A delegation of Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan lawmakers spent four days in Taiwan last month, engaging with government officials, political parties and key opinion leaders on trade and security issues.
Led by Lower House lawmaker Aoyama Yamato, the delegation also included Ayaka Shiomura from the House of Councilors and Upper House lawmakers Kentaro Genma, Kazuma Nakatani and Katsuhiko Yamada.
This delegation was unique for several reasons and demonstrated how bilateral ties can be beneficial when such exchanges are viewed as independent of Taiwan’s government or political parties.
Most parliamentary delegations who visit Taiwan do so either at the behest of the island’s Foreign Ministry and its representative offices overseas or at the invitation of nongovernment organizations in Taiwan controlled and funded by the Taiwan government. In this case, a nonpartisan NGO in Taiwan, the Asia Pacific Youth Association, invited the delegation and arranged the Jan. 16 itinerary.
In Taiwan, the ruling party of the day often seeks to control the discourse on matters of foreign affairs — to the point where it often calls on visiting politicians to refrain from engaging with opposition parties. Such behavior is unhealthy in a democracy and civil society organizations should be free to engage with foreign governments or lawmakers.
The delegation’s visit expanded Taiwan’s exposure to lawmakers outside of the Liberal Democratic Party, the ruling party in Japan with which President Tsai Ing-wen’s administration and Taiwan’s Democratic Progressive Party have already developed strong ties. In recent years, the LDP and DPP have held several one-on-one forums, and numerous Japanese delegations, mostly composed of LDP members, have visited Taiwan.
During the LDP’s 2021 presidential race, Tsai spoke with candidate Sanae Takaichi in a video conference call, an unusual intervention by a foreign leader in the LDP’s leadership race.
Then-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe exchanged messages with Tsai on social media in April 2020 and, after he stepped down from office, held several video conferences with audiences in Taiwan (including a one-on-one event with Tsai) and made supportive statements about Taiwan. Abe’s assassination in July 2022 was followed by an outpouring of grief in Taiwan led by DPP politicians.
The Tsai administration’s focus on the LDP follows its pattern of building closer relations with conservative political parties in Australia, Canada and the United States. While this is understandable because conservatives are generally outspoken on China, a broader base of supporters in key partner countries can only make Taiwan safer.
However, the DPP’s emphasis on relations with the LDP has not necessarily resulted in substantive agreements beyond organizational name changes and flags flying, despite Tsai saying relations have continued to grow stronger over the past few years when she met visiting Japan-Taiwan Exchange Association chief Mitsuo Ohashi last December. Thus, exchanges with political parties beyond the LDP might help Taiwan achieve some of the policy goals it has with Japan.
Taiwan has called for a bilateral security dialogue but, for Japan, even sending a civilian defense official to its de facto embassy in Taipei has proved controversial. Politicians in Taiwan have long expressed hope that the Diet would pass a law similar to the United States’ Taiwan Relations Act so as to provide a legal basis for bilateral relations, but such legislation has yet to come to fruition.
The independently-governed island seeks Japan’s support for entry into the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, but Taiwan’s decision to end a ban on food from the Fukushima region didn’t achieve the intended trade off yet. In the maritime space, Taiwan has not joined other Pacific nations in criticizing the upcoming discharge of treated water from Fukushima, but Japan hasn’t made concessions in a dispute over overlapping exclusive economic zones.
Candidates in Taiwan’s January 2024 presidential election will also hope Japan follows precedent and allows candidates to visit Tokyo, which China is sure to oppose.
With Tsai now in her final 18 months in office, broader support in Japan’s legislature beyond the DPP-LDP relationship increases the potential for progress on these issues, and should be encouraged by governments and civil society in both Japan and Taiwan.