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Thursday, December 31, 2009

In the news

Mariko Katō of the Japan Times ジャパンタイムズ looks at the different approaches taken by the Ma Ying-jeou 馬英九 administration towards China and Japan in "Will warmer ties burn Taiwan?":

"For many countries China is a key partner in international relations, whether in recovering from the financial crisis or tackling climate change. And this is no less true for Taiwan, whose government is sidelining long-term political disputes with the mainland for the sake of improving economic ties. For some, the pragmatic pro-China policies of the new Nationalist government that came to power last year signal an overdue thawing of cross-strait relations, which could lead to greater international recognition. But others feel that the Nationalist 中國國民黨-led administration is focusing on China at the expense of older friendships, for example with Japan. Taiwan's government...will be negotiating with Beijing early next year on signing an economic cooperation framework agreement, or ECFA 海峽兩岸經濟合作架構協議, a free-trade pact. The government hopes it will pave the way for similar deals with other Asian countries with whom Taiwan does not trade freely, mainly because of opposition from China..."

The government claims that signing an ECFA could eventually lead to free trade agreements with countries like Japan and South Korea, but there have been few, if any, signals from the authorities in China that they would not object to such deals. The Ma administration is placing its hopes for growth on tying the island closer to China, but many here worry that Taiwan will become too dependent on what is already its biggest export market:

"While the government insists the pact is crucial for maintaining Taiwan's economic competitiveness in the global market, critics say little is known of its contents except that it will reduce restrictions on trade between the two sides. Some also fear it will jeopardize Taiwan's sovereignty, while the government insists that any deal will be purely economic."

What does this all mean to the Japanese? Katō writes that:

"...some experts say Taipei 台北 has grown careless about its traditional friendship with Japan due to the shift in focus on China. Earlier this month, Masaki Saitō 齋藤正樹, Japan's top envoy to Taiwan, resigned as director of the Interchange Association 財団法人交流協会, Tōkyō's 東京 de facto embassy in Taipei. Saitō stepped down after he angered the Ma administration in May by referring to Taiwan's international status as 'unresolved.' Ma blocked Saitō from contacting him, the prime minister or the foreign minister, effectively making his job in Taiwan impossible."

Rational people would certainly agree that the KMT reacted in a manner out of all proportion to Saitō's supposed offense - his interpretation of Taiwan's status was supported by many in the Democratic Progressive Party 民主進步黨, after all. Historical truth is the salt on the slug of Chinese nationalism. Kato goes on to explain that:

"Saitō's resignation is the latest incident that has threatened to sour Japan-Taiwan relations. Shortly after Ma took office last year, Taiwan's then prime minister, Liu Chao-shiuan 劉兆玄, threatened war with Japan over a collision between Taiwanese and Japanese vessels in disputed waters. Meanwhile, territorial rights over the Senkaku Islands 尖閣諸島 in the East China Sea 東シナ海 continue to be claimed by Taiwan, Japan and China."

Ma's anti-Japanese feelings are not shared by the majority of people in Taiwan. Unlike the Koreans and Chinese, the Taiwanese in general hold relatively few grudges against Japan over the colonial past. When the DPP was in power, it viewed Japan as a counterweight against aggressive moves by Beijing. The present administration may not like it, but Japan still matters, as Katō further shows:

"Not only is China a priority over Japan in Taipei international relations, the mainland is also catching up with Japan on the number of tourists visiting Taiwan. Under Ma's administration, direct flights across the Taiwan Strait started last July. About 760,000 mainlanders have flocked to Taiwan this year compared with 850,000 Japanese, with Chinese visitors boosting the Taiwanese economy by $930 million (¥86 billion/NT30 million) since last year, according to the government's Tourism Bureau. But the tight spending habits of the Chinese mean the Japanese remain important clients, according to David Hsieh, deputy director general of the Tourism Bureau. 'Japanese people stay two or three days in one place, but mainlanders spend just one day,' he said. 'They come in groups of 50 to 100, but they do not spend money, and they haggle. They can spend as low as $60 (¥5550/NT1949) a day.' Hsieh added that the government continues to spend the most money on Japan in terms of tourism advertising."

Official policy directions may have changed, but people's attitudes haven't:

"Taiwanese interest in traveling to Japan is also still strong. More than 1.2 million Taiwanese tourists visited Japan last year, second only in number to South Koreans, according to the Japan National Tourism Organization 国際観光振興機構."

Katō's article ends with a hint to Ma to be careful when attempting to foist an ECFA on the country and its citizens:

"T'aipei's efforts to foster warmer relations with Beijing are not welcomed by all Taiwanese. 'Taiwan's interest should be first when negotiating with China,' said 34-year-old Shengming Wang, an industry analyst at the Taiwan Institute of Economic Research in T'aipei. 'Most people still don't exactly know the profits and impacts that would come about by signing the ECFA,' he added. Wang said many people in Taiwan, including himself, consider themselves Taiwanese, independent from their ancestral roots in mainland China. According to a government survey last May, 65 percent of the population think of themselves as Taiwanese while only 11 percent feel they are Chinese. About 18 percent see themselves as both Taiwanese and Chinese, while the rest have no opinion."

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