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Mainstream, VOL LVIII No 46, New Delhi, October 31, 2020

Japan: Suga’s choice of pro-Taiwan Kishi as Defence Minister could impact ties with China | Rajaram Panda

Saturday 31 October 2020


by Rajaram Panda

After Yoshihide Suga succeeded Abe Shinzo as Japan’s Prime Minister and formed his Cabinet, he chose Nobuo Kishi as his defence minister. Suga’s choice of Kishi has sparked diplomatic curiosity and discussion about his likely Taiwan policy. Known for his Taiwan-friendly stance, his policy could have significant implications on Japan’s relations with China and a clear departure from Abe’s accommodative position, notwithstanding the perceived threat that its giant neighbour poses to Japan.

Kishi is the younger brother of Abe and is perceived to be pro-Taiwan as were his father Shintaro Abe and grandfather and former Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi. Kishi was adopted by his uncle when he was a child and therefore his last name differs from Abe’s. Earlier, under the strong influence of Toshihiro Nikai, Secretary-general of the Liberal Democratic Party and perceived to be pro-China, Suga had given the impression that he was averse to “China containment” strategy but such an impression was dispelled when he choose Kishi as his defence minister. While China is wary of Suga’s choice of Kishi as his defence minister, Taiwan is happy. Seen differently, there would not be a major departure from Abe’s Taiwan policy during Suga’s dispensation.

Suga’s choice to pick to head the defence portfolio is interesting. Though Suga kept many top ministers that served in Abe’s Cabinet such as Taro Aso as Deputy Prime Minister and Toshimitsu Motegi as foreign minister, he reshuffled some of them but choose Kishi over some others with more experience in the defence matter. Kishi, who was secretary general of an all-party group of Diet members, is known to be promoting friendly ties with Taiwan. By doing so, Suga has put China under watch.

Two days before his appointment as defence minister, Kishi had said that Japan’s relations with Taiwan should “basically be in accord with Japan-China Joint Declaration of 1972”. After his appointment, Kishi remarked that Japan’s ties with Taiwan have been maintained on a non-governmental and working level basis and that he would “handle things appropriately on this basis”. In this context, it may be recalled that in January 2020, as reported in a monthly magazine Seiron, Kishi had advocated pursuing security and defense cooperation between Japan and Taiwan. In that opinion piece, Kishi had observed that Japan “must by all means advance a Japan-Taiwan security dialogue”, and that there should be three-way communication on defence involving Japan, the United States and Taiwan.

The media in Taiwan was overjoyed over Kishi’s appointment as Japan’s defence minister and hopeful that he shall work towards strengthening Japan-Taiwan ties in the security realm. Another related development that needs close look is that when former Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori visited Taiwan, he reportedly told President Tsai that given an opportunity, Suga could make a telephone call to her. Because of the sensitivity and not to inflame ties with China, Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato denied any such speculation. Kishi’s warm and pro-Taiwan stance can also be traced to an incident back in October 2015

Nevertheless, something similar happened five years ago in an incident in which Kishi was involved. When Tsai was in Tokyo in October 2015 with the head of Japan’s “Interchange Association”, the organisation that acts as the main window for Japan-Taiwan ties, presumably Abe and Kishi were too present and engaged in unofficial contact, though that time it was denied owing to sensitivity of such a meeting. If one connects the dots then with now, it would transpire that Japan’s old Taiwan policy is on track.

Whether Suga made a telephone call or not to Tsai is irrelevant but the fact that former Prime Minister Mori mentioned to this possibility does convey Japan’s outlook on Taiwan and that it would convey a strong message to China. Suga just cannot overlook the fundamental values that Japan and Taiwan share and this would motivate Suga to deepen defence cooperation between the countries as Chinese belligerence in the regional affairs becomes unstoppable. The recent Quad meeting of the foreign ministers of four democracies of India, the United States, Japan and Australia that Japan hosted can be seen from this perspective and thus another strategic milestone in the Indo-Pacific region.

China is always sensitive when it comes to the sovereignty issue. Even in India it reacted strongly when some Indian media put advertisement along with photograph of Tsai congratulating Taiwan’s National Day on 10 October reminding that the media should stick to the position of the Indian government of One China policy. India rebutted the Chinese embassy’s advice, reminding it that media is free in India and free to report the way it likes. Beijing was further irked when Tsai released a statement thanking the Indian people and their commitment to India-Taiwan friendship.

No wonder, Beijing greeted with disappointment with Suga’s choice of Kishi as his defence minister as it sent a discreet warning that Japan-China ties could nosedive. In an indirect warning to Japan, the Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin cautioned that “the Japanese side will abide by the one-China principle and refrain from any form of official exchanges with the Taiwan region”.

