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Japan eyes stronger ties with Taiwan following Tsai's election

The Japanese government has generally welcomed the election of Democratic Progressive Party leader Tsai Ying-wen as Taiwan's new president, predicting that Japan-Taiwan relations will improve from those seen under the administration of Nationalist President Ma Ying-jeou, who adopted a hard-line stance.

    At the same time, however, there are concerns that relations between Taiwan and mainland China could grow tense, as Tsai's Democratic Progressive Party has strong aspirations for independence, and Japan intends to keep its eyes on Tsai's political dexterity as she moves to form a new administration.

    Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida released a comment congratulating Tsai on her victory in the recent presidential election.

    "Taiwan is an important partner that shares basic values. We will work to further deepen cooperation and exchange as part of a working relationship on a nongovernmental basis," Kishida stated.

    A source close to the Japanese government expressed hope that Japan-Taiwan relations would improve from their present position. A Japanese Foreign Ministry official noted that the Ma administration had gone ahead and placed emphasis on historical issues including the Senkaku Islands and the issue of so-called "comfort women."

    Japan broke off relations with Taiwan in 1972 when it normalized relations with mainland China, but strong economic ties persist, and travel between Japan and Taiwan thrives.

    The Ma administration adopted a stance of placing importance on relations between Taiwan and Japan, but it made a territorial claim on Okinawa Prefecture's Senkaku Islands and in August 2012 requested that Japan, Taiwan and mainland China jointly develop resources around the islands. He furthermore spoke of the comfort women issue as a "grave war crime violating human rights" and demanded that Japan apologize to those who were comfort women and provide compensation. His stance on these issues was stronger than that of previous administrations.

    Within the Japanese government, there are views that the Tsai administration, in contrast, will be more pro-Japanese. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is believed to have contacted Tsai when she came to Japan last autumn, and his brother, former Senior Vice Foreign Minister Nobuo Kishi, invited Tsai to his home prefecture of Yamaguchi. However, if Taiwan boosts its aspirations for independence, then its relations with mainland China could become tense.

    "Cross-Strait tension would have a large negative impact on the Japanese economy," a Foreign Ministry official worried.

    At the same time, an official in Japan's Self-Defense Forces commented, "If the level of cross-Strait tension increases relative to what was seen under the Ma administration, then China's movements in the East China and South China seas are likely to diminish accordingly."

    Not only does Taiwan lie in a Japanese sea lane, it faces the Bashi Channel, an important Pacific Ocean access point for China, and its location is strategically important for Japan and the United States in terms of security. Japan hopes to leverage the Japan-U.S. alliance to draw nearer to Taiwan.

    "Drawing Taiwan closer to Japan and the United States will lead to deterrence against China" a Japanese Defense Ministry official commented.


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