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A meeting last week between senior lawmakers from Taiwan and Japan’s ruling parties may pave the way for greater contact between the two neighbors — much to the chagrin of China.

Although Taiwan and Japan do not have formal diplomatic ties, the two sides have long maintained a robust relationship that includes economic and cultural exchanges. But in recent months, that relationship has grown even closer as Tokyo became far more vocal in the public sphere about its concerns over China’s assertiveness, especially its actions near the self-ruled island and in the East China Sea.

With Friday’s talks, which were initiated by Japan and focused on diplomacy, trade, national defense and security cooperation, that relationship looks to continue to expand amid Beijing’s growing push to isolate Taipei.

Observers say Taipei has long believed there was a need for more dialogue with Japan, especially on security issues. The ruling Liberal Democratic Party, meanwhile, had traditionally maintained a distance from such high-level talks for fear of alienating China, Japan’s top trading partner.

“Upgrading party-to-party talks in this way is a creative means to deepen bilateral engagement without running afoul of Tokyo’s ‘One-China Policy’ — which is broadly similar to Washington’s own, but which has generally led to a Japanese approach that is more cautious than that of the United States,” Michael Mazza, a Taiwan expert with the American Enterprise Institute think tank, wrote ahead of the meeting.

The meeting, he added, could also “serve as a model for others and open the door to other creative solutions to lessen Taiwan’s diplomatic isolation.”

“Australia and India, which both have parliamentary systems, should find this model of engagement attractive, as should a number of European countries looking to contribute to security in the Taiwan Strait,” Mazza said.

Taiwan currently maintains diplomatic relations with just 14 countries and the Holy See. Japan switched recognition from Taipei to Beijing in 1972, while the U.S. did so seven years later. But despite the dearth of formal ties, a number of nations have voiced concerns in recent months about the importance of “peace stability across the Taiwan Strait.”

China views Taiwan as a so-called core issue and sees it as an inherent part of its territory, a renegade province that must be brought back into the fold — by force if necessary.

Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso signaled in July that Tokyo would consider a Chinese invasion of Taiwan an existential threat to its security, allowing Japan to help defend the self-ruled island with the United States. | REUTERS
Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso signaled in July that Tokyo would consider a Chinese invasion of Taiwan an existential threat to its security, allowing Japan to help defend the self-ruled island with the United States. | REUTERS

Friday’s talks — dubbed the legislative equivalent of “two-plus-two” talks between the countries’ foreign and defense ministers — also come on the heels of the release last month of Japan’s annual defense white paper, which for the first time explicitly touched on security concerns surrounding Taiwan.

They also come after a spate of remarks by high-ranking Japanese government officials signaling that at least some in Tokyo view Taiwan’s fate as a potential existential threat to Japan’s security, allowing it to join the U.S. in defending the island in the event of a serious contingency.

One of the LDP lawmakers who attended the online meeting, Masahisa Sato, chair of the LDP’s foreign affairs committee, said after Friday’s talks that the two sides had agreed to meet regularly, including the possibility of in-person discussions.

“We promised each other that we would have … regular discussions in order to have even more in-depth discussions,” Sato said.

Sato said that although the meeting lasted 30 minutes longer than the originally scheduled one hour, he still “had a lot of things to talk about” when time restrictions brought the meeting to an end.

The lawmakers from Taiwan’s ruling Democratic Progressive Party also lauded the meeting, echoing the Japanese side’s call to further bolster ties and voicing a “strong desire” to continue the discussions.

“This is a new format and a new development,” said Lo Chih-cheng, a member of the DPP’s parliamentary foreign affairs committee. “We look forward to both sides engaging in more dialogue, cooperation and exchanges in different areas, and to further advance Taiwan-Japan relations.”

The lawmakers said separately that they had exchanged opinions on semiconductors, including Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co.’s planned factory in Japan, and future collaboration on chip supply chains. They also discussed Taipei’s interest in joining the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP).

Security issues also were a large focus of the talks, though the lawmakers refused to divulge specific details about what was discussed in that area.

Still, Sato told his Taiwanese counterparts that because China has attempted to unilaterally change the status quo in the region, affecting not only the security of the Taiwan Strait but also Japan, it was becoming increasingly important for the two sides to strengthen defense and diplomatic ties.

“Each of the attendees expressed their views on the future of Japan-Taiwan relations and how both can work closely together in the areas of diplomacy and security, with a Taiwan contingency in mind,” Sato said, adding that this could include working with Taipei to eliminate obstacles to its participation in international bodies such as the World Health Organization.

Sato also said the dialogue would help inform the ruling party’s policymaking.

“The Taiwanese side said they had been waiting and hoping for such a dialogue … (and both sides) felt it was significant to come up with common goals between the ruling parties that can lead to government policy for both countries,” Sato was quoted as saying by Reuters.

In light of growing tensions between China and Taiwan, Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party established a project team under its Foreign Affairs Division in February to discuss Japan-Taiwan relations. | REUTERS
In light of growing tensions between China and Taiwan, Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party established a project team under its Foreign Affairs Division in February to discuss Japan-Taiwan relations. | REUTERS

But it remains unclear if these kinds of meetings represent a substantive change in Japan’s thinking on Taiwan.

“It’s too early to say whether this marks a sustainable policy shift toward institutionalized dialogue,” said Sebastian Maslow, an expert on Japanese politics at Sendai Shirayuri Women’s University.

Maslow said the current talks were, in part, a result of the growing influence of China-critical forces within the LDP and a government distracted by its pandemic response, with little focus on foreign policy.

Whether the diplomatic momentum behind the push for bolstered ties with Taiwan can be maintained will hinge on the LDP’s presidential election, set for Sept. 29, and the upcoming general elections slated for this autumn.

For its part, China issued a relatively boilerplate response to the meeting, with the Foreign Ministry saying Friday that it had lodged a complaint with Tokyo and repeating its claim that Taiwan is an inalienable part of China’s territory.

“The Taiwan question bears on the political foundation of China-Japan relations. Japan bears historical responsibility to the Chinese people on the Taiwan question and needs to be cautious in its words and actions. We solemnly urge Japan to stop interfering in China’s internal affairs and not send wrong signals to Taiwan secessionists,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said.

Maslow said the subdued reaction by Beijing meant that it was likely taking the upcoming elections into account.

“Plus, Beijing is certainly aware of the fact that the current talks were interparty and not intergovernmental,” he said. “A harsher response would certainly be inevitable if the talks shift toward the latter, which is unlikely as Japan is aware of the stakes this would involve.”

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