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Politics & Security

The Security of Taiwan is Crucial for the Stability of East Asia

Lai Ching-te, the new president-elect of Taiwan, should deepen existing substantive ties with Japan, according to experts in foreign relations.



LDP Vice President Taro Aso (center) poses for a photo with Taiwan's Vice President Lai Ching-te (William Lai, left) at the Presidential Office in Taipei on August 8. (©Kyodo)

Japan's foreign minister Yoko Kamikawa did not flinch in the face of fierce criticism from China over her friendly message to Lai Ching-te, the next president of Taiwan.

Dr Lai was elected on January 13. His election was preceded by a campaign that included an intense debate about the relationship between Taiwan and China.

Dr Lai is seen as being pro-West and a defender of Taiwan's autonomy. Nevertheless, his victory speech included an offer of dialogue with the mainland and a promise to continue with people-to-people exchanges.

The congratulatory message from Foreign Minister Kamikawa acknowledged the smooth implementation of the election. This was a significant point. Taiwan has only enjoyed a multiparty system since it transitioned to democracy in the early 1990s.

Foreign Minister Yoko Kamikawa at the House of Representatives on November 22. (© Sankei by Ataru Haruna)

Ms Kamikawa also described Taiwan as "a crucial partner and an important friend." She noted that the region shares fundamental values and close economic relations with Japan.

The minister said she hopes to deepen cooperation and promote further exchanges between Japan and Taiwan. 

However, there was no suggestion that Japan intends to move towards normalization of relations. Ms Kamikawa said that Japan expected the issue surrounding Taiwan to be resolved peacefully through dialogue, contributing to peace and stability in the region.

Chen Binhua, spokesperson for China's Taiwan Affairs Office holds a press conference following the election of Lai Ching-te as president. Chen criticized the DPP's adherence to its values stance as a fundamental obstacle to exchanges between the two. (©Kyodo)

China's Professed Anger

Despite the careful language, the Chinese embassy in Tokyo responded by saying that it "resolutely opposed" Minister Kamikawa's statement.

The position of the Chinese government is that "There is but one China in the world. Taiwan is an inalienable part of China's territory, and the government of the People's Republic of China is the sole legal government representing the whole of China."


Fraser Howie, an expert on Asian politics who has written extensively about China, noted an important point. That is, none of the candidates who stood for president in the 2024 Taiwanese election supported Beijing's position. "There is no path to unity," he said. 

In Mr Howie's view: "Xi Jinping has made his goal clear. He wants Taiwan to be run as a province of the mainland under [Chinese] Communist Party control." 

Complex Politics

Despite broad alignment among the various political parties about maintaining the current status quo across the Taiwan Strait, there are areas of disagreement. For example, the level of defense funding, and the best way to engage with China.

The election brought about a change in the political balance in the parliament in Taipei. The ruling Democratic Progressive Party and opposition Kuomintang have 51 and 52 seats respectively. A third party, the Taiwan People's Party, holds an important balance of eight seats, giving them a "kingmaker" position.

Taiwan presidential candidates appear on TV on December 20. Democratic Progressive Party's Vice President Lai Ching-te (center), Kuomintang's Mayor Hou Yu-ih of New Taipei (right), and Taiwan People's Party's Ko Wen-je, former mayor of Taipei. (©Central Election Commission via Kyodo)

Controversial policies proposed by the new president will come under close scrutiny by lawmakers from the KMT. The KMT may try to block the progress of legislation. But the TPP will hold the trump card and could weigh in on either side. 

"When you move into parliamentary politics, pre-election promises often fade into the background," says the writer and journalist Bill Emmott. He chairs the International Institute for Strategic Studies think tank.

Firm Civil Defense

For Mr Emmott, Taiwan's commitment to its own defense is an issue of major international importance. 

There is currently a system of conscription that obliges men to serve in the armed forces. The current administration of Tsai Ing-wen recently extended the length of their service.

Mr Emmott says that China and the United States are watching the Lai administration closely.


"We have seen from the conflict in Ukraine that a willingness to fight has a huge influence on other countries, including America. Ukraine proved it was ready to defend itself, and so it was seen as deserving of support. That's an important lesson for Taiwan," says Mr Emmott.

Former Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg, former presidential aide Stephen Hadley, Taiwanese Vice President Lai Ching-te and others from the US delegation meet in Taipei on January 15, 2024. (© Democratic Progressive Party via Kyodo)

Experienced Leader

President-elect Lai will formally take up his post in May. He has extensive experience in high-level politics, having served as Vice President under outgoing leader, Tsai Ing-wen.

She sought to enhance Taiwan's international relations with a number of countries, including Japan. The process is set to continue under President Lai, according to Dr Gerrit van der Wees. He is a former Dutch diplomat who teaches the history of Taiwan at George Mason University in the United States.

"Taiwan's leaders hope that by expanding and deepening their existing substantive ties with Japan, as well as with countries in Europe and also with Australia, they can build a "united front" to support Taiwan's democracy and maintain its separate status," says Dr van der Wees.

Intertwined History

The relationship between Japan and Taiwan has been through many changes over the past two centuries. When administration of the island was taken over by Japan after the Treaty of Shimonoseki in 1895 the army was initially met by fierce resistance from partisan local forces.

Taiwan celebrated the 100th anniversary of the construction of the Wushantou Dam, which was designed and built by Japanese civil engineer Yoichi Hatta before World War II, with a ceremony on May 8, 2021.

However, after about 1910, the Japanese worked to modernize the island, and this brought benefits for the local inhabitants. "The Japanese built roads, railroads, harbors, hospitals, and established an excellent education system. Taiwan became very much a model colony for Japan," says Dr van der Wees.

Japan's administration of Taiwan came to an end with its defeat at the end of World War II. In 1949, the Chinese Communist Party seized power in Beijing and their opponents, Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalists, fled from the mainland to Taiwan.

"Chiang Kai-shek treated Taiwan as occupied territory. The Chinese Nationalist officials were highly corrupt and very repressive," says Dr van der Wees. "Compared to that oppressive system, the "strict but fair" Japanese period looked relatively benign."

Dr van der Wees believes that Taiwan should stop being viewed through the lens of a long-distant Chinese Civil War. Rather, it should be seen in a new light. 

He says: "We need to prevail upon the government in Beijing that the best way forward would be to come to a peaceful coexistence with Taiwan as a friendly neighbor and to accept Taiwan as a full and equal member of the international community."



Author: Duncan Bartlett, Diplomatic Correspondent
Mr Bartlett is the Diplomatic Correspondent for JAPAN Forward and a Research Associate at the SOAS China Institute. Read his articles and essays on JAPAN Forward.

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