Last Friday, Japan sent Taiwan 1.24 million doses of AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 jab, after Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen accused China of blocking the territory’s access to vaccines amid its worst coronavirus outbreak since the pandemic began.
Japan has for decades taken a quieter approach.
But with China’s growing economic and military might and its continuing challenge to Japanese sovereignty over the Senkaku Islands, known to the Chinese as the Diaoyutai Islands, the government in Tokyo is changing tack.
“The Japanese conservatives have really seized upon the Taiwan issue as a way of drawing lines with the Chinese,” said Daniel Sneider, lecturer in East Asian Studies at Stanford University.
China’s rise has worried many in Japan.
In recent years, Beijing has become increasingly assertive in the Asia Pacific region, showcasing its military might in the East China Sea and the South China Sea to back its maritime and territorial claims in the disputed seas.
Taiwan, which also lays claim to the South China Sea, has also felt the heat from Beijing.
Over the past year, the Chinese military has sent fighter jets into the island’s airspace on a near-daily basis, with 25 Chinese military aircraft flying through on April 12.
‘Interest in Taiwan’s security’
In a bid to counter China’s growing clout, Japan is forging security ties with countries like Australia and India, and reinforcing 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 the top focus of their talks. And for the first time in more than half a century, the leaders’ joint statement included a reference to “the importance of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait”.
“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 condemned the Japan-US stance on Taiwan as interference in its internal affairs, accusing the two countries of “ganging up to form cliques and fanning bloc confrontation”. Chinese officials have also previously described concerns over its military and economic clout as part of a “Cold War mentality” that seeks to contain it.
It is in this broad context that Japan, which once ruled Taiwan as a colony, jumped to the island’s aid as it scrambled to secure supplies of the coronavirus vaccine.
As Sneider put it, “It’s about demonstrating that Japan has an interest in the continued de facto independence and security of Taiwan. It’s that simple.”
Beijing has denounced Japan’s moves.
When the first reports of Tokyo considering sending vaccines to Taipei emerged in late May, Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Wang Wenbin responded sharply. “We are firmly against those who exploit the pandemic to put on political shows or even meddle in China’s internal affairs,” he said. “I’ve noticed that Japan can barely ensure adequate supply of vaccines at home.”
He added, “I would like to stress that vaccine assistance should be restored to its origin purpose, which is to save lives, and should not be reduced to a tool for selfish political gains.”
Wang’s contention that politics are involved was not entirely misplaced.
Several reports in both the Japanese and Taiwanese media highlighted the role that former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, a longtime “China hawk,” had played in expediting the delivery of the vaccines to Taiwan.
Reporting on June 3, the Sankei Shinbun newspaper said Abe, who stepped down 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.
‘Major win for Taiwan’
In Taiwan, the Japanese donation was a triumph for Tsai’s government.
Tsai, who received global praise for her handling of the pandemic early on, is facing public anger after a sudden surge in COVID-19 infections that began last month. To date, the island has recorded 11,968 infections and 333 deaths, of which the vast majority were reported in the past month.
With less than 3 percent of the Taiwanese public vaccinated, anger is growing over the shortage of COVID-19 jabs.
Taiwan says the crisis has been compounded 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, however, and says Taiwan had in fact refused to accept its offer of vaccines. Wang, the spokesman for the Chinese foreign ministry, also accused Tsai’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) of prioritising “political manipulation over anti-epidemic cooperation”.
Lev Nachman, a visiting scholar at the National Taiwan University, said the DPP faced a dilemma.
“The reality is that Taiwan needs vaccines,” he said, “and the Catch-22 is that the DPP government really can’t politically afford to take vaccines from the PRC.”
If the independence-leaning DPP were to turn to the mainland for help, he noted, it could undermine the party’s own legitimacy as a self-governing force.
But “by taking vaccines from Japan, that’s much less politically loaded than taking vaccines from the PRC, which is, of course, a major win for Taiwan,” said Nachman.
Moreover, the process of bringing in the vaccines from Japan allowed various rival DPP politicians to make a rare show of unity, signalling that they had acted responsibly for the benefit of the people – although Taiwanese authorities still have quite some distance to go to secure vaccines for the island’s entire population.
Even the supporters of the Beijing-friendly opposition party, the Kuomintang, are feeling “quiet appreciation” for Japan, said Nachman.
Many Taiwanese also took to social media to show their gratitude when news of the Japanese donation came. Several people posted photos of themselves travelling in Japan in the pre-pandemic era as a means to demonstrate their appreciation for and closeness with their northern island neighbours, according to Brian Chee-Shing Hioe, editor of New Bloom, an online magazine covering youth culture and politics in Taiwan and the Asia-Pacific.
Hioe also weighed in on the wider strategic context, noting that Japan’s donation was followed a couple of days later by a US pledge of a further 750,000 doses.
“The US was coordinating this behind the scenes,” Hioe asserted, “to cement this relation between Japan and Taiwan, which is useful for regional security, for American purposes.”