TAIPEI – Relations between Taipei and Tokyo have been somewhat overcast during much of the presidency of Taiwan’s Ma Ying-jeou, who in his youth as an activist vociferously fought for a set of islets that are controlled by Japan and claimed by Taiwan and mainland China. But in recent weeks, ties between Tokyo, which formerly ruled Taiwan as a colonial power, and Taipei were seriously put to the test.
It’s not so much that Ma’s actual moves have been making the trouble, but those of an unholy alliance of Taiwanese lawmakers, a non-government organization and military elements, which to all appearance seeks to highjack the island’s foreign policy. While the people that have in effect been sabotaging Taipei-Tokyo ties cannot with absolute certainty be identified as Taiwanese pro-unification forces, all sights are that Beijing finds the developments of late promising, indeed.
In late July, during a Taiwanese navy drill held off its east coast, Rear Admiral Chang Feng-chiang defied orders and commanded his Kidd-class destroyer and a small associated fleet out of Taiwan’s air defense identification zone (ADIZ). The naval group surrounding one of Taiwan’s main surface combatants then sailed full steam toward Japanese territorial waters. It did not intrude these but nonetheless alerted the militaries of Japan and the United States, which form a security alliance against mainland China. After the renegade fleet stayed about 12 hours in waters it was never supposed to enter, Chang commanded it back to Taiwan and, not surprisingly, was given a major demerit in addition to being removed from the fleet’s top position.
Yet, tellingly, what followed in the landscape of Taiwanese domestic politics was not so much an outcry over a serious deterioration of military discipline nor the adverse effect this episode could have on bilateral ties with Japan, which after all has been one of the island’s few de facto allies for decades, but furious protests by a group of lawmakers belonging to Taiwan’s ruling Kuomintang (KMT). They not only found that Chang’s punishment had been way too harsh, but also that the government by imposing it had kowtowed to Tokyo. According to this school of thought, the Ma administration’s stance on the disputed Senkaku (called Diaoyutai in Taiwan and Diaoyu in mainland China) Islands is much too weak and cowardly, and if anything, Rear Admiral Chang should have been decorated and given a medal for his mutiny.
As Japanese territory wasn’t touched, Tokyo refrained from lodging a formal protest. That the incident raised eyebrows among Japanese policymakers and those of the US can be taken for granted, however. This is especially so as there have been a number of other issues recently that, even though relatively minor compared with a Kidd-class destroyer going astray, undoubtedly left their mark, too, on Tokyo’s perceptions on Taipei.
The most notable incident occurred just weeks earlier, when Taiwanese activists belonging to the Chung Hwa Baodiao (Chinese Defenders of Diaoyutai) Alliance of Taiwan sailed to the disputed islands under the protection of a sizable Taiwanese coast guard fleet and engaged in a tense standoff with Japanese patrol boats there, while waving not the Taiwanese flag but that of mainland China.
President Ma’s approval ratings are reported to hover around a dismal 15%. Lawmakers of his own KMT have openly rebelled against the cabinet on a number of issues, most notably Ma’s plan to allow imports of US beef containing the lean-meat enhancer ractopamine for the sake of smooth relations with the island’s No 3 trade partner and security guarantor. If a growing number of voices now pressure Ma to go tough on Japan, he will likely feel tempted to appease them to ensure his own political survival and that of his faction. But a confrontational attitude directed at Tokyo over disputed waters would also inevitably put Taipei in a position against Washington.
The Americans once again made very clear on whose side they stand as recently as early August, when US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta reportedly told his Japanese counterpart Satoshi Morimoto that the US military’s most advanced drones would soon hover over the Senkakus to check on Beijing’s naval activities there. According to numerous Japanese media reports, Taipei’s pro-Beijing position has already been making Tokyo wary, and if Ma were to listen to his domestic critics and begin waving his fist at the Japanese, it would be profoundly against Tokyo’s interest if Washington continued selling Taipei weapons. As a result, Washington’s obligation to arm Taiwan as stipulated under the Taiwan Relations Act might eventually be pushed further on to the back burner than it has already been, an outcome much to Beijing’s liking.
Although things might not quite be this dramatic yet, according to Chen Ching-Chang, a professor at Japan’s Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University, the twists and turns the Senkaku dispute has been taking lately have already somewhat decreased Taiwan’s chances of obtaining foreign weapons. Chen did extensive research on Japan’s relaxation of controls for arms exports, which could in theory have paved the way for Japanese arms transfers via the US to Taiwan. But such far-flung notions are now definitely off the table, he reckons.
“The prospect does not look promising [anymore], considering that some PRC-flag-carrying Diaoyutai activists attempted to approach the islands escorted by Taiwan’s coast guard patrol boats amid the ongoing Japan-PRC [People’s Republic of China] territorial dispute,” Chen said.
He emphasized that the activists’ act was not officially sanctioned and that the “East China Sea Peace Initiative” recently announced by Ma, in which Taipei called on all sides in the Senkaku dispute to exercise self-restraint and avoid escalation, could be seen as Ma’s reassurance that Taipei is not forming a united front with Beijing over the disputed islands. “But the fact remains that Taiwan has not made itself a trustworthy ally for Japan that deserves Tokyo to stand Beijing’s fury,” Chen said.
The East China Sea Peace Initiative referred to was apparently thought up to counter the threat actions such as that of the Baodiao movement and Rear Admiral Chang pose to Taiwan-Japan relations. By reportedly having sent the proposal first to Tokyo and then to Beijing, and also because Ma by coming up with such a plea presented his government as a sovereign player that has its own foreign policy, as opposed to one who lets Beijing sort things out for the well-being of a Chinese nation that includes Taiwan, it was seen as an affront in Beijing.
By contrast, Tokyo was obviously pleased somewhat. That Ma’s initiative has what it takes fully to salvage Taipei-Tokyo ties is doubtable, however.
According to Professor Chen, there is confusing and conflicting information regarding Tokyo’s perception of Ma. Last year, Taipei’s former representative Feng Chi-tai and Ma himself boasted that the Taiwan-Japan relationship was in its best in 40 years, a view Chen has difficulties subscribing to. He believes that the recent headline-grabbing incidents were not the initial bone of contention in bilateral relations, but that the turning point came as early as in 2009, when the former Japanese representative to Taipei Saito Masaki remarked in an academic conference that Taiwan’s status remained “undetermined”. Such a term touched on the KMT’s core sensitivities, as the party insists that Japan already returned Taiwan to the KMT’s Republic of China (ROC) in 1952, and any other interpretation would make it look as if the KMT were ruling over Taiwan as a foreign and thus illegitimate regime.
“What Saito said actually reflected the Japanese government’s position; he was never punished by the Foreign Ministry,” Chen said. “But the Ma administration refused to interact with him after the incident, eg did not invite him to diplomatic functions; this eventually forced Tokyo to replace Saito.”
Chen then shed additional light on the Japanese perspective. According to him, Tokyo does not recognize that Taiwan belongs to the PRC even though it no longer sees the ROC as the legitimate government of China. Keeping Taiwan out of the PRC’s hands also matters greatly in strategic terms for the Japan, as control over the island would make it easier for the mainland’s military to cut Japan’s sea lanes of communication (SLOCs), Chen said.
The Diaoyutai incidents “fuel Tokyo’s distrust of Ma. But the noise that the KMT government makes for domestic purposes could work to Beijing’s advantage, as it implies that Taiwan is indeed a part of China.”
Jens Kastneris a Taipei-based journalist.
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