Publication: China Brief Volume: 5 Issue: 7

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao spent a substantial part of his post-National Peoples’ Congress press conference on Sino-Japanese ties, offering an olive branch to Tokyo with his “three principles, three recommendations” – if it stays out of the Taiwan issue.

But what has clearly changed Sino-Japanese ties lately was the joint US-Japan declaration on February 19, the first fundamental revision to the 1960 US-Japan Security Alliance. The declaration has been perceived as Tokyo’s willingness to confront Beijing’s rising might in the region, as well as a new-found Japanese assertiveness on the Asian and world stages. While underscoring Tokyo’s alliance with Washington, it also highlights how Taiwan and cross-Straits relations have become a fundamental determinant in the increasing Sino-Japanese rivalry in the region.

Sino-Japanese rivalry in Asia could be clearly seen in the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami disaster. Both Premier Wen and Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi underscored the immense attention the two Asian giants are showering on Asian affairs at the ASEAN-organized “Tsunami Summit” in Jakarta on January 6, 2005. By doing so, both countries have sought to project regional leadership, power and status.

As Tokyo strives to become a permanent member of the UN Security Council, Sino-Japanese rivalry is sure to intensify. China would ultimately not be able to veto Japan’s candidature outright (and publicly), but it could try to “dampen” Tokyo’s regional and international ambitions by tying its endorsement to some concessions from Japan. Taiwan, like the rest of Asia, constitutes an important determinant in this game and could become a bargaining chip in the final outcome.

Taipei’s Strategic Value

There are four main ways that Taiwan represents a strategic determinant in Sino-Japanese relations.

First, Taiwan is seen as a critical gateway to Japan for Chinese blue-water naval advances from the south. Hence, the island represents a defensive imperative for Japan – one which China acknowledges in its own strategic calculations. According to sources from Japan’s Institute of International Affairs (JIIA), China’s blue water navy has been sounding out access channels around Japan and on its Pacific coast – from the Sakhalin Islands in the north to the Ryuku Islands in the south, as far west as Taiwan and as far east as the Philippines. These access channels are of crucial importance should Chinese submarines seek to attack Japan in times of conflict.

This “China threat” has recently been analyzed in a Japanese White Paper and was embedded into the US-Japan Joint Security Agreement. Losing Taiwan could allow Chinese submarines into Japanese waters from the south, thus facilitating a naval encirclement of Japan from the South China Sea. Taiwan thus stands guard as a natural gateway to Japanese waters. The recent submarine incident in November simply compounded Japanese anxieties. Furthermore, Chinese academics from the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations (CICIR) in Beijing acknowledge in private this strategic calculation.

Second, Taiwan represents an important part of the American strategic security umbrella of Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines and Australia – which Japan seeks to maintain against its big emerging neighbor. Obviously, China perceives this as hostile to its own strategic interests in Asia. Okinawa, just miles north of Taiwan, is a strategic American deployment point which Tokyo views as a crucial counter-balance to Beijing’s encroachment on the Asian stage. Chinese academics from CICIR and Beijing University’s international relations research institutes, on the other hand, view America’s arc of containment as a means to prevent or delay the latter’s emergence as a great power.

It is for this reason that Tokyo has been publicly discreet over the proposed $18 billion American arms sales to Taiwan (which also involves submarines and defense radar systems), while privately supporting it. Only after signing the Joint Security Agreement could Tokyo come out openly on the issue. Taiwan’s (and Japan’s) support for the American Theater Missile Defense (TMD) has further heightened Beijing’s fear that it is being targeted. Clearly, Taiwan remains at the intersection of much of the geopolitical wrangling between China, Japan and the United States.

Third, Taiwan’s historical and cultural affinity with Japan is especially assuring and comforting to Tokyo, whereas Beijing sees a lack of Chinese nationalism and loyalty on the island, as well as dangerous links and collaboration between “Taiwanese separatists” and Japanese “rightists” in their joint hostility against China. Japan’s historical and cultural affinities with Taiwan, the Japanese public’s clear sympathy for the island, as well as its stance on human rights and democracy bolsters the first two strategic considerations. Japan took control of the island in 1895 and administered it until losing it after Word War II. Culturally, Japanese pop has always seduced young Taiwanese and an entire generation of Taiwanese elite and politicians, like former President Lee Teng-hui, were schooled in Japanese universities. In fact, Japan is commonly perceived in Taiwan as a benevolent occupying power, unlike in China or Korea. The mutual sympathy between the Japanese and Taiwanese is so great that should Taipei revert back to the Mainland, differences in the perception of Japan could surface as one of the thorniest issues.

This high regard for Japan, among other things, prompts Beijing to be critical of Taiwan’s “lack of nationalism”. For example, Beijing has always criticized Taiwan for not protesting Koizumi’s frequent visits to the Yasukuni Shrine, despite comment from Seoul and Pyongyang. Moreover, Taiwan is accused of failing to defend Chinese sovereignty in the Diaoyu Islands (or Senkaku in Japanese). Mainlanders thus question Taiwan’s “Chinese-ness”, especially as Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian seeks to “de-Sinicize” Taiwan in line with his march towards independence. Taiwan’s warm relations with Japan thus constitute significant impediment to any Sino-Japanese rapprochement.

But more importantly, Beijing intellectually links Taiwanese “separatists” with Japanese “military-rightists” in Tokyo. Lee Teng-hui’s saga highlights this point: Beijing consistently accused Lee of being an ally of Japanese rightists and forces in the military, whom Chinese believe have never abandoned their dream of conquering the Mainland. Beijing complained last autumn about the “unfortunate” visit of Tokyo Mayor Shintaro Ishihara to Taipei, as he is accused of being among those hostile to China. The linkage between Taiwan separatism and Japanese rightist-military forces once more places the island between China and Japan.

Finally, Tokyo’s trade, investments and economic relations with Taipei are strong and multifaceted. Japan is reluctant to abandon these ties for the sake of better relations with the Mainland. However, the Chinese are increasingly suspicious that Taiwan is playing the Japanese card against Beijing in its economic relations with Tokyo.

Both Sino-Japanese and Sino-Taiwanese economic relations have dramatically improved in the past three years. Beijing’s total trade with Japan in 2003 stood at $133.5 billion ($58.4 billion with Taiwan) with trade surpluses of $14.7 and $40.4 billion in favor of Japan and Taiwan respectively. Taiwanese investments on the Mainland are estimated at a staggering $100 billion. But despite the emergence of Beijing as a crucial economic partner to both, overall economic relations between Japan and Taiwan remain sound and important. And Beijing suspects Taipei of brandishing the “China threat” in Tokyo, in order to harm Sino-Japanese relations. Moreover, there is a brewing gas dispute in the East China Sea, as Tokyo decided in early January to let Japanese oil companies start test drilling for gas in a contested part of the East China Sea (north of both Taiwan and the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands). At present, both Tokyo and Beijing claim exclusive economic zones in this region, and Taiwan could be inadvertently dragged into the dispute.


Taiwan, therefore, seems destined to be caught between the Sino-Japanese power struggles over Asian dominance. Strategic, historical, cultural and economic determinants make Taiwan a crucial factor in a number of contentious issues, not least of which is the future of America’s role in the Asia-Pacific. America’s role might already be diminished as this year’s East Asian Summit in Kuala Lumpur currently excludes the United States.

Dr Eric Teo Chu Cheow is the Council Secretary of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs (SIIA), and Managing Director of Savoir Faire Corporate Consultants, Singapore.