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How Far Will Japan Go to Help Keep Taiwan Free?






Taiwan’s president has urged Japan to help protect the island from what she calls “tremendous pressure” from mainland China.


President Tsai Ing-wen said that Taiwan and Japan have forged a close friendship and share similar values. She claimed that Taiwan’s commitment to democracy and open government are a challenge to communism.


Speaking in Taipei, President Tsai said, “China’s unilateral and diplomatic offensive and military coercion are not only harming cross-Strait relations, they are also seriously harming the status quo of peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait.”


President Tsai expressed her support for Taiwan’s autonomy and sovereignty, although she stopped short of calling for complete independence. She also pledged to raise defense spending to deter a potential Chinese invasion.


Challenging China


The Chinese leadership under President Xi Jinping regards Taiwan as a breakaway province and sees its democratic political system as a challenge to the dominant socialist ideology on the mainland.


Japan is also wary of China’s rising influence in Asia and has spoken up for Taiwan several times at international meetings since President Tsai was elected in 2016. However, despite close cultural and business ties, Japan and Taiwan do not have formal diplomatic relations. (RELATED ARTICLE: Security, Defense Cooperation Puts Japan-Taiwan Relations Back on Track)


As Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s recent visit to Beijing demonstrates, the Japanese government also wishes to maintain cordial diplomatic relations with mainland China. It will not openly challenge the “One China” policy, which prevents it from acknowledging Taiwan as an independent state. (RELATED ARTICLE: Like the U.S., Japan Should Have Its Taiwan Relations Act)


Historical Connections


Taiwan’s friendship with Japan reflects a generally benign view on the island of the 50 years of Japanese rule, which lasted from 1895 to 1945. During that period, Japanese investment helped to develop Taiwan’s economy and the Japanese came to be associated with new technology and a high standard of living.


In recent years, Japan has assisted Taiwan in building a high-speed railway.


Following the period of Japanese occupation, Beijing has claimed Taiwan as part of its territory. The Kuomintang, China’s former ruling party, fled to the island after losing the Chinese civil war to the communists in 1949 and Taiwan has a legacy of political friction with the mainland.


Professor Robert Dujarric from Tokyo’s Temple University says: “Historically, the relationship between Taiwan and Japan is good. The Taiwanese tend to see the Japanese as just another bunch of former colonial overlords and less violent and oppressive than the Chinese who came afterwards. The general view is that the Japanese did a fairly good job of governing the island.”


America First


When it comes to defense and security, Japan is valued primarily as an ally of the United States.


America has pledged to help defend Taiwan in the event of a conflict with China. President Tsai’s goal is to convince Donald Trump to maintain that commitment. She was the first world leader to call Mr. Trump to congratulate him on his election victory in 2016, to the annoyance of the president of the People’s Republic of China, Xi Jinping.


Professor Dujarric says: “Japan is not going to replace the United States as a defender of Taiwan. In Tokyo, when you ask, ‘What shall we do about China?’ the answer is always, ‘What are the Americans are going to do about China?’ The real decisions are made in Washington. It is the Americans who run this show.”


President Trump recently offered a further USD 330 million to support Taiwan’s armed forces and agreed to dispatch more American diplomatic and military representatives to Taipei. China protested, claiming the deal would “severely damage” military relations between Washington and Beijing.


The Pentagon says it simply helps maintain the balance of power in the region and U.S. Vice President Mike Pence told a conservative think tank in Washington in September, “America will always believe that Taiwan’s embrace of democracy shows a better path for all the Chinese people.” (RELATED ARTICLE: In Reviewing US China Policy, Consider Taiwan)


Not everyone is certain that America’s support for Taiwan is guaranteed, given President Trump’s transactional approach towards foreign relations. Journalist Bob Woodward claimed in his recent book Trump: Fear in the White House that the President asked a National Security Council meeting in January 2018: “What do we get by maintaining a massive military presence in the Korean Peninsula — and, even more than that, what do we get from protecting Taiwan?”


Balance of Power


The book’s author does not record a response. But one argument in favor of protecting Taiwan is that it counters Chinese power in the region.


Taiwan has greater economic influence than its size might suggest — it has a relatively small population of 23 million compared to China’s 1.4 billion. Yet, it is one of the few parts of the world to maintain a trade surplus with China and many of its citizens have business links with the mainland.


I asked Cheng Cheng-Mount from the National Development Council if a push towards more independence would harm the economy. He replied, “It could, if we become hostile towards China, but the current government led by the DPP (Democratic Progressive Party) is in favor of both sides recognizing the status quo in terms of cross-Strait relations. Taiwan and the mainland are ruled by two different authorities, so they (the Chinese) need to recognize who has sovereignty here.”


His view was echoed by Dr. Chiu Chui-Cheng at the Mainland Affairs Council: “We hope the two sides can sit down as soon as possible without any political preconditions and discuss the relationship. We want to develop a new model for prosperity and well-being for everyone.”


Such an outcome would be welcomed by Japan, which has good reason to support Taiwan’s democratic system and to work to maintain peace and stability throughout East Asia.



Author: Duncan Bartlett in Taipei





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