“Why Brunei?” asked some Japanese government officials when they heard about the second group of countries the government had selected for negotiations on easing travel restrictions. The countries include China, South Korea, Taiwan, and Brunei. It is true that Brunei has brought the new coronavirus under control, but Japanese businesses don’t have a very strong economic need to resume travel to and from Brunei.
But the Abe administration had its reasons.
In June, the government started taking steps to relax travel restrictions to resume the movement of people across borders. The first countries selected were Vietnam, Thailand, Australia, and New Zealand. The consensus in the government was that the next step would be to relax the ban on China, South Korea, and Taiwan in view of the virus situation inside those countries and Japan’s economic needs.
According to government sources, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe instructed officials to “please prioritize Taiwan” when reviewing the second group.
The prime minister’s support base expects him to be tough on China and South Korea. Furthermore, opening the doors to China, ground zero of the pandemic, would likely draw particularly strong objections. Consideration for the U.S. is necessary as well since it is in the midst of a conflict with China.
Abe seems to have planned to minimize objections from his base by first relaxing the restrictions on Taiwan, which the Japanese conservatives view favorably, before lifting the ban on China and South Korea. The conservative wing of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) in the Diet previously requested the lifting of the ban on Taiwan.
At the same time, Japan cannot let diplomatic relations deteriorate with China, the second largest economy in the world, and South Korea, Japan’s neighbor. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs was concerned that “the relationship with China and South Korea could be negatively affected unless we start negotiations with all three at the same time.”
Then a plan emerged in the government under which Japan would enter negotiations with the three counterparts almost at the same time, but prioritize the conclusion of negotiations with Taiwan. In addition, the government now plans to add approximately ten countries and regions such as Brunei, Myanmar, and Malaysia, where the coronavirus is under control compared to Japan, in the second group in order to obscure the issue by burying it among a larger group.
The inclusion of Brunei was the result of the Japanese government’s efforts to balance Abe’s instructions on Taiwan and diplomatic considerations toward China and South Korea. (Slightly Abridged)