioned Taiwan in a joint leader-level statement in five decades. . Suga’s successor, Fumio Kishida, has argued that “the front line of the clash between authoritarianism and democracy is Asia, and particularly Taiwan.” President Biden and Prime Minister Kishida, in their May 2022 Joint Leaders Statement, “reiterated the importance of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait as an indispensable element for security and prosperity in the international community.” . Referring elliptically to Taiwan, Kishida recently warned: “Today’s Ukraine may be tomorrow’s East Asia.”

This change is evident elsewhere. In June 2021, Defense Minister (and Shinzo Abe’s brother) Nobuo Kishi declared that “Taiwan’s peace and stability are directly connected to Japan”. Japan’s most recent annual defense white paper spoke of Taiwan in an unprecedented way, emphasizing that “stabilizing the situation surrounding Taiwan is important to the security of Japan and the stability of the international community. Therefore, it is necessary for us to pay close attention to the situation with a sense of crisis more than ever.” This indicates a level of institutional acceptance of the change in Taiwan.

In addition to strong public statements, Abe’s successors have sought to continue strengthening ties with Taiwan. Japan has donated millions of doses of COVID-19 vaccines to Taiwan and supported its bid to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP).

These steps have resonated with the Japanese public. A recent poll found that nearly three-quarters of those surveyed favored the Japanese government becoming involved in peacekeeping across the Taiwan Strait.

Taiwanese affection for Japan has also reached a record level. Sixty percent of Taiwanese report that Japan is their favorite foreign country, according to a recent poll, up from 52 percent in 2010. In many ways, the Taiwanese public’s growing fondness for Japan reflects Abe’s efforts to expand the relationship. bilateral Japan-Taiwan.

It should come as no surprise that after news broke that Abe had been shot, President Tsai Ing-wen called him “Taiwan’s most loyal best friend.” After Abe passed away, Tsai said Taiwan had “lost an important and close friend” and ordered the national flag to be flown at half-staff. This contrasts sharply with the jubilation expressed by many Chinese netizens after learning of Abe’s murder. Taiwan Vice President Lai Ching-te attended Abe’s private funeral in Tokyo, becoming the highest-ranking Taiwanese official to visit Japan for an extended visit since Japan severed diplomatic relations with Taiwan in 1972.

However, the work that Abe started remains unfinished. The United States and Japan urgently need to increase their coordination and preparation for a conflict in Taiwan, which should become the top priority for the US-Japan alliance. Allies should prioritize consultations that focus on what the United States would need from Japan to defeat Chinese aggression and how it can address any Japanese concerns. The United States and Japan should also explore economic frameworks with Taiwan that help the island avoid economic marginalization in the Indo-Pacific and address supply chain security issues related to critical technologies like semiconductors.

Shinzo Abe left an impressive legacy in foreign affairs, including the significant efforts he made to adapt Japan’s policy toward Taiwan in light of an increasingly assertive China. Now it is up to his successors to carry on his legacy.

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SAKHRI Mohamed

I hold a bachelor's degree in political science and international relations as well as a Master's degree in international security studies, alongside a passion for web development. During my studies, I gained a strong understanding of key political concepts, theories in international relations, security and strategic studies, as well as the tools and research methods used in these fields.

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