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Saturday, June 28, 2008

Return of the "Little Dwarves"?

The Daily Yomiuri ザ・デイリー読売 has a very good article today ("Taiwan steps back from Japan / Lack of pro-Japan officials blamed for Ma administration trend") analyzing the reasons why Mr. Ma 馬英九 has gone and screwed up relations with Japan after barely a month in office:

"Taiwan's President Ma Ying-jeou of the ruling Nationalist Party (Kuomintang or KMT) 中国国民党, has shown signs of distancing Taiwan from Japan, a sign that should alert Tōkyō to the fact that more dialogue with Taipei is necessary."

Up until May 22, things were very different:

"Taiwan is basically well disposed to Japan. Since Tōkyō waived tourist visas for Taiwanese visitors in 2005, more than 2.4 million Japanese and Taiwanese have visited each other's soil annually. Public opinion polls in recent years showed Japan topping the United States as the most favored country among Taiwanese...under the pro-Japan administration of Ma's predecessor, Chen Shui-bian, bilateral ties were at their warmest since Japan severed diplomatic ties with Taiwan in 1972. Ma--who assumed office in May--repeatedly stressed his intent to maintain this solid relationship."

How quickly things have changed, with the collision between a Japanese patrol vessel and a Taiwanese fishing boat in the vicinity of the Senkaku Islands 尖閣諸島:

"Pressured by pro-China Nationalists who favor a hard-line approach toward Japan, Ma dispatched nine patrol boats to the waters off the Senkaku Islands to ratchet up awareness of Taiwan's sovereign claim on the Senkaku Islands...As a result, tensions rose dramatically between Japan and Taiwan. Unlike former Presidents Lee Teng-hui and Chen, both of whom avoided playing hardball with Tokyo over the territorial issue, the Taiwan patrol boats' incursion into the disputed waters has highlighted Ma's brusque approach toward Japan."

It has also highlighted the incompetence of Ma and his administration officials when it comes to managing foreign relations. The article moves on to point out that the nature of the problem lies in the different historical perceptions of the KMT and the DPP 民主進歩党:

"The Nationalists, who fought against Japan before and during World War II--from 1937 to 1945--fled to Taiwan after the war and ruled the island by installing mainlanders in key government positions. The mainlanders--a minority in Taiwan who account for only about 20 percent of the population-- generally take a tough stance on Japan. In contrast, the DPP was established in the 1980s by Taiwanese who had lived under Japanese colonial rule before and during the war. As some of these people perceived Japan favorably, they remain well disposed toward the nation."

I'm reminded of one time when I asked a class of around 20 adult students about what kind of impressions they had of Japan. Only one student answered in the negative, with his reason being that the Japanese "killed a lot of Chinese in the war". From that remark, it wasn't hard to determine his family's background! Ma, of course, is a mainlander, a child of a privileged background, who joined a party of outsiders who assigned themselves positions of privilege in an authoritarian government for more than 40 years. He belongs to a social class that can't stomach the idea of Taiwan's future being determined by those people whose families have actually lived here for over a century or more (it was certainly no accident that aborigines were overlooked in Ma's inauguration speech), and which is eager to make up for the eight years of "lost time" when it was out of power. One way to remind the locals of who is back in charge is to make it clear they don't share the same feelings towards the Japanese (who did, after all, greatly improve Taiwan's health care, education, economic and transportation infrastructure, and without the corruption the KMT brought with them from China). Of course, good old fashioned ignorance also plays a part:

"...Ma has few officials in key government posts who are conversant with Japanese affairs...Japan previously fostered strong ties with Taiwanese people, including Lee, who had an affinity for Japan as a result of having spoken Japanese. However, those who attended school under Japanese colonial rule are gradually fading from political and business arenas. Members of the emerging elite, including people such as Ma, were taught a China-centered version of history during the postwar Nationalist era. Compared with people such as Lee who speak Japanese, and those under 30 who are fascinated by Japanese pop culture, people of Ma's generation have a relatively low opinion of Japan."

As a result, Ma and his cronies don't consider ties with Japan to be especially important:

"In his inaugural speech, Ma did not refer to Japan, whereas Chen did the opposite during his inauguration address. While Chen clearly stated that China was a military foe, Ma refuses to criticize Beijing. With Ma prioritizing relations with China,...the new president is trying to avoid relying on the United States and Japan for Taiwan's security. In other words, while Chen considered Japan as an ally with shared ideals on democracy and security issues, Ma mainly sees Japan as an economic partner."

Actually, while the recent spat over the Senkaku Islands has highlighted the changing nature of Japan-Taiwan relations, it should also be noted that Mr. Ma is trying to keep the United States at a distance as well (he only mentioned the USA once during his inaugural address), while cozying up to the Chinese leadership (he let the June 4 anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre pass without comment, and has been silent on Tibet since the election). Many in the Washington foreign policy establishment were hoping for a Ma win, since they assumed it would lower tensions between China and Taiwan. Are they beginning to have second thoughts, or is the thinking still cloudy over at Foggy Bottom?

Are things likely to improve between Japan and Taiwan? According to the Yomiuri article, it isn't going to be easy:

"Although Ma wants to retain ties with Tōkyō, among Nationalist lawmakers--who occupy more than two-thirds of the seats at the Legislative Yuan (Parliament)--there are several pro-China individuals who want to unify with China. Ma likely will therefore take a firm stance vis-a-vis future approaches to sovereignty and historical issues."

So what can the Japanese government do about this new reality? According to a DPP member:

"...the current (ROC) government ha(s) a pronounced pro-China tilt, when compared with Lee's and Chen's former administrations. Because of this, Japan must face the fact that Taiwanese have complex feelings about Japan. Tōkyō also must endeavor to build a good relationship with Taiwan--an important factor in Japan's security--as well as holding talks with the Ma administration. Ma is keen to conclude a free trade agreement and a fishing treaty with Japan, and also wants to expand student-exchange programs. For its part, Japan should expeditiously nurture ties with pro-Japan Taiwanese and provide more help to Taiwan, which hopes to become a member of various international organizations, such as the World Health Organization. This will counter Taiwan's strong feelings of isolation."

The next four years (at least) are going to be very trying times for officials in both Japan and the United States, and for those in Taiwan who believe in the benefits of a democratic political system.

And as for those who voted for the KMT in the last round of elections, well my wife is deep blue and knew exactly what she was voting for. But those who chose perceived short-term economic benefits (and what has the stock market done since Ma took over?) over the strengthening of a democratic political system could be in for some nasty surprises in the weeks, months and years to come.

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