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With China’s Rising Power, Japan’s Ability to Interfere with Taiwan Has Weakened

On November 22, 2009, Global Times published an abstract of the article "Japan’s Influence on the Taiwan Issue Has Weakened," written by Guo Zhenyuan, a research fellow at the China Institute of International Studies. The author holds that "Japan’s ability to interfere with and influence Taiwan is diminishing. It is inevitable due to the long-term and fundamental fact that China’s comprehensive national power has become stronger than Japan’s." "As an external disturbance factor, the impact of Japan, and also the U.S., on the Taiwan issue is not only limited; but it is entirely possible that it is weaker. No matter what the circumstances are, we should not put too much emphasis on external factors." The following is a summary of the article: [1]

For a long time, Japan has been the second largest external interference factor on the Taiwan issue, next to the United States. Now due to significant changes in a number of factors, Japan’s influence on the Taiwan issue has already begun, and will continue to weaken. The emergence and development of this trend will help reduce Japan’s interference on the Taiwan issue, and thus, in turn, will help Sino-Japanese relations toward a healthy and sustainable direction.

"The Japan-Taiwan relationship" is the basis of Japan’s influence on the Taiwan issue. Since Ma Ying-jeou took the presidency in May 2008, the Japan-Taiwan relationship has undergone the most significant changes in the past decades. The change may even be a turning point. In September 1972, China and Japan established diplomatic relations, while Japan and Taiwan terminated diplomatic ties; this was a turning point in the Japan-Taiwan relationship. However, this turning point might not be as significant and profound as the changes that occurred after May 2008. It is well known that, since Chiang Kai-shek and his son retreated to Taiwan in 1949, the Japan-Taiwan relationship has always been very close. Although Japan, unlike the United States, never publicly protected and supported Taiwan, Japan and the Taiwan authorities kept quiet but close military, political, economic, and cultural contacts over the years. Japan also had close contact with people of all circles in Taiwan. During the two decades when Lee Teng-hui and Chen Shui-bian were presidents, the Japan-Taiwan relationship was in some ways even closer than the relationship between Taiwan and the United States.

However, the post May 2008 Japan-Taiwan relationship has been very different. In the past more than a year, although Ma Ying-jeou has repeatedly proclaimed that he valued the importance of the Japan-Taiwan relationship, and that Japan and Taiwan have a "special partnership," the fact is that the Japan-Taiwan relationship has materially declined. The most important facts are: the Japan and Taiwan conflict worsened over the Senkaku Islands issue; the Japanese Representative in Taiwan openly declared that "Taiwan’s status is undetermined," which caused strong opposition from Ma Ying-jeou; Taiwan strongly opposed Japan’s dispatch of Self Defense Forces stationed in Yonaguni Island. It is clear that the Japanese government strongly distrusts Ma Ying-jeou and has taken repeated measures to pressure him, while Ma Ying-jeou has repeatedly responded strongly. This indicates that the Japan-Taiwan relationship has seriously declined, reaching the lowest level since 1949.

It is widely believed that Ma Ying-jeou’s "anti-Japanese" attitude led to the serious decline of the relationship. Ma Ying-jeou is the leader of the Taiwan region. His philosophy and position will significantly influence Taiwan’s policies. However, the major and profound change in the Japan-Taiwan relationship is obviously due not only to the change of leadership in Taiwan, or to their individual ideas, positions and policies. The turning-point change in the Japan-Taiwan relationship is the result of a number of combined factors. Ma Ying-jeou’s taking office accelerated and amplified the changes.

From Taiwan’s perspective, while there may have been some "historical connections" between Japan and Lee Teng-hui, there was only pure mutual interest between Chen Shui-bian and Japan. The interest based relationship between Chen Shui-bian and Japan was extremely unequal. Japan fully regards Taiwan as a bargaining chip in its policy toward China, while Chen Shui-bian tried to use Japan as another external protector and supporter for his "Taiwan independence" and separatism. Therefore, during the eight years when Chen Shui-bian was in office, the "Japan-Taiwan relationship" seemed to be "close," but actually it was Chen Shui-bian that was groveling and pleasing Japan at the expense of Taiwan’s core interests. After eight years of Chen Shui-bian’s presidency, the Japan-Taiwan relationship had become a model that Taiwan was totally dependent on Japan’s interests and policies. After Ma Ying-jeou took office, in fact, he has not had any anti-Japanese attitude or policy, but instead has been trying to more effectively protect Taiwan’s interests in the Japan-Taiwan relationship.

In the future, if Ma Ying-jeou and other KMT members continue to "govern," the Japan-Taiwan relationship will definitely not return to the situation of the past two decades. However, if Japan changes its tough measures toward Taiwan, the Japan-Taiwan relationship will ease and improve. The ruling of the Democratic Party in Japan provides a realistic possibility. If the Democratic Progressive Party (DDP) again took office in Taiwan, it is still uncertain whether it would repeat Chen Shui-bian’s policy in the Japan-Taiwan relationship. We must point out that Chen Shui-bian’s pro-Japan policy is part of the "Taiwan independence" policy. If the DPP continues its "Taiwan independence" policy, it is bound to be pro-Japan, and they will certainly end up having the same fate as Chen Shui-bian.

