Members of Japan's Self-Defence Forces' airborne troops stand at attention during the annual SDF ceremony at Asaka Base. Photo: REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon
Members of Japan's Self-Defence Forces' airborne troops stand at attention during the annual SDF ceremony at Asaka Base in a file photo. Photo: Agencies

Taiwan’s Tsai Ing-wen government made a dramatic gesture toward Japan earlier in 2016 by referring the state’s dispute over Okinotori to the United Nations (UN). Since then, the government has made repeated gestures presenting a new and positive side to Japan-Taiwan relations in an era of heightened regional volatility. The May 2016 elections that brought Tsai to power illustrated that the Taiwanese population gave her and her government a major mandate for change. For the first time in history, Taiwan’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) has control over both the executive and legislative. The time has never been better for the government to reset Japan-Taiwan relations and “team-up,” especially in light of Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte’s poorly-calculated tilt to China, and a possible power shuffle to the south of both Japan and Taiwan.

Both states are now staring out the window of real political and social (even economic) opportunity and are well-positioned to (re-)increase their bilateral diplomatic relations. Since China is becoming political and militarily emboldened, increasing its military budgets, and expanding its (maritime) reach beyond the first island chain, Japan and Taiwan ought to begin collaborating to, at least, provide some counterweight to China’s (unchecked) rise. It would be a sign that others in the area are willing to work together, to look to other states within the region to form group that would stand-against China or even the US. Cooperation accordingly can signal that actors other than China and the US form collective cores in the region.

A sea of change has been taking place in Japan’s security and defense posture with some arguing that Japan is (re-)militarizing based most likely on necessity. We have seen striking increases in its military spending and efforts to reinterpret the famed Article 9 so as to possess broader (military) authority, as well as an augmentation in its area of strategic operations. Japan might now aspire to be a regional security actor, which aims to exercise power far abroad.

The possibility of Japanese navy patrols in the SCS – missions to the south would in effect be the first time that Japan would operate beyond its borders since its military expansion during predominantly during the 1930 and 1940 when Japan’s giant battleships and aircraft carriers marauded shipping and land-bases – is just an initial indication of how Japan will become a greater regional security actor. Such a relationship could be based on (further) military exchanges, joint training exercises, possible intelligence sharing and an opening of military facilities – particularly Taiwan’s naval assets – to the Japanese Self Defense Forces (JSDF).

The development of Japan’s 5th generation jet – the Mitsubishi X-2 Shinshin – and Japan’s general expertise in robotics could likewise be of great utility for the Taiwan government and defense establishment: Recently it has sought to acquire block C/D upgrades for its fleet of F-16s, unsuccessfully so, however, and as result it has considered developing new indigenous fighter jets.

As Japan has hinted about its aims to sell its new 5th generation future fighter abroad, Taiwan stepped firmly into the position of acquiring its next generation of fighter jets. Taiwan has already developed UAVs of various size and capabilities. A turn to drones is part-and-parcel to a new collective self-defense. This is an area that Taiwan knows very well and have been used to buttress Taiwan’s defense capabilities and readiness while at the same time building a competitive edge in a number of Taiwan’s industries, like software and machinery, among others.

Last year, Taiwan unveiled its new heavy-endurance drone at a weapons and defense trade show. The Medium Altitude Long Endurance (MALE) drone is some of the most advanced drone technology in the world. Similarly, Taiwan’s Aeronautical Systems Research Division (ASRD) – part of the National Chung-Shan Institute of Science and Technology (NCSIST) – sported its “Tan An” Coastal Defense Rocket system. The unmanned system features extensive deployment flexibility and can be placed in distant locations (on Japan’s remote islands, for example) that could lie at the center of future conflict and act as the fuse to regional war.

Beyond the conventional realm, possible defense cooperation could be extended into the cyber world as well. Taiwan possesses significant expertise and knowledge in cyber security, particularly in cyber defense, with a thorough understanding, knowledge, and expertise on China’s cyber dynamics. Given Japan’s limited effectiveness in cyber defense, its status as a relative late-comer to the “cyber party,” and that it has sought to increase its cyber capabilities, we ought to expect that a profound interest within the Japanese government exists for cyber cooperation – on both military and civil levels.

But cooperation between Japan and Taiwan cannot be predicated on countering the rise of China alone, nor is it the only reason for the two states to work together. Taiwan has demonstrated active interest in the SCS for some time. Part of its exemplary history in the region is situated in the context of the immediate post-2004 Indian Ocean earthquake/tsunami relief operations. Taiwan surpassed all other nations in its assistance (approximately $165 million USD, which stands in stark contrast to Washington’s $125 million USD and China’s  $4 million USD) there and to Japan in the aftermath of its nuclear disaster (Fukushima Daiichi) in 2011.

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Indeed, this was a measure that preceded the Tsai government but set in motion rather inadvertently the necessary ground in which to cultivate a new relationship. Public assistance does not represent the entire spectrum of Taiwanese assistance in these two situations. Indeed, a major contribution came from the private sector. There is more to Japan-Taiwan cooperation than military and defense concerns. Cooperation in the interim can lead to solid foundations for future governments in both countries to increasingly approach the future of East Asia, and South East Asia’s security and non-traditional security threats (NSTs) that might be restrained with greater ease in the spirit of multilateral cooperation rather than unilateral approach.

*This op-ed piece was co-authored with Tobias J. Burgers.

Tobias J. Burgers is a Doctoral Researcher at the Otto Suhr Institute, Free University Berlin, from which he holds a Master’s in Political Science. His research interests include the impact of cyber and robotic technology on security dynamics, East-Asian security relations, maritime security and the future of conflict. Email:

Dr. Scott N. Romaniuk completed his PhD at the School of International Studies, University of Trento. He holds an MRes in Political Research, an MA in Terrorism, Crime and Global Security, and an MA in Military Studies (Joint Warfare). His teaching and research specializations include International Relations, Military and Strategic Studies, Security Studies, Terrorism and Political Violence, and Research Methods. He is a Senior Research Affiliate with the Canadian Network for Research on Terrorism, Security and Society (TSAS) and a member of the Conflict, Terrorism and Development (CTD) Collaboratory at Michigan State University.

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