Tokyo, Japan – The Japanese government has injected itself into the increasingly tense confrontation in the Taiwan Strait.
Last Friday, Japan sent to Taiwan 1.24 million doses of the AstraZeneca jab COVID-19, after Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen accused China of blocking the territory’s access to vaccines amid its worst coronavirus outbreak since the pandemic began.
Beijing considers Taiwan – a self-governing island located 161km (100 miles) off the Chinese coast – as part of its territory and has not ruled out the use of force to achieve its goal. She has taken an increasingly assertive stance since Tsai was first elected in 2016, saying she wants independence for the island’s 23.6 million people, and tensions have risen as traditional allies, including the United States, have come together to support Taiwan.
Japan has taken a quieter approach for decades.
But with the growth of China’s economic and military power and its continuing challenge to Japanese sovereignty over the Senkaku Islands, known to the Chinese as the Diaoyutai Islands, the Tokyo government is shifting.
“Japanese conservatives have really exploited the Taiwan issue as a way to draw lines with the Chinese,” said Daniel Sneider, a professor of East Asian Studies at Stanford University.
The rise of China has troubled many in Japan.
In recent years, Beijing has become increasingly assertive in the Asia-Pacific region, showing its military power in the East China Sea and the South China Sea to support its maritime and territorial claims at sea. in dispute.
Taiwan, which also claims the South China Sea, has also done so feel the warmth of Beijing.
Last year, the Chinese military sent fighter jets into the island’s airspace almost daily, with 25 Chinese military aircraft flying on April 12th.
“Interest in Taiwan’s security”
In an attempt to counter China’s growing weight, Japan is establishing security ties with countries such as Australia and India, and strengthening its alliance with the United States, which also sees Beijing as a competitor. strategic.
When U.S. President Joe Biden and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga met in Washington, DC, in April, China was the first focus of their discussions. And for the first time in more than half a century, the common statement of the leaders included a reference to “The Importance of Peace and Stability Across the Taiwan Strait.”
Also, when Japan’s defense minister published a draft of his annual “white paper” last month, he mentioned the Taiwan issue for the first time.
“The stability of the situation surrounding Taiwan is important for the security of Japan and the stability of the international community,” the draft document said.
Beijing has condemned the Japanese-US position on Taiwan as interfering in its internal affairs, accusing the two countries of “coming together to form cliques and clash with the blocs.” Chinese officials have also previously described their concerns about their military and economic influence as part of a “Cold War mentality” they seek to contain.
It is in this broad context that Japan, which once ruled Taiwan as a colony, jumped to the aid of the island while struggling to secure the supply of the coronavirus vaccine.
As Sneider put it, “It’s about proving that Japan has an interest in the de facto independence and security of Taiwan. It’s that simple.”
Beijing has denounced Japan’s moves.
When the first Tokyo reports thinking of sending vaccines to Taipei emerged in late May, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin responded abruptly. “We are firmly against those who exploit the pandemic to make political appearances or even intrude on China’s internal affairs,” he said. “I have noticed that Japan can almost ensure an adequate supply of vaccines at home.”
He added: “I want to emphasize that vaccine care must be restored to its original purpose, which is to save lives, and it must not be reduced to a tool to win selfish policies.”
Wang’s argument that politics be involved was not completely wrong.
Several reports in both the Japanese and Taiwanese media have highlighted the role that former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, a longtime “Chinese hawk” had played in accelerating the delivery of vaccines to Taiwan.
In the June 3 report, the Sankei Shinbun newspaper said that Abe, who resigned last September, was closely involved in the discussions and noted Taiwan’s generous donations to Japan at the time of the devastating earthquake and tsunami of 2011.
“Great victory for Taiwan”
In Taiwan, the Japanese donation was a triumph for the Tsai government.
Tsai, who has received worldwide praise for his treatment of the pandemic first, angers the public after sudden surge in COVID-19 infections which began last month. To date, the island has recorded 11,968 infections and 333 deaths, the vast majority of which were reported last month.
With less than 3 percent of the Taiwanese public vaccinated, anger is growing over the lack of COVID-19 jabs.
Taiwan says the crisis has been exacerbated by China.
On May 26, Tsai accused China of using its influence to block a large delivery of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.
Beijing has denied the claim, saying Taiwan had actually refused to accept its vaccine offer. Wang, a spokesman for China’s foreign minister, also accused the Tsai’s Progressive Democratic Party (DPP) of giving priority to “political manipulation over anti-epidemic cooperation.”
Lev Nachman, a visiting scholar at Taiwan National University, said the DPP had a dilemma.
“The reality is that Taiwan needs vaccines,” he said, “and the Catch-22 is that the DPP government cannot really politically allow it to take vaccines from the PRC.”
If the DPP, supporting independence, were to return to the continent for help, he noted, it could undermine the legitimacy of the party as a self-governing force.
But “taking vaccines from Japan is much less politically charged than taking vaccines from the PRC, which is, of course, a major victory for Taiwan,” Nachman said.
In addition, the process of bringing vaccines from Japan has allowed several rival DPP politicians to make a rare show of unity, noting that they had acted responsibly for the benefit of the people – even if the authorities Taiwanese still have some distance to go to secure vaccines. for the entire population of the island.
Even supporters of the friendly opposition party in Beijing, the Kuomintang, they feel “quiet appreciation” for Japan, Nachman said.
Many Taiwanese have even taken to social media to show their gratitude when the news of the Japanese donation came. Many people have posted pictures of themselves traveling to Japan in the pre-pandemic era as a means to demonstrate their appreciation and closeness to their northern island neighbors, according to Brian Chee-Shing Hioe, editor of New Bloom, an online magazine that covers youth culture and politics in Taiwan and the Asia-Pacific.
Hioe also weighed in on the broader strategic context, noting that Japan’s donation was followed a couple of days later by a U.S. commitment. 750,000 doses.
“The United States is coordinating this behind the scenes,” Hioe said, “to cement this relationship between Japan and Taiwan, which is useful for regional security, for American purposes.”