TOKYO -- Japan called Taiwan an "extremely important partner" in this year's annual foreign policy report submitted Tuesday, a step forward from last year's description of "crucial partner and an important friend."
The wording seen in Diplomatic Bluebook 2020, presented by Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi to the cabinet, emphasized the relationship amid mounting tensions over the self-governed island's status.
Symbolic of the shift in weight, the bluebook devoted a full page to Taiwan, twice as much space as the 2019 edition.
The report states that Japan "has consistently supported" Taipei participating in the World Health Organization as an observer, aligning Tokyo with the U.S. in its clash with mainland China over the issue. Taiwan has been denied observer status since 2017, after Beijing-skeptic President Tsai Ing-wen took office, and was not invited to the annual meeting that kicked off Monday.
A Japanese government source called the stronger language in the 2020 report an "extension" of the importance Tokyo has placed on Taiwan under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
While past bluebooks through 2012 called the self-governing island an "important region," this changed to "an important partner" starting with the 2013 edition, after Abe took office. From 2015 on, Taipei was referred to as a "crucial partner and an important friend" that shares "basic values" with Japan.
This year's edition further added that Taiwan was "extremely" important.
Abe mentioned Taiwan in passing in his January policy speech to parliament, marking the island's first appearance in the annual address since 2006.
Taiwan is strategically important to Tokyo and Washington as a bulwark against China's maritime ambitions. It also has close economic ties with Japan and the U.S. through its semiconductor industry and tourism.
As for the report's mention of the WHO issue, "not touching on the matter would have raised questions as to why," a foreign ministry source said.
The report also reflects Tokyo's improving ties with Beijing with a reference to building a "mature" relationship for a "new era." This echoes Abe's and Chinese President Xi Jinping's talk of a "new era" of bilateral relations when the two leaders met in December.
Despite this thaw, Tokyo and Beijing still have unresolved issues, particularly China's claims to the Japan-administered Senkaku Islands. The bluebook praises China's support during the coronavirus outbreak, including its help repatriating Japanese nationals, while also urging Beijing to fulfill its international responsibilities.
The two countries "share great responsibility for the peace and prosperity of the [Asia-Pacific] region and the world," it said.
The bluebook tweaks Tokyo's stated stance on its dispute with Russia over the southern Kuril Islands, asserting that Japan holds sovereignty over what it calls the Northern Territories.
The 2019 edition had dropped a line stating that "Japan's position is that the Four Northern Islands belong to Japan" as Abe negotiated with Russian President Vladimir Putin in hopes of ending the long-running row. The 2020 edition restores a softer version of this claim while expressing hope for resolving the issue and signing a post-World War II peace treaty.
The report calls South Korea an "important neighbor" for the first time since 2017. But it also acknowledges the fraying of ties between the two neighbors over the past year, lamenting continued "negative moves" by Seoul.