No change in stance on Taiwan, Japan clarifies

There is "no change" in Japan's position towards Taiwan, top government spokesman Katsunobu Kato said yesterday, two days after Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga stoked China's fury by calling Taiwan a "country".

Mr Kato told reporters that "there is no change in Japan's basic position of maintaining a non-governmental, practical relationship with Taiwan", in line with the 1972 Japan-China Communique.

In what seems like an accidental slip-up, Mr Suga said at a nationally televised Diet debate on Wednesday that Australia, New Zealand and Taiwan are "three countries that have imposed strong curbs on individual rights" amid the Covid-19 crisis.

The reference to Taiwan as a country (kuni or koku in Japanese) goes against the diplomatic tradition of referring to the island, which Beijing regards as a renegade breakaway province, as a region (chi-iki).

Beijing has lodged stern representations with Tokyo. On Thursday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin deplored Japan over violating the spirit of the 1972 joint declaration issued when the two countries formalised relations.

According to the communique, Japan recognises the People's Republic of China government in Beijing as the "sole legal" government of China. It also "fully understands and respects" that Taiwan is an "inalienable part" of Chinese territory.

Mr Wang said that Mr Suga's statement not only "broke Japan's solemn promise not to regard Taiwan as a country", but also threatened to undermine the diplomatic foundation of Sino-Japan ties.

These sensitivities come as Taiwan has become a political flashpoint amid Chinese muscle flexing in regional waters.

Fears are also rising among democratic nations of an expansion in communist influence with the clampdown on freedoms in Hong Kong and China's vaccine diplomacy that is said to come with terms attached.

Leaders of the Group of Seven advanced economies, including Mr Suga, who are meeting in Britain this weekend, will likely write the Taiwan Strait into their communique, Japanese media has reported.

They will also pledge to donate one billion doses of vaccines to developing countries.

The first mention of Taiwan in a joint United States-Japan summit statement since 1969 came in April, when US President Joe Biden and Mr Suga cited the "importance of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait".

Japan has followed up with similar language in statements with the European Union and this week, at a meeting with Australian foreign and defence ministers.

This month, Japan donated 1.24 million doses of AstraZeneca vaccines to Taiwan amid a surge in Covid-19 infections there, in a move that China has lambasted as "political theatre".

Separately yesterday, Japan's Diet passed a resolution to urge the World Health Organisation to include Taiwan at the agency's general meetings.

Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi said the "region's" experience in its Covid-19 fight makes its input invaluable to the global community.

Walter Sim

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 12, 2021, with the headline 'No change in stance on Taiwan, Japan clarifies'. Subscribe