Friday, July 4, 2008

Tilting toward China?

Taiwan-Japan relations remain strong, despite the latest Diaoyutai row. But Ma Ying-jeou's handling of the crisis has fueled concerns about his Japan policy

By Jonathan Adams

Newsweek Japan, June 23 issue (unedited draft)

It was a rare scene in Taiwan. Holding signs saying "Protect the Diaoyutai", an angry group of protesters set fire to a Japanese flag laid out on the sidewalk in front of Japan's de facto embassy in Taipei last Wednesday.

The cause of their anger: the June 10 sinking of a Taiwanese fishing boat after a collision with Japanese boats patrolling the disputed island chain.

Had Taiwan suddenly turned anti-Japanese?

Hardly. In fact, there were only some 15 protesters – even less than the number of police at the scene. What's more, half the group weren't even Taiwanese. They were from a veteran, 60-member Hong Kong-based activist group 保釣行動委員會 . Since 1996 that volunteer group has visited Taiwan many times to lead protests and expeditions asserting Chinese sovereignty over the island chain.

"We were outraged about this incident, and we came to express the view of private-sector Chinese," said the group's chairman 主席, Mr. Chen (陳多偉). "The Diaoyutais are Chinese territory."

Few Taiwanese feel as strongly as Mr. Chen and his group. To be sure, many thought Japan had taken excessive action and should apologize. And some hardline KMT legislators tried to whip up anti-Japanese sentiment, and urged a much stronger response. (They were scheduled to visit the Diaoyutai on a navy frigate last Wednesday in a show of force, before President Ma Ying-jeou cancelled that trip and publicly called for a peaceful resolution of the dispute).

But overall, public opinion of Japan remains very positive.

"This was an unfortunate incident," said Lo Fu-chen 羅福全, Taiwan's former representative to Japan. "But in the last eight years, Taiwan-Japan relations have reached a peak. I don't think this incident will change that."

Still, last week's Diaoyutai crisis has fueled concerns about Ma Ying-jeou's new China-friendly government and its attitude toward Japan.

It's hard to gauge the extent of anti-Japanese sentiment in Taiwan. But in general, such views are limited to a small minority of Mainlanders (waishengren 外省人) who originally came to Taiwan with the KMT in the 1940s. These people make up about 14% of the population.

Hardline Chinese nationalists – the most likely to be anti-Japan -- are an even smaller number. According to the latest poll from the Election Study Center at National Chengchi University, only 5.4% identified themselves as "Chinese only", compared to 26% in 1994.

"Those who wanted to send the gunboats are a minority," said Fu. "They're just trying to use the incident to fuel an anti-Japanese movement -- but what can they do? To me they're modern-day Boxers," he said, referring to the Chinese ultra-nationalists who unsuccessfully sought to drive out foreigners from mainland China around 1900.

Most native Taiwanese (本省人), by contrast – about 84% of the population -- have fond or neutral feelings toward the island's former colonizer.

Enjoying a cigarette break from work in Ximending, 西門町, Ye Zhou-xian, 葉桌賢, 24, said he liked Japan more than mainland China, and that the Diaoyutai incident hadn't changed his attitude. "I like Japanese fashion and manners," he explained. "I don't like mainland China because they think Taiwan belongs to them."

If some Taiwanese did briefly sour on Japan last week, it was due in part to relentless media coverage. Competition is fierce in Taiwan's crowded media market.

Every outlet hypes up conflict to get more eyeballs, and last week was no exception. TV reporters hounded Taiwan foreign ministry officials and gave extensive airtime to anti-Japan KMT legislators. Talk show commentators kept up a round-the-clock drumbeat of criticism of Japan's actions. They slammed the Taiwan government's initial reaction to the incident, which was widely seen as too weak-kneed.

Still, the anti-Japan fever passed quickly, as the media pack moved on to chase another target.

But if public outrage was short-lived, the crisis raised longer-term questions about Ma Ying-jeou's Japan policy, and its ability to manage crisis.

Change is afoot in Taiwan's foreign policy. Ma's priority is to improve ties with China. He's rapidly improving economic relations with the mainland, hoping to give Taiwan's lagging economy a shot in the arm. Cross-strait flights and tourists will be ramped up next month.

Beyond economics, he's raised hopes of a truce in the cross-strait diplomatic battle for allies, and even talked of a peace deal.

The question is, will all this come at the expense of relations with Japan?

For his part, Ma insists he won't downgrade Taiwan-Japan relations. He's dismissed charges of being ignorant about Japan during the presidential campaign, insisting he was a "zhi ri pai" (知日派). He made a point of visiting Japan last November, seeking to convince skeptical Japanese Diet members that he was not anti-Japanese.

Not everyone's convinced. Some observers say privately that there are reasons to be concerned. Ma failed to mention Japan even once in his May 20 inauguration speech – an omission that reportedly upset some members of a visiting Diet delegation.

He has also scrapped the Foreign Ministry's Committee of Japanese Affairs. That was an ad-hoc task force set up by the DPP government in 2005 to enhance Taiwan-Japan exchanges, and raise the status of Japanese experts within the ministry. It's still unclear what will replace the task force.

Meanwhile, the Hong Kong-born Ma comes from a Chinese nationalist tradition whose anti-Japan stance is rooted in Japan's invasion of the mainland in the late 1930s. He was reportedly moved to tears by the scene in "Lust, Caution" (色戒) in which a Chinese crowd shouts together, "zhongguo bu neng wang" (中國不能亡). And he wrote several books on the Diaoyutais in his youth and was an enthusiastic defender of Taiwan's claim to the island chain.

Observers also criticize his government's bad crisis-management skills and mixed messages during the Diaoyutai dispute. The public witnessed a government that one day seemed too cowardly to confront Japan, then the next day recklessly talked of war. The conflict nearly turned violent, before Ma intervened.

"The premier totally mismanaged the situation," said Lo Fu-chen. "They're not acting like a mature government."

A poll conducted by TV station TVBS, only 38% were satisfied with his handling of the incident, compared to 45% unsatisfied.

Part of the problem is Ma's Japan policy isn't yet completely clear. Hardliners in his own party see Taiwan's long-term interests lying with China, not Japan. But Ma must balance better China relations against Taiwan's de facto security alliance with the US and Japan – no easy trick.

"Ma wants to have equal distance between China and the US-Japan alliance, because he believes that could maximize Taiwan's interests," said Lin Chen-wei (林成蔚) director of international affairs for the DPP and a former Japan specialist advising the National Security Council. "But whether they can successfully manage that remains to be seen."

Still, Ma's policy isn't likely to depart dramatically from his predecessor's. Taiwan depends on the US-Japan alliance for its security. Japanese air bases would be critical in any US defense of the island should China make good on past threats to retake Taiwan by force.

That means any changes are likely to be in tone rather than in substance. "The KMT might change Taiwan's policy toward Japan," said one KMT insider. "But if they do, it will only be a small change, because Japan is so important. Keeping good relations with Japan is vital for Taiwan's security."

No comments: