BY JESSE JOHNSON, STAFF WRITER
Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen said Sunday that she has no plans to have phone talks with new Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga after signals emerged that he might be open to the first direct talks with Taipei in decades.
Beijing warned Tokyo a day earlier against closer ties with Taipei after former Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori mentioned the possibility to Tsai during a recent meeting.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said in a statement that Beiijng had spoken with Tokyo and that such a call “will never happen.”
“The Japanese side made it clear the PM will not speak with Tsai over the phone as reported,” Wenbin said.
Tsai said that she did not discuss the possibility with Mori, according to a readout of her comments.
“We also don’t have any plans at the moment for a telephone conversation,” she said. “However, both sides maintain a cooperative relationship … and we will discuss things whenever we need to, so communication … will continue.”
Mori, who was visiting Taiwan to attend a memorial service for former President Lee Teng-hui, told Tsai during a televised meeting at the Presidential Office in Taipei on Friday that Suga called him a day earlier to pass on his greetings, while also indicating that the new Japanese leader was open to talks.
“If there is an opportunity, (Suga) would like to speak over the phone,” Mori told Tsai on Friday.
It was unclear if Mori, whose brief period as prime minister was marked with numerous gaffes, had been speaking for the Suga administration or had misspoke. But such a call — which would be the first such talks since formal diplomatic ties were severed in 1972 — would be sure to trigger a furious reaction from China.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry’s quick response, however, likely points to growing anxiety in Beijing that Tokyo could develop stronger ties with Taipei as Japan’s top ally, the United States, also seeks to bolster its relationship with Taiwan.
Taiwan, a colony of Japan from 1895 to 1945, maintains close ties with Tokyo. Japan, however, does not have formal diplomatic relations with the self-governed island.
Beijing views Taiwan as an inherent part of its territory and sees it as a renegade province that must be brought back into the fold — by force if necessary.
China has frequently targeted Tsai, of the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party, who rejects its view that the island is part of “one China.”
Taiwan has called for an alliance of “like-minded” democracies to defend against “aggressive actions” and protect freedom, alluding to Chinese actions in the South and East China seas and Taiwan Strait as major threats to regional stability.
Tokyo, however, has worked to balance its economic interests and security concerns with Beijing, though this policy has come under strain — including within Suga’s own Liberal Democratic Party — amid growing Chinese assertiveness.
Suga has vowed to work toward stability and continuity in his administration but has also tapped at least one pro-Taiwan engagement lawmaker for his Cabinet: Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi, the brother of ex-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Kishi met with Tsai during a visit to Taiwan in January and helped arrange a meeting between Tsai, then the leader of the opposition, and Abe in his home prefecture of Yamaguchi in 2015.
Mori on Saturday attended the memorial service for the late Lee at a university facility near Taipei, sitting next to Keith Krach, U.S. undersecretary of state for economic growth, energy and the environment. Krach, who wrapped up a visit to the country the same day, was the highest-ranking State Department official to visit Taiwan since 1979, when Washington switched diplomatic recognition to Beijing.
Only groups from Japan and the United States were invited as overseas guests for the event, according to media reports.
In what observers said was a response to Krach’s three-day visit and increasing high-level U.S.-Taiwan meetings, China sent a total of 19 fighter jets, bombers and surveillance aircraft across the so-called median line dividing the Taiwan Strait for the second consecutive day Saturday. The warplanes entered Taiwan’s air defense identification zone, prompting Taipei to scramble fighters in response.
Chinese state-run media lashed out at the visit by Krach, with the hawkish Global Times on Friday calling the military exercises “rehearsals on taking over Taiwan.”
Late Saturday, Global Times editor Hu Xin wrote in a signed editorial that Beijing could respond to Washington’s moves with force.
“If the U.S. and the island continue their collusion to secede the island from China, we believe that the (Chinese People’s Liberation Army) is resolute enough to launch cruise missiles over through the island, send fighter jets above the island to declare sovereignty, and carry out military drills there,” he wrote. “As a result, a new military construct will be formed in the Taiwan Straits.”