Japan’s ability to intervene and interfere with the Taiwan issue is the main driver behind Japan’s influence on the Taiwan issue. The greater the ability is, the greater its impact on Taiwan, and vice versa. Fundamentally and in the long run, Japan’s ability to intervene and interfere with the Taiwan issue depends on the Sino-Japanese comprehensive national power, and the rise and fall of the two nations.

Over the sixty years since 1949, Japan’s ability to intervene and interfere with the Taiwan issue, has experienced a process of going from weak to strong, and from strong to weak. In fact, this is precisely the change in Japan’s impact on Taiwan. In the 1950s and 1960s, the Japan-Taiwan relationship was very close. Japan was a strong supporter of Taiwan, second only to the U.S. However, Japan’s ability to intervene and interfere with the Taiwan issue was not outstanding. First of all, Japan had not yet completely come out of the shadow of being a defeated country. Not only was its ability to interfere with the Taiwan issue limited, but it was also hard for Japan to publicly conduct many activities. For example, Japan could only send military advisors to Taiwan in a secret and unofficial way. Second, at that time Japan was totally affiliated with the United States politically, militarily and diplomatically. Without its own independent policy, Japan completely followed the United States on the Taiwan issue. These two factors determined that Japan didn’t have outstanding abilities to intervene and interfere with the Taiwan issue at the time.

During the seventies and eighties of the last century, due to the establishment of Sino-Japanese diplomatic relations and subsequent significant improvement of the relationship, Japan’s interference with Taiwan was generally measured and limited, albeit never discontinued. As a result, its intervention and interference did not come under the spotlight.

The important changes started in the mid-nineties of the last century, and continued to May 2008. Since the end of the Cold War, Japan has regarded China as its main competitor for dominance in Asia. The Taiwan issue has become one of its key strategic tools to contain China. This led to an unprecedented, strong attempt to intervene and interfere with the Taiwan issue by investing increased resources. Since the Cold War, U.S. policy toward China has been constantly adjusted between two ends. Japan thus attempted to take advantage of the inconsistency in the U.S.’s China policy to up its intervention and interference in the Taiwan issue, in order to achieve a strategic advantage over China. One of the important manifestations was trying to include Taiwan and the Taiwan Strait into the scope of the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security between the United States and Japan. Because the anti-"Taiwan independence" and anti-separatist struggles intensified cross-strait relations for a long period, the room for Japan to intervene and interfere with the Taiwan issue expanded. Thus the relationship between Japan and Taiwan became close again, with the former’s influence in Taiwan significantly enhanced. These changes have led to clearly stronger abilities for Japan to intervene and interfere with the Taiwan issue than during the fifties or sixties of the last century.

We believe that Japan’s ability to intervene and interfere with Taiwan is decreasing. This is the inevitable result of the long-term and determinant factor that China has a comparatively stronger comprehensive national power. Although starting from the late last century, China had an advantage in comprehensive national power over Japan, it was not prominent due to Japan’s being ahead of China in the economy, science, and technology. This was the deep-seated cause behind Japan’s increased intervention and interference in the Taiwan issue. Entering into the 21st century, as China’s economy, science, and technology have maintained a fast development momentum since 1978, China’s total GDP is close to Japan’s, and will possibly exceed Japan. Therefore, comparing their comprehensive national powers, China already has an obvious and ever enlarging advantage over Japan. As a result, enhancing Sino-Japanese mutual trust and developing Sino-Japanese friendship and cooperation is bound to be a focus of Japan’s external strategies and policies. Reducing and avoiding the negative impact of the Taiwan issue in the Sino-Japanese relationship will inevitably be Japan’s Democratic Party’s policy toward China and Taiwan. It can be expected in the future for quite a long period of time, that, although Japan will not completely stop intervening and interfering with the Taiwan issue, its intensity will be substantially reduced. Correspondingly, Japan’s ability to intervene and interfere with the Taiwan issue will also show a weakening trend.

Some Japanese have attempted to make a "deal" with China, using the Taiwan issue in the Sino-Japanese relationship. They seem to recognize the importance of the Taiwan issue, but actually do not understand the sensitivity of the Taiwan issue in the Sino-Japanese relationship. China will never make any "deal" with Japan on the Taiwan issue. Currently and in the future, Japan’s weakened influence on the Taiwan issue is obviously beneficial to the improvement and development of the Sino-Japanese relationship.

The fact that Japan’s influence on the Taiwan issue has weakened will prompt people to calmly and clearly realize that, as external disturbance factors, the impact on the Taiwan issue from Japan, and from the United States, is not only limited, but also will entirely possibly be weaker.  Therefore, no matter under what circumstances, we should not over emphasize these external factors. The most important thing is, in any case, that we must enhance our comprehensive national power, and focus on the formulation and implementation of correct and mature Taiwan policies and strategies.

[1] Global Times, November 22, 2009