Beijing has not overlooked the fact that Kishi visited Taiwan in September 2020 for a memorial in honour of the late Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui and met the current President Tsai. Kishi’s visit coincided with the visit of the US Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar at the same time. China took these twin visits as slap.

Kishi is not bothered that China does not take such diplomatic signals kindly and gets paranoid easily. To reassert his position, he endorsed the views of his predecessor, outgoing Defence Minister Taro Kono that China has become a security threat to Japan. From all indicators, it transpires that Kishi would not only go along with the policy of his brother’s administration but shall do so more vigorously. While bolstering ties with the Quad member states, Japan is also concerned with China’s incursions into Japan’s surrounding areas and rising tensions on the Senkaku Islands issue.

Earlier in 2016, in an interview with Liberty Times, a sister newspaper of the Taipei Times, Kishi then State Minister for Foreign Affairs in Abe’s Cabinet, had urged stronger Taiwan-US-Japan ties. He had reiterated his pro-Taiwan stance by remarking that “Taiwan shares common values, maintains close economic and personal ties with Japan, and is an important friend”. He went further by saying that by bolstering trilateral relations between Japan, the US and Taiwan, the three democratic nations can work towards stable developments of cross-strait relations. The fact that the annual exchange of visitors between the two has repeatedly broken records, with the number of visitors exchanged in 2016 exceeded 6 million person-visits demonstrates the significance both attach to people-to-people contact.

In February 2016, when a major earthquake hit southern Taiwan and then in April Japan had a similar earthquake in Kumamoto area, both provided mutual assistance towards each other. The empathy and concern during difficult times demonstrates were shared by the governments and societies in both countries. Such cordiality has also facilitated deepening ties in the fields of economy and culture. Both sides are committed to further this momentum. Japan was happy in Tsai’s choice to appoint former National Security Council secretary-general Chiou I-jen and former premier Frank Hsieh as the president of the Association of East Asia Relations AEAR) and representative to Japan’s Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office respectively. Japan saw Taiwan’s deep commitment to improve bilateral ties by appointing such illustrious individuals to such important offices. Kishi underlined the importance of maintaining regional peace and stability and that Taiwan and Japan are committed to work together. Such a partnership would also contribute to the development of stable cross-strait relations.

As defence minister now, there is a possibility that Kishi would adopt a framework similar to US-Taiwan Relations Act as the National Diet has done some research on this concept already. Cooperation on the Trans-Pacific Partnership idea was another issue that both sides wanted to work on but after the US pull out, Japan is trying to salvage in another form. If it fructifies, this could see another dimension in Japan-Taiwan relations.

Food safety issue on which Taiwan is concerned about is the bane of disagreements on the export of food products from Gunma, Tochigi, Ibaraki and China prefectures. Japan explained that food both for domestic market and export go through stringent inspections before it is sold and therefore Taiwan need not have any concern on safety issue. The bottom line is that Japan would look for export market only when there is surplus and in excess for domestic consumption. On Taiwan’s side, it is desirable that it takes cognizance of the fact that product-origin certification issued by private organisations and government departments in Japan provide credible proof of the products’ safety. Japan expects Taiwan to approach food safety issue based on the principles of free-market economics and not see from the prism of politics.

Earlier, Japan worked to balance its economic interests and security concerns with Beijing. That position changed owing to two recent developments. First, Chinese incursions in the contested East China Sea over Senkaku islands heightened tensions. Then the manner China handled the coronavirus led then the Abe government to make financial allocation as a part of the stimulus measure to help Japanese companies to relocate their production base from China to either back home or to nearby overseas locations such as Vietnam, Thailand and India and thus recasting the present supply chains. Now the Taiwan factor adds another dimension that could impact Japan-China relations.

China’s continuous provocative actions over the Taiwan straits have made the situation worse. China recently sent a total of 19 fighter jets, bombers and intelligence-gathering aircraft across the median line dividing the Taiwan Strait. The Chinese warplanes often enter Taiwan’s air defense identification zone, prompting Taipei to scramble fighters in response. By violating Taiwan’s sovereignty by provocative actions, Beijing has seriously damaged the status quo of peace and stability in the strait and the region. If Beijing intends to send the message to Taiwan that its actions are just rehearsals to take over Taiwan, it would be fraught with serious consequences, including a military conflict that would draw other nations in which Japan would be a partner on Taiwan’s side. It is, therefore, best advised that Beijing must desist from repeating such provocative actions and not misjudge the situation so that a larger conflict is averted. A regional conflict over the Taiwan issue would leave with debilitating consequences for not only for China or Taiwan but all nations in the Indo-Pacific region. Suga’s Taiwan’s policy and for choosing Kishi needs to be seen from this larger perspective in the Indo-Pacific context.

Dr. Panda was formerly Senior Fellow at the IDSA, New Delhi. He can be reached at rajaram.panda[at]

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