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Japan’s relations with Taiwan are non-governmental and practical and are based on Tokyo’s recognition of China as the sole legitimate government, a top Japanese official said Friday, following Beijing’s protest over a recent reference to the island as a country.

As China flexes its muscle in the Taiwan Strait and the Asia-Pacific region, the issue of Taiwan is a sensitive topic, especially as Japan, the United States and other democracies develop closer ties with the self-ruled island that Beijing regards as a renegade territory to be united by force if necessary.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato told a regular news conference Friday that “Japan’s position is to maintain working relations with Taiwan at the nongovernment level,” in line with the 1972 Japan-China Communique, when Tokyo switched the diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to China. “That’s our basic policy and there is no change to that.”

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Kato’s remark came a day after China protested Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s reference to Taiwan as a country during a parliamentary debate on Wednesday.

Suga, while answering a question about pandemic measures, made a passing reference to Taiwan, New Zealand and Australia as “three countries.”

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said Thursday the comment violated Japan’s “solemn promise to not regard Taiwan as a country.”

“We strongly deplore Japan’s erroneous remarks and have lodged solemn complaints with Japan, demanding that Japan immediately make clear clarifications to eliminate the adverse effects caused by relevant remarks, and to ensure that such situations will not happen again,” Wang said.

On Friday, Japan’s upper house of the parliament adopted a resolution calling on the World Health Organization to include Taiwan in its general meetings, saying its expertise on coronavirus measures is indispensable.

China has so far blocked the move, and has increased Taiwan’s diplomatic isolation, leaving it with just over a dozen formal diplomatic allies. Taiwan still operates a network of trade offices around the world that act as de-facto embassies, including in the United States, Japan and most other major nations.

Japanese Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi carefully referred to Taiwan as “a region” in his brief remark emphasizing the importance of including the island for the benefit of international public health.

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Japan also has donated 1.24 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine to Taiwan as it battles its largest outbreak of infections amid a shortage of jabs. Taiwan has blamed China for interfering in a potential deal for another vaccine.

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