Is Taiwan's opposition leader anti-Japan?

Posted in China , Japan , Asia | 11-Jul-06 | Author: Hisane Masaki| Source: Crisscross

Taiwanese opposition leader and Taipei mayor Ma Ying-jeou arrived in Japan on Monday on a six-day visit, his first since taking the helm of the Kuomintang (KMT), or Nationalist Party, nearly a year ago.

Ma, who is widely seen as the frontrunner for Taiwan's 2008 presidential election, is apparently trying to boost his — and his party's — fortunes by scoring diplomatic points in the international arena, where the island has been largely shunned. Ma's visit to Japan follows up high-profile trips he made earlier this year to Taiwan's two other major trading partners, the U.S. and Europe.

But toping his diplomatic agenda in Japan is probably to dispel widely held concerns in Tokyo that he harbors anti-Japan sentiments. The governing Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), led by President Chen Shui-bian, is widely seen in Tokyo as pro-Japan and anti-China, while Ma's KMT, to the contrary, is considered anti-Japan and pro-China.

Beijing's communist leaders still regard Taiwan as a renegade province that must be reunified with the mainland, by force if necessary. Beijing remains highly sensitive to any diplomatic initiatives by Taiwan's leaders aimed at winning new allies. Unlike former President Lee Teng-hui's visits to Japan in recent years, however, Ma's trip will probably not spark an angry response from Beijing, reflecting the current reality of Taiwan politics and cross-strait relations.

After ruling Taiwan with an iron fist for more than half a century, the KMT lost power in the 2000 presidential election. Thereafter, Lee emerged as a radical activist for the island's independence after leaving office and he now serves as the spiritual leader of the Taiwan Solidarity Union, a main parliamentary ally of the DPP.

Lee's two previous visits — first in the spring of 2001, ostensibly for medical treatment, and later towards the end of 2004 supposedly for sightseeing during the New Year's holidays — strained relations between Tokyo and Beijing. Lee planned another Japan trip in May, but postponed it for health reasons.

Ma took over the pro-unification KMT last August, taking over from Lien Chan. The Harvard-educated former justice minister is popular in Taiwan for his public image as a clean, competent and reformist politician. Ma is almost certain to run in the 2008 presidential poll against the still undetermined DPP candidate. By law, Chen cannot seek a third term.

Since Chen became president in 2000, cross-strait diplomatic relations have been frosty, even as economic linkages have heated up bilateral business. In the spring of last year, Lien became the first high-ranking KMT leader to return to the mainland since the party fled to Taiwan after losing the civil war to the communists in 1949. Beijing leaders knew their meeting with Lien would put strong pressure on Chen and they duly rolled out the red carpet for him.

The Taiwanese public by and large viewed Lien's historic visit, which included talks with Chinese President Hu Jintao, in a positive light. At the time, many believed Beijing's gesture would help to ease cross-strait tensions, although more than a year later the door to formal negotiations is still mainly closed.

Ma has apparently inherited Lien's policy of dialogue with Beijing. That's caused some consternation within Chen's government that Beijing aims to indirectly help the KMT to regain power at the 2008 presidential elections. While public support for the KMT has apparently risen since Lien's mainland journey, Chen's and his DPP's fortunes have simultaneously sagged.

In addition to facing an opposition-controlled parliament, the DPP suffered a devastating loss to the KMT in local elections in December. Chen's public approval ratings have since plunged to their lowest levels during his tenure amid a series of corruption scandals that allegedly involve his family and aides.

The 55-year-old Ma is widely believed to favor eventual reunification with mainland China, but has so far publicly paid deference to the prevailing public opinion in Taiwan that favors the status quo in cross-strait relations. President Chen had scrapped the National Unification Council, a defunct but symbolically important body tasked with eventually reuniting China and Taiwan.

During his U.S. trip, Ma criticized the body's abolition as an "unnecessary and unwise" step, and warned the move could cause cross-strait tensions to spin out of control. Ma has said he would reopen talks and aim to sign a peace agreement with China if his KMT party regained power.

Tokyo switched its diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to China in 1972, in deference to Beijing's "one China" policy. Japan-China relations have plunged to their lowest point in years due to Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's repeated visits to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine, bilateral territorial and gas disputes and other touchy issues. Anti-Japan riots swept through China in April last year. The fracas over the Shinto shrine — where 14 Class-A war criminals are enshrined along with some 2.4 million war dead — has particularly strained ties with Beijing, which has been infuriated by what it views as a glorification of Japan's past militarism. Beijing has refused to hold a summit with Koizumi for more than a year.

In stark contrast with its withering ties with communist-ruled China, Japan's relations with Taiwan, a capitalist democracy, have been in full bloom in recent years. In the absence of diplomatic ties, Japan still imposes strict restrictions on high-level official contacts with Taiwan. But economic and cultural exchanges between Japan and Taiwan have expanded. After Japan dropped visa requirements for Taiwanese visitors last year, the two countries exchanged a record 2.5 million visitors.

Taiwan is currently Japan's fourth largest trading partner. The 345-kilometer Taiwan High Speed Line using the Japanese Shinkansen bullet train technology system is under construction between Taipei and Kaohsiung and is due for completion later this year. The project is widely seen as a symbol of Japan-Taiwan friendship.

Many Taiwanese are said to harbor pro-Japanese sentiments. Some Taiwanese even think that Japan's 1895-1945 colonial rule in the region has contributed to the island's current economic prosperity through the universities, roads and other infrastructure the Japanese left behind. According to a recent survey by the Taiwanese business magazine Global Review, Japan topped the list of countries that Taiwanese would prefer to emigrate, travel or think is the "greatest." Former President Lee was staunchly pro-Japan and even defended Koizumi's Yasukuni visits.

However, not everyone in Taiwan shares those favorable sentiments, including elements inside the KMT which favor closer ties with Beijing. Earlier this year, the KMT fumed when Japanese and Taiwanese groups jointly erected a monument in a Taipei suburb honoring thousands of indigenous Taiwanese who died while fighting for the Japanese Imperial Army in Southeast Asia. Most of the monument was ordered dismantled by local KMT officials a few weeks later. Ma reportedly described the incident as a good example of the emotions that could be unleashed if embracing Japan goes too far. Taiwanese who revel in the Japanese colonial period are still "brainwashed," he said.

Ma has waded into the emotionally-charged issue of Chinese and other Asian women forced into sex slavery by the Japanese Imperial Army soldiers. And he has taken a hard-line stance on territorial disputes over the Senkaku islands — or Diaoyutai Islands in Chinese — in the East China Sea, which are claimed by Japan, China and Taiwan. He has also complained Japan should recognize its aggressive history in mainland China. This has led some observers to the conclusion that the KMT and Beijing are cobbling together a sort of united front against Japan.

Ma has consistently denied that he is an anti-Japanese hardliner. At a meeting in January with Japanese journalists based in Taipei, Ma claimed that he is not singling out Japan's historical aggression. He said he is also critical of his own KMT's past "White Terror" crackdown on political dissidents as well as Beijing's 1989 military suppression of pro-democracy demonstrators at Tiananmen Square. Ma also expressed his dissatisfaction with news reports that his KMT is taking concerted action with mainland China against Japan. "I like sashimi, too," he said, while going on to mention his opposition to Koizumi's Yasukuni visits.

Hisane Masaki is a Tokyo-based journalist, commentator and scholar of international politics and economics