Key Contender to Lead Japan Warns Taiwan Is ‘Next Big Problem’

Top Contender to Lead Japan Warns Taiwan Is ‘Next Big Problem’

The Taiwan Strait may be the next major diplomatic problem after China’s clampdown on Hong Kong, according to former Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida, one of at least two candidates likely to vie to become the next premier.

Speaking in an interview with Bloomberg News on Friday, just before Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga made a surprise announcement that he was stepping down, Kishida said Japan should seek to cooperate with Taiwan and countries that share its values of freedom, democracy and the rule of law, as authoritarian countries wield more power.

Key Contender to Lead Japan Warns Taiwan Is ‘Next Big Problem’

“Taiwan is at the frontline of the standoff between the U.S. and China,” he said. “Looking at the situation with Hong Kong and the Uyghurs, I have a strong feeling that the Taiwan Strait will be the next big problem.”

He also said the 30 trillion yen ($273 billion) demand gap should be borne in mind when considering the amount of economic stimulus needed. Kishida earlier this week said he wanted to spend tens of trillions of yen to soften the economic fallout from the pandemic and to have people cooperate with restrictions on their movements, which are intended to slow the spread of the virus.

Kishida announced his candidacy this week for leadership of Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party, with a vote set to take place Sept. 29, ahead of a general election that must be held by the end of November. Vaccine czar Taro Kono -- a 58-year-old former foreign minister -- plans to seek the LDP presidency, broadcaster TBS and other media reported. 

Whoever becomes party leader is all but assured to be premier, due to the LDP’s dominance in parliament. 

Key Contender to Lead Japan Warns Taiwan Is ‘Next Big Problem’

If he succeeds in taking over the top job, Kishida will need to manage a difficult relationship with China, his country’s biggest trading partner. Spooked by Beijing’s clampdown in Hong Kong, senior Japanese lawmakers are increasingly speaking out about the importance of Taiwan to Japan’s security, sparking irritation from Beijing, which sees the island as part of its territory and frequently flies warplanes close by.

Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi in June told Bloomberg that Taiwan’s security was directly linked to that of Japan, while Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso said in July the U.S. and Japan would have to defend Taiwan together in the event of a major crisis. 

Asked how Japan would respond in the event of an emergency involving Taiwan, Kishida said only it would take actions in line with the law. Japan’s military is circumscribed by a pacifist constitution and relies heavily on its only ally, the U.S., for the shelter of a “nuclear umbrella.”

Nonetheless, Kishida said a contingency in the Taiwan Strait would have an enormous effect on Japan. He added the country’s defense budget was likely to continue rising, as it seeks to equip itself to deal with threats from the surrounding region, including North Korea. 

His comments drew criticism from Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin. “Taiwan is an integral part of China’s territory,” Wang said, adding that Japan should “act prudently in its words and actions” and “avoid sending any wrong signal to the Taiwan independence forces.”

Taiwan is a key producer of the semiconductors needed to advance Japan’s economy, and the Luzon Strait to the south is an important shipping lane for the energy tankers resource-poor Japan relies on to power its factories and homes.

Himself often seen as a dove, Kishida heads a faction within the LDP that was once known for its friendly ties with China, a policy he said was tailored to the diplomatic landscape of the time and needed to be adapted to a new reality. 

“The times have changed a great deal,” he said. “China has also changed. China is now a big presence in international society, and I have various concerns about its authoritarian attitude.”

While serving as foreign minister, Kishida was best-known for agreeing in 2015 for what was billed as a full and final settlement of the problem of women trafficked to work in frontline military brothels before and during World War II. The issue has soured ties with South Korea for decades. 

The deal over the so-called comfort women later fell apart and Tokyo’s relations with Seoul turned increasingly bitter in the subsequent years, affecting trade and business ties, as well as U.S. efforts to coordinate on security with its two main allies in the region.   

The following are some of the other comments Kishida made in the interview:

  • He would retain the Bank of Japan’s 2% inflation target
  • He would encourage Taiwan to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, if it can meet the necessary high standards
  • Suga made his best efforts on diplomacy, but fell short on effectively communicating Japan’s policies

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