The politics of Japan’s Taiwan vaccine donation

Japan quietly changed its stance on Taiwan amid growing concerns over Beijing’s economic and military might.

Tokyo, Japan – The Japanese government has injected itself into a growing tense confrontation in the Taiwan Strait.

Last Friday, Japan sent 1.24 million doses of AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 jab to Taiwan after Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen slammed the region’s access to vaccines amid the worst coronavirus outbreak since the pandemic began on China accused of blocking.

Beijing considers Taiwan as part of its territory – an autonomous island 161 km (100 miles) off the Chinese coast – and has not ruled out the use of force to achieve its goal. It has taken an increasingly outspoken stance since Sai was first elected in 2016, claiming it wants freedom for the island’s 23.6 million people, and has fueled tensions as traditional allies, including the United States , rallied to support Taiwan.

Japan has taken a calm stance for decades.

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 its stance.

“Japanese conservatives have really captured the Taiwan issue as a way to draw the line with the Chinese,” said Daniel Snyder, a 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, demonstrating its military prowess in the East China Sea and South China Sea to support its maritime and territorial claims in the disputed seas.

Taiwan, which also claims 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 an almost daily basis, with 25 Chinese military aircraft taking off on April 12.

‘Interested in Taiwan’s security’

To counter China’s growing clout, Japan is building security ties with countries such as Australia and India, and strengthening its alliance with the United States, which also sees Beijing as a strategic rival. .

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 in the Taiwan Straits.”

Additionally, when Japan’s Defense Ministry released its annual “white paper” draft last month, it mentioned the Taiwan issue for the first time.

“The stability of the situation around Taiwan is critical to the security of Japan and the stability of the international community,” the draft document said.

Beijing denounced the Japan-US stance on Taiwan as interference in its internal affairs, accusing the two countries of “grouping and promoting factional confrontation”. Chinese officials have previously described concerns over its military and economic clout as part of the “cold war mentality” it seeks to contain.

It is in this broader context that Japan, which once ruled Taiwan as a colony, jumped to the aid of the island as it scrambles to secure supplies of a coronavirus vaccine.

As Snyder put it, “It’s about demonstrating that Japan has an interest in Taiwan’s continued genuine independence and security. It’s that simple.”

Beijing has condemned this move of Japan.

When the first reports of Tokyo considering sending vaccines to Taipei surfaced in late May, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin reacted sharply. “We are against those who exploit the pandemic to make political appearances or even interfere in China’s internal affairs,” he said. “I have seen that Japan can hardly ensure an adequate supply of vaccines at home.”

“I want to emphasize that vaccine aid should be restored to its original purpose, which is to save lives, and should not be reduced to a tool for selfish political gain,” he said. “

Wang’s argument that politics is involved was not entirely wrong.

Several reports in both Japanese and Taiwanese media highlighted the role that former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, a longtime “China Hawk”, played in expediting the delivery of vaccines to Taiwan.

Reporting on June 3, the Sankei Shinbun newspaper said that Abe, who stepped down last September, was closely involved in the discussion and noted Taiwan’s generous donations to Japan at the time of the devastating 2011 earthquake and tsunami.

‘Taiwan’s big win’

In Taiwan, the Japanese were a victory for Dan Tsai’s government.

Tsai, who has been praised globally for her handling of the pandemic, 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, most of which were recorded in the past month.

There is growing anger at the lack of COVID-19 jabs, with less than 3 percent of the Taiwanese public being vaccinated.

Taiwan says that China has aggravated the crisis.

On May 26, Tsai accused China of using her influence to block a large delivery of the Pfizer-BioNtech vaccine.

However, Beijing has denied the claim, and says that Taiwan had in fact refused to accept the offer of the vaccines. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang also accused Tsai’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) of prioritizing “political manipulation over anti-epidemic cooperation”.

Lev Nachman, a visiting scholar at 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 can’t really afford to politically take vaccines from the PRC.”

If the independence-leaning DPP were to turn to the mainland for help, he said, it could undermine the party’s own legitimacy as an autonomous force.

But “by getting vaccines from Japan, it’s far less politically fraught than getting vaccines from the PRC, which is certainly a big win for Taiwan,” Nachman said.

In addition, the process of bringing in vaccines from Japan allowed various rival DPP politicians to make a rare display of unity, indicating that they acted responsibly for the benefit of the people – although Taiwanese authorities were still concerned about safe vaccines There is a considerable distance to go to for the entire population of the island.

Even supporters of Beijing’s friendly opposition, the Kuomintang, are feeling “silent admiration” for Japan, Nachman said.

When news of the Japanese donation broke, many Taiwanese also took to social media to express their gratitude. According to Brian Chi-shing Hyo, editor of New Bloom, an online magazine covering youth culture, many people traveled to Japan in the pre-pandemic era as a means of displaying their appreciation and closeness to their North Island neighbors. As pictures posted. and politics in Taiwan and the Asia-Pacific.

Hyo also noted the wider strategic context, noting that Japan’s donation was followed days later by a US pledge of another 750,000 doses.

“The US was coordinating this behind the scenes,” Hyo insisted, “to strengthen this relationship between Japan and Taiwan, which is useful for regional security for US purposes.”


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