A Taiwanese Special Forces soldier during a drill. Picture: Agencies

SEOUL – Taipei and Tokyo held unprecedented security talks on Friday, a move that prompted China’s diplomatic displeasure.

The discussions were held under a “2+2” format and attended by a pair of senior lawmakers from Taiwan’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). They took place online and lasted half an hour longer than the planned hour, according to Reuters.

The Japanese participants were Masahisa Sato, who heads the LDP’s Foreign Affairs division, and Taku Otsuka, the party’s National Defense division chair. The Taiwanese were Lo Chihcheng and Tsai Shihying, who sit on the Taipei legislature’s Foreign and National Defense Committee.

Taiwan’s DPP favors Taiwanese independence – a massive red flag for Beijing, which considers the island a renegade province. Japan’s LDP is a broad, conservative body, with a wing that is antagonistic toward China and wants to expand the role of Japan’s constitutionally shackled military. 

The talks appear to be the latest milestone in an initiative being pushed by some in the LDP to bolster ties with Taiwan.

Beijing was predictably irked.

“China firmly opposes all forms of official interactions between Taiwan and countries having diplomatic ties with China,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said after the talks. Japan should avoid interfering in China’s internal affairs and refrain from sending wrong signals to “Taiwan independence” forces, Zhao added. 

The Taiwanese, meanwhile, were keen to talk up the uniqueness of the discussions.

“Taiwan and Japan have had several parliamentary engagements,” Lai Yichung, president of the Prospect Foundation, a Taipei-based think tank, told Asia Times. “What stands out is that this was specifically on security and diplomacy…so the subject this time is very different.”

Hot-button issues

Details of the talks have not yet been released, but Sato said Friday’s dialogue would help inform the Japanese ruling party’s policymaking.

“The Taiwanese side said they had been waiting and hoping for such a dialogue. It was significant to come up with common goals between the ruling parties that can lead to government policy for both countries,” Sato said, according to Reuters.

In Taiwan, Lo and Tsai told reporters that the talks covered semiconductors, China’s nearby military activities and possible cooperation between Taiwan, Japan and the United States.

All are hot-button issues.

Since the Donald Trump administration chose chips as a key weapon in its trade offensive against China, semiconductors have been in the global spotlight. Taiwan-based TSMC is the world’s leading foundry company for high-end, bespoke chips.

China jealously guards the strategic Taiwan Strait, and frequently probes both Taiwanese and Japanese air defenses with aircraft and drones.

The United States has no defense treaty with Taiwan, but under 1979’s Taiwan Relations Act, has an informal commitment to the island. In recent, years facing a rising, increasingly competitive and more assertive China Washington has grown more vocal in its support for Taiwan.

Tsai said military exchanges were raised, but beyond mentioning possible Coast Guard cooperation, did not give details.

Experts who have spoken to Asia Times on the potential for security cooperation between Tokyo and Taipei have suggested a range of feasible options the two sides could agree on.

A Taiwanese Air Force F-16 fighter aircraft (L) flies alongside a Chinese H-6K bomber that reportedly flew over the Bashi Channel, south of Taiwan, and over the Miyako Strait, near Japan’s Okinawa Island in 2018. Photo: AFP / Taiwan Defense Ministry

The two could, for example, coordinate their intelligence, communications and responses to Chinese air intrusions in the gap between Taiwanese air space and Japan’s southern Ryukyu Islands.

A legal-logistical mechanism could be established in Japan to assure backup for Japan-based US forces if they deploy to or around Taiwan. Or, a joint Japan-US headquarters could be established, possibly on Okinawa, where the US deploys a Marine division and related assets to coordinate Japanese-US forces in regional operations.

LDP hyping Taiwan

Japan is trammeled in its foreign and military policy toward China. On the one hand, Tokyo – subject to lobbying by Japan Inc – has to be prudent in its management of relations with Beijing, its leading trade partner. On the other, its military, while increasingly powerful, faces significant constitutional restraints.

Even so, the LDP “cannot restrain the impulse of its strategic anxiety and is taking the lead in hyping the Taiwan question,” China’s state-owned Global Times said on Friday. 

That critique looks on target, given the appetite that has become apparent in recent months among some LDP members for supporting Taiwan. This tendency makes Friday’s talks look like the latest installment in an evolving process.

On April 17, Japanese Defense Minister Nobuko Kishi called Taiwan “an important friend” and stressed the importance of stability in its surrounding area.

Speaking to conservative US think tank the Hudson Institute on June 28, Deputy Defense Minister Yasuhide Nakayama was more outspoken, saying, “We have to protect Taiwan as a democratic country.”

LDP flaks, deploying customary political code, wrote off Nakayama’s statements as a “personal comment” at the time.

Japanese Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso lent rhetorical support for Taiwan. Photo: AFP / Handout / Japan Exchange Group

But on July 6, a much bigger gun, Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso said during a political fundraiser, “If a major problem took place in Taiwan, it would not be too much to say that it could relate to a survival-threatening situation” for Japan. “We need to think hard that Okinawa could be the next,” he added.

