Motivated by the prospect of increasing their global influence, the U.S. and China are engaged in a fierce competition in COVID-19 vaccine donations. Japan, which is the slowest among the seven major industrialized nations in vaccinating its domestic population, is also engaged in “vaccine diplomacy,” providing vaccines to other nations to counter China. Japan currently ranks third after the U.S. and China in direct vaccine donations.
On July 29, the first strategic dialogue between lawmakers from Japan, the U.S., and Taiwan was held at the Diet, led by the Japan-Taiwan Parliamentarians Amity Federation, a supra-partisan group whose aim is to strengthen Japan-Taiwan bilateral relations. Former prime minister Abe Shinzo, who is friendly toward Taiwan, attended the meeting.
“The vaccines blessed Taiwan like rain after a drought,” said Yu Shyi-kun, President of Taiwan’s Legislative Yuan (chairman of the national assembly), expressing appreciation for Japanese and U.S. vaccine donations while criticizing China.
In mid-May, Japan began considering a vaccine donation to Taiwan behind-the-scenes. After it seemed to have had successfully contained the virus, Taiwan at the time was experiencing a steep rise in the COVID cases. President Tsai Ing-wen was refusing to receive Chinese-manufactured vaccines, however, wary that China might weaponize them. Tsai turned to the U.S. and Japan for help. Hsieh Chang-ting of the Taipei Economic and Cultural representative Office in Japan, which functions as Taiwan’s de facto embassy, and others met with Furuya Keiji of the Liberal Democratic Party, who is the Japanese chair of the Amity Federation and former Minister in charge of the abduction issue. The Taiwanese requested Japan’s support “by mid-June.”
“We will definitely help,” said Abe, readily agreeing when he learned of Taiwan’s request via Furuya. According to a source, Kihara Minoru, secretary-general of the Amity Federation, facilitated coordination with the Prime Minister’s Office [Kantei]. Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide approved the initiative.
Aside from humanitarian reasons, Japan recognized the importance of collaborating with Taiwan, which is under increasing pressure from China. Initially, only a small number of officials were involved in the plan. It was determined that Japan would deliver to Taiwan vaccines manufactured by British pharmaceutical AstraZeneca. Although produced in Japan, the AstraZeneca vaccines were not slated for domestic use because of reports of blood clots.
“The plan was to prepare the vaccine for Taiwan behind the scenes and deliver it quietly,” says a senior member of the parliamentarian group. The plan was kept secret out of concern for a reaction not only from China but also from the pro-China wing of the ruling coalition.
The initiative finally surfaced on June 3 only after the first shipment comprising 1.24 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine had safely arrived at Haneda Airport to be loaded on to an aircraft. The vaccines were delivered to Taiwan without hitch the following day.
Japan is coordinating its anti-COVID efforts with the international community, donating funds to COVAX and delivering vaccines. It is also accelerating bilateral vaccine donations, starting with Taiwan because of “concern over the increasing influence of China’s vaccine diplomacy,” according to a senior Kantei official. A total of six countries and regions are receiving vaccines from Japan. They include Vietnam, which has a territorial dispute with China in the South China Sea.
Japan’s vaccine diplomacy may be affected by the recent shift in Japanese government policy, however. On July 30, the government decided that the AstraZeneca vaccine, which had previously not been administered domestically, will be administered to Japanese over 40 years of age.