Tokyo, Japan – The Japanese government has injected itself into the increasingly tense standoff in the Taiwan Strait.
Last Friday, Japan sent to Taiwan 1.24 million doses AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 coup, 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 – an autonomous island located 161 km (100 miles) off the coast of China – as part of its territory and has not ruled out the use of force to achieve its goal. He 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 grown as a result. that traditional allies, including the United States, have rallied to support Taiwan.
Japan has for decades taken a calmer approach.
But with China’s growing economic and military might and its continued challenge to Japanese sovereignty over the Senkaku Islands, known to the Chinese as the Diaoyutai Islands, the Tokyo government is changing course.
“The Japanese conservatives have really taken hold of the Taiwan question to draw lines with the Chinese,” said Daniel Sneider, senior lecturer in East Asian studies at Stanford University.
The rise of China has worried many in Japan.
In recent years, Beijing has become increasingly assertive in the Asia-Pacific region, highlighting its military might in the East China Sea and the South China Sea to support its maritime and territorial claims in the disputed seas.
Taiwan, which also claims the South China Sea, also felt the heat of Beijing.
Over the past year, the Chinese military has sent fighter jets into the island’s airspace almost daily, with 25 Chinese military planes flying over April 12.
“Interest in the security of Taiwan”
In order to counter the growing weight of China, Japan is forging security ties with countries like Australia and India, and strengthening its alliance with the United States, which also sees Beijing as a strategic competitor.
When US President Joe Biden and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga met in Washington, DC in April, China was at the center of their discussions. And for the first time in over half a century, the leaders’ joint statement included a reference to “The importance of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait”.
Moreover, when the Japanese Defense Ministry released a draft of its annual “white paper” last month, it mentioned the Taiwan issue for the very first time.
“The stability of the situation around Taiwan is important for the security of Japan and the stability of the international community,” said the draft document.
Beijing condemned the Japanese-American stance on Taiwan as interference in its internal affairs, accusing the two countries of “coming together to form cliques and stoking the confrontation of blocs.” Chinese officials have also previously described concerns about its military and economic clout as part of a “cold war mentality” that seeks to contain it.
It was against this broad backdrop that Japan, which once ruled Taiwan as a colony, jumped to the island’s aid as it rushed to secure its coronavirus vaccine supplies.
As Sneider said, “This is to demonstrate that Japan has an interest in maintaining Taiwan’s de facto independence and security. It’s that simple. “
Beijing denounced the steps taken by Japan.
When the first reports that Tokyo was considering sending vaccines to Taipei emerged in late May, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin reacted strongly. “We are firmly against those who exploit the pandemic to make political shows or even meddle in China’s internal affairs,” he said. “I have noticed that Japan can barely ensure an adequate supply of vaccines at home.”
He added: “I would like to stress that immunization assistance must be restored to its original purpose, which is to save lives, and must not be reduced to a tool for selfish political gains. “
Wang’s assertion that politics are involved was not entirely misplaced.
Several Japanese and Taiwanese media reports highlighted the role former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, a longtime “Chinese hawk”, had played in accelerating vaccine delivery to Taiwan.
On June 3, the Sankei Shinbun newspaper said that Abe, who resigned last September, had been closely involved in the discussions and noted Taiwan’s generous donations to Japan at the time of the devastating earthquake and tsunami of 2011.
“Big victory for Taiwan”
In Taiwan, the Japanese donation was a triumph for Tsai’s government.
Tsai, who received praise from around the world for handling the pandemic early on, faces public anger after a sudden increase in COVID-19 infections which started last month. To date, the island has recorded 11,968 infections and 333 deaths, the vast majority of which have been reported in the past month.
With less than 3% of the Taiwanese public vaccinated, anger is growing over the shortage of COVID-19 jabs.
Taiwan says the crisis has been made worse by China.
On May 26, Tsai accused China of using its influence to block a major delivery of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.
Beijing denied the claim, however, and said Taiwan had in fact refused to accept its vaccine offer. Wang, the spokesperson for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, also accused Tsai’s Progressive Democratic Party (DPP) of privileging “political manipulation over anti-epidemic cooperation.”
Lev Nachman, visiting scholar at National Taiwan University, said the DPP faces a dilemma.
“The reality is that Taiwan needs vaccines,” he said, “and the trap is that the DPP government really cannot politically afford to take vaccines from the PRC.”
If the independence-backed DPP looked to the mainland for help, he noted, it could undermine the party’s own legitimacy as an autonomous force.
But “taking vaccines from Japan is a lot 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 importing vaccines from Japan allowed various rival DPP politicians to make a rare display of unity, signaling that they had acted responsibly for the good of the people – although the Taiwanese authorities still have some way to go to get vaccines. for the entire population of the island.
Even supporters of Beijing’s friendly opposition party, the Kuomintang, feel a “quiet appreciation” for Japan, Nachman said.
Many Taiwanese also took to social media to show their gratitude when news of the Japanese donation arrived. According to Brian Chee-Shing Hioe, editor of New Bloom, an online magazine covering youth culture, several people have posted photos of themselves traveling to Japan in pre-pandemic times to show their appreciation. and their proximity to their northern island neighbors. and politics in Taiwan and Asia-Pacific.
Hioe also weighed in on the broader strategic context, noting that Japan’s donation was followed days later by a US pledge of a new 750,000 doses.
“The United States was coordinating this behind the scenes,” said Hioe, “to cement this relationship between Japan and Taiwan, which is useful for regional security, for American purposes.”