Given Aso’s high profile as a political warhorse, that statement was less easy for party PR staff to write off.

Then, on July 13, Japan released its annual Defense White Paper. The paper noted Taiwan’s stability was “important for Japan’s security,” and during a press conference attending the paper’s release, Kishi called urged Japan to keep eyes on the island with “a sense of crisis.”

On July 28, in an interview with Japanese media, Shinzo Abe, Japan’s longest-serving prime minister who stepped down last year but who is still a major LDP influencer, expressed his desire to visit the grave of Taiwan’s first popularly elected president, Lee Teng-hui, “if conditions allow.”

Abe’s grandfather, who was one of the key architects of Tokyo’s imperial policy in Manchuria, while the late Lee, a strong Japanophile, served in Japanese uniform in the closing year of World War II.

Though it is a powerhouse economy and trader, democratic Taiwan is politically isolated in both the region and the world. That is a situation millennial Japan may empathize with.

In Northeast Asia, Tokyo is increasingly arraigned against Beijing, faces historical disputes with democratic neighbor Seoul, and acts as a receiver for multiple missile tests undertaken by Pyongyang.

Taiwan and Japan share certain cozy, emotive ties. Taiwanese harbor more positive memories of Japanese colonialism than does the rest of the region, and are huge consumers of Japanese products and culture. For these reasons, many Japanese consider Taiwanese their only real friends in the region.

Even so, it’s unclear as to why the LDP is pushing the issue now.

A Taiwanese flag flies in front of Taiwan Navy ships. Photo: Central News Agency

“Partly this is because Nakayama, Aso and Kishi are predictably on the very right-wing,” Haruko Satoh, a professor at the Osaka School of International Public Policy told Asia Times. “But the other thing is there is some sober strategic discussion, on the policy level, on Taiwan.”

Still, with a national election expected in Japan in October or November, there may not be many political points to score by talking up Taiwan.

“Whether you can take this to the people and make it a public debate is another thing altogether,” Satoh added.

China has lambasted prior statements by LDP officials and earlier this week its Foreign Ministry warned Japan to stop interfering in China’s internal affairs – a reference to Taiwan.

Global Times, which can always be relied upon to put forward robust opinions, accused the LDP on Thursday of “blindly acting as a US pawn to pressure China.”

Certainly, US President Joe Biden has talked up defending Taiwan. In his summit with visiting Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga – and more surprisingly, in a separate summit with visiting South Korean President Moon Jae-in – the issue of Taiwan was publicly aired.

But if Japan is acting as a “US pawn,” as Global Times alleges, it is using customary Japanese discretion: Today’s talks were party to party, rather than ministry to ministry, granting Tokyo some diplomatic cover. 

“The Japanese government still dares not completely abandon the one-China principle, so it can only intervene in the Taiwan question in such a roundabout way,” Global Times noted.

Yet, Friday’s talks, combined with the signals of the last few months, strongly suggest a trend. Which raises the question: What next?

Taipei-Tokyo friend trend

Lai, the Taiwanese think tank president, anticipates “substantive developments” ahead.

“This dialogue will generate a certain policy impact,” Lai said, noting that Sato is highly influential on Taiwanese issues within the LDP. “The Japanese system is that usually the ruling party form its own consensus, then will try to form a consensus with its political allies, then will push it through Diet sessions and make it into law.”

The semi-official nature of the talks should not be underestimated, given those standing behind the Japanese participants.

“Although it is ‘just’ LDP representatives, they have approval from the [Yoshihide] Suga administration and presumably the relevant parts of the bureaucracy – including the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, that has always had a pro-China faction,” said Grant Newsham, a retired US Marine colonel and a strong proponent of Taiwanese defense. 

“Japanese industry and business interests – notoriously willing to placate China to assure access to the China market – haven’t managed to stop it.” 

The talks were revealed publicly, with no effort to hide them. “There is no public opposition,” Newsham said.

Against the backdrop of increasing Chinese power and a more assertive stance by President Xi Jinping, “Japan is showing backbone that would have been unthinkable five years ago,” he said.

Satoh said the LDP pro-Taiwan faction is unlikely to be acting alone. “If they are very serious, they must be consulting the Americans.”

Japanese sailors aboard the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) ship JS Hyuga direct a US Marines MV-22 Osprey to land during the Dawn Blitz 2015 exercise off the coast of Southern California. Photo: AFP / Mark Ralston

While the US is geographically and historically distant from China, Japan does not have that buffer.

The country’s concerns about China merge fear of an increasingly assertive state with long historical interactions that include multiple conflicts, from the attempted Mongolian invasions of Japan in the 13th century to the hideously bloody 1937-1945 Pacific War.

“The Americans say they are worried about the People’s Republic of China, but the Japanese have almost a visceral sense of the danger from China that is always in the background of their psyches,” Newsham said. “That comes of 2,000 years of history and being close neighbors.”