OPINION | The Taiwan Paradox in Sino-Japanese Relations: DPP Factor, Concerns and Implications
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OPINION | The Taiwan Paradox in Sino-Japanese Relations: DPP Factor, Concerns and Implications

By Amrita Jash
Editor-in-Chief, IndraStra Global

OPINION | The Taiwan Paradox in Sino-Japanese Relations: DPP Factor, Concerns and Implications

Image Attribute: The file photo Taiwan's then main opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) Chairperson and Current Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen giving a speech before their central standing committee in Taipei, Taiwan, November 4, 2015. REUTERS/Pichi Chuang

Already undermined by history, territorial disputes, and geopolitical competition, the election of the DPP in Taiwan adds another dimension of instability in Sino-Japanese relations.   

In January 2016, Taiwan’s political apparatus changed with Democratic Progressive Party’s (DPP) landslide win over Kuomintang (KMT) in both Presidential and Legislative elections. DPP candidate Tsai Ing-wen’s victory has become a focal point of Asia-Pacific’s regional architecture, especially for China and Japan. With Tsai’s win, Japan demonstrated an interest in further deepening of cooperation, as Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe congratulated by calling Taiwan “an old friend”, while Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida in his welcoming note remarked that “Taiwan is an important partner and a precious friend of Japan”. In contrast to Japan’s warm gesture, China responded sternly by emphasizing on its “One China policy” and exhibited intolerance to any secessionist activity of ‘Taiwan independence’.  This difference in reactions to Taiwan’s pro-independence force reflects the disparity between China and Japan over Taiwan. Given these perceptual differences, Taiwan acts as a critical factor in China-Japan relations, wherein, on one hand, Beijing’s overwhelming pressure restricts Japan’s diplomatic relations with Taiwan, and on the other hand, Japan given its colonial past maintains a deep, special informal relationship with Taiwan. This asymmetry makes Taiwan a paradox in China-Japan relations.   

China’s equation with Taiwan

Since the foundation of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, China has always included Taiwan in its overall strategy. In August 1993 the Chinese government issued a White Paper titled ‘The Taiwan Question and Reunification of China’ which clearly stated that Taiwan is “an inalienable part of China” and that the Chinese government’s basic position on settlement of the Taiwan question is based on the key principle of “peaceful reunification; one country, two systems” and that “self- determination” for Taiwan is “out of the question.” From this, it is clear that Taipei is important for Beijing at the foremost to fulfill the national goal of China’s national reunification, the similar sentiments as earlier observed in the case of Hong Kong and Macao. This acts as the ideational interest of Beijing towards Taiwan.

In addition to this, Taiwan is also important for Beijing’s economic aspirations. Since its reform and opening up in 1978, Taiwan has played a very critical role in providing Beijing with capital, technology, and markets, especially in ICT, food, agro-processing, supermarket chains and others. Moreover, Taiwanese companies have been the biggest foreign investors in China. Therefore, China has heavy stakes in Taiwan’s reunification- both symbolic and significant.   

China’s Concerns Over Taiwan-Japan Relations

Taiwan is an important factor in Sino-Japanese relations. Most importantly, it acts as a destabilizing factor given the tensions involved.China’s concerns over Taiwan-Japan relations can be understood in two ways:  

First, given the historical convergence, the question of Taiwan is officially attributed to China as the “political foundation” of China-Japan relations. This is so as, with the First Sino-Japanese War (1894-95), China under the Qing dynasty ceded Taiwan to Japan under the Treaty of Shimonoseki of 1895. Taiwan was ruled by Japan for fifty years until 1945. Taiwan was then returned to the Republic of China (ROC) under the Cairo Proclamations and Potsdam Proclamations. With the foundation of Communist-led PRC in1949, Taiwan under ROC has become a bone of contention. It is this historical linkage, that contributes to China’s distrustful image of Japan over Taiwan. Thus, the Treaty of Shimonoseki that ceded Taiwan to Japan, acts as the first step in contributing to the estrangement of Taiwan from mainland China, therefore, acting as a major setback in China’s relations with Japan.

Second, the political fracture, which rests on Japan’s ambivalence on Taiwan. Although Japan politically accepts China’s “One China policy” its actions create a dichotomy. Japan maintains a cordial relation with Taiwan, which just falls short of any form of political ties. To say so, as there exists: 

(a) a strong trade partnership between Tokyo and Taipei, which came into existence after signing the 1952 Treaty of Peace between Republic of China (ROC) and Japan. To an extent that Japan even played a key financial role in ROC’s economic development. Having high economic interdependence, Japan is Taiwan’s second largest trading partner, while for Japan, Taiwan is the fifth largest trading partner. 

(b) Lee Teng-hui, Taiwan’s former President (1988-2000), built strong links with Japan. He promoted Taiwan in Japan with his charisma, Japanese education background and fluency in Japanese- which acted as positive factors in strengthening ties between Taiwan and Japan. That is, below the leadership level, Taiwan-Japan relations were fostered by extensive political networks which supplemented the lack of official ties. This played a pivotal role in resurfacing Taiwan problem in Sino-Japanese relations. As Lee’s pragmatic diplomacy under golfing visits to Japan affected China’s sensitivities about Japan’s interests in Taiwan and also endangered China’s reunification goal. Therefore, Lee-Japan equation became a concern for China as it posed a threat to Beijing’s “One China” policy. 

