An awkward visitor for Tokyo and BeijingTOKYO - Former Taiwanese president Lee Teng-hui, an arch-foe of the communist rulers in mainland China, will keep both Japanese and Chinese officials on their toes throughout his current 11-day journey to Japan, which comes amid a thaw in relations between Tokyo and Beijing.
Lee, 84, arrived in Tokyo on Wednesday, his first visit to the Japanese capital in 22 years. Although he has said his trip is mainly for sightseeing and academic exchanges, Beijing worries that it is politically motivated. Lee, who served as Taiwanese president from 1988 to 2000, is viewed by Beijing as a leader of the island's independence movement and has emerged as a radical activist for the island's independence since leaving office. He is the spiritual leader of the pro-independence Taiwan Solidarity Union.
Japan switched its diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing in 1972, in deference to Beijing's "one China" policy. In the absence of diplomatic ties, Japan still imposes strict restrictions on high-level official contacts with Taiwan.
On Monday, two days before Lee's arrival in Tokyo, Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi expressed concerns about the trip to his Japanese counterpart, Taro Aso, when they met on the sidelines of an international conference in Germany. Yang said the trip has "political implications" and may prevent progress in Sino-Japanese relations. In an attempt to assuage Chinese concerns, Aso replied that Tokyo's understanding is that Lee won't engage in any political activities while in Japan.
Despite this assurance, however, there are concerns, even among Japanese government officials, that the former president might make provocative remarks against Beijing. Unlike during his two previous visits, made after he stepped down as president, Lee is to deliver speeches and give a press conference before leaving Japan on June 9.
Lee has said, "The speeches will be on cultural and academic topics and will not be political propaganda." But the international situation is the theme of one of his planned speeches.
Japan expects China simply to harp on its basic Taiwan policy if Lee's visit actually ends without deviating from the stated objectives of sightseeing and academic exchanges. Both countries want to keep the recent warming trend of bilateral relations. But if Lee refers to Taiwanese independence in his speeches or press conference, Tokyo will almost certainly come under fire from Beijing. On Tuesday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu urged Japan not to "give any political platform for the Taiwan separatist movement".
In addition, it is not clear what activities will constitute political ones. Indeed, Lee is to have talks with people from Japanese political and business circles in Tