Starting Saturday Dec. 31, the Interchange Association, Japan — Tokyo’s de facto embassy in Taiwan — will have a new name: The Japan-Taiwan Exchange Association. The new moniker, which was announced in a notice posted today on the association’s website, received a quick rebuke from China's Foreign Ministry, which said it was “extremely dissatisfied” by the Japanese government's implicit nod to Taiwan's Taiwaneseness. Though the prospective name change is undoubtedly the result of months of closed-door discussions between the governments in Tokyo and Taipei, the timing of the announcement could scarcely be more portentous.
Considering U.S. President-elect Donald Trump's protocol-shattering shot across China's bow — in taking a phone call Dec. 2 from Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen — Tokyo's move reflects the heightened geopolitical competition in East Asia. Given accelerated Chinese efforts to isolate Taiwan diplomatically and intimidate it militarily, such developments will intensify the contest at large. Japan is making increasingly bold efforts to counter China's rise through diplomatic outreach and security cooperation with Taiwan and elsewhere in maritime East Asia.
Even without the intensified regional competition, Japan has powerful incentives to make diplomatic overtures to its island neighbor, which is developing an increasingly Taiwanese national identity. The two countries have a long and complicated relationship: Japan colonized Taiwan for a half-century before its defeat in World War II. But since 1972, Tokyo, like most other governments, has denied Taiwan's formal sovereignty. Today, Japan and Taiwan are significant economic partners. Japan is the fourth-largest consumer of Taiwanese exports (after China, Hong Kong and the United States), and it exports more to Taiwan than any other country save China. Moreover, despite its colonial legacy, Japan is more popular among Taiwan's populace than it is among people in China or South Korea, also World War II-era Japanese colonies. Against this backdrop, the association name alteration is less a sea change in Japan's posture toward Taiwan than a natural evolution in Taiwanese-Japanese relations.
To put the move in greater context, the region's shifting geopolitics — in particular the recent developments in the relationships between China and Taiwan and China and Japan — must be taken into account. China's efforts to translate its increased economic heft into military power have muddied the security picture that developed in the region after the Cold War. China's rise has also prompted a push by Japan’s leaders to restore their nation's position as a leading regional power and key counterweight to Chinese ambitions. Increasingly, Japan has sought to mobilize growing uncertainty over Beijing's long-term intentions to lay foundations for a more unified coalition to counter China — an effort facilitated by China's aggressive island reclamation in the South and East China seas and by Washington's tendency to get distracted by developments elsewhere. Along with the Philippines — and to a lesser extent Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore and Thailand — Taiwan has figured centrally in this strategy. Indeed, Taiwan's status as the key geopolitical “prize” for China makes it, by extension, a linchpin of Japan's own evolving regional strategy. Any blockade of the Chinese coast would become exponentially harder if China were to achieve its long-desired reunification with Taiwan and break the chain of islands that form the boundaries of the South and East China seas.
Even as China's expanding military power and maritime activities have pushed Japan to deepen security cooperation with Taiwan and other South China Sea claimants, persistent Chinese pressure to uphold the one-China policy has limited changes to official diplomatic rhetoric between the two countries. That policy has been battered by recent developments: Trump's phone call with Tsai, his public reference to her as Taiwan's president and his subsequent pledge to use Taiwan's status as a bargaining chip with China reflect the growing challenges to the one-China thesis. In this atmosphere, the Interchange Association's name change has amplified significance and will further undermine a diplomatic facade that has outlived its initial Cold War purpose.
It is no surprise that in the weeks following Trump's call with Tsai, the Chinese government has moved swiftly to diplomatically isolate the island country – most recently by luring away Sao Tome, one of Taipei's few remaining African allies. All the while, China is stepping up naval activities in waters near Taiwan. Japan's decision to acknowledge “Taiwan” in its de facto embassy's name may reflect an effort to counter these moves by reaffirming the friendship of a country far more important to Taiwan's long-term trajectory than any of the 21 nations, mostly in Africa and Latin America, who still have diplomatic relations with it.
At the same time, and somewhat ironically, the move is likely to further accelerate Chinese efforts to cut off Taiwan's few remaining lifelines to formal sovereignty and to use punitive economic measures to chasten Tsai. These actions, of course, will likely compel even bolder moves by Tokyo (and perhaps the United States) to challenge China's position on cross-strait relations — leading at best to a tense strategic environment next year, and at worst to a real political or even military crisis.