(c) the democratization of Taiwan- a strong convergence point between Taiwan and Japan, which acted as a basis for expanding bilateral ties. Japan’s support for Taiwan’s independence runs in contrast to Beijing’s “One China policy”.

(d) the security factor, wherein China’s concerns over Japan boils down to the need for a certainty that Japan would not side with the United States in the event of a confrontation over Taiwan. In addition, Taiwan and Japan’s cooperative efforts over disputed Diaoyu/Senkaku islands also unnerve China. Thus, these political dichotomies raise China’s concerns over Japan’s intentions on Taiwan.   

Given these perspectives, Taiwan acts as a destabilizing factor in Sino-Japanese relations as it deeply affects Beijing’s “One China” principle as well as its goal of peaceful reunification with Taiwan.

DPP in Taiwan: A Concern for China

Given DPP’s pro-independence policy, Beijing-Taipei relations is likely to witness shifts in the existing status quo. What concerns Beijing are: 

First, DPP’s pro-independence attitude poses the primary challenge to China’s 1992 Consensus on the “One China Policy”. This is already witnessed as China has recently suspended communications with Taiwan after Tsai’s Government failed to acknowledge the concept that there is only “one China”. Second, the gap in identities vis-a-vis Taiwanese versus Chinese is likely to increase given the rise in Taiwan’s nationalist spirit. Third, DPP’s independent policy will replace KMT’s pro-China tilt. Thus, Taiwan’s heavy economic dependency on China will get diversified under DPP’s pro-independence strategy. And finally, Taiwan’s democratic approach will strengthen its relations with the United States and Japan. This Taipei-Tokyo-Washington nexus can act as a strong countervailing force against China in Asia-Pacific- raising security and strategic concerns for Beijing. Thus, with DPP at power, the Cross-Strait relations are likely to witness systemic changes- fuelling tensions between the island and the mainland.

DPP in Taiwan: Implications for China-Japan relations

With DPP at power, Taiwan-Japan relations will significantly impact China-Japan relations. As Taiwan’s stronger leaning towards Japan under DPP’s new leadership will impact Beijing’s assertive choices. The causal factors that make Taiwan an irritant to the present China-Japan dynamics are:

First, politically, the increase in Japan’s pro-Taiwan forces, the so-called “Taiwan lobby” of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) in the Japanese Diet will consolidate with the DPP-led pro-democratic force, thus, strengthening Taiwan’s call for separate identity from China. This democratic tie-up significantly challenges Beijing’s “One China policy”. This strategic bond calls for significant ramifications on Beijing’s “One China principle”, which is a sensitive factor in Beijing’s diplomatic relationship with Tokyo.

Secondly, economically, Taipei and Tokyo economic ties, which is based on “mutual complementarity and win-win relationship” is likely to get stronger under DPP. The expanding economic ties between Taipei and Tokyo will broaden the scope of Taipei’s trade and also minimize Taiwan’s over-dependence on China.

Thirdly, strategically, both Taiwan and Japan demonstrate cooperation on contentious issues such as Diaoyu/Senkaku islands dispute. For instance, in April 2013, Taiwan under KMT and Japan signed the Fisheries Agreement bypassing China’s issue of sovereignty, which makes it easier for DPP to further the interests. In addition, both share a commitment to defending international law, democratic systems, and the U.S.-led alliance network in the Asia-Pacific. Thus, strong DPP-Japan relations runs in contrast to Beijing’s strategic interests and imposes security concerns for Beijing in Asia-Pacific.

Therefore, DPP led Taiwan’s ties with Japan runs in contrast to Beijing’s strong stakes on Taiwan. With DPP at power, Taipei-Tokyo equation is bound to get stronger given their democratic outlook which binds them closer, if not weak. Thus, this makes Taiwan a potent factor in China-Japan relations given their respective interests with Taipei.


The parallel dynamics between China-Taiwan-Japan holds implications for both bilateral relations as well as Asia-Pacific regional architecture. Taiwan acts as a sensitive element between China and Japan- the two major players in the region. The clash of interests over Taiwan significantly impacts the bilateral relationship, and thus, the regional stability. In this view, Taiwan acts as a critical paradox in Sino-Japanese relations, and most importantly, DPP’s progressive outlook further complicates the relationship.

About the Author:

Amrita Jash (TR RID K-5665-2015), is Editor-in-Chief of IndraStra Global and is a Doctoral Research Scholar at the Centre for East Asian Studies (Chinese Division), School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University.

Cite this Article:

Jash, A. "OPINION | The Taiwan Paradox in Sino-Japanese Relations: DPP Factor, Concerns, and Implications" IndraStra Global Vol.02, Issue No: 12 (2016), 0022 http://www.indrastra.com/2016/12/OPINION-The-Taiwan-Paradox-in-Sino-Japanese-Relations-002-12-2016-0022.html | ISSN 2381-3652

AIDN0021220160022 / INDRASTRA / ISSN 2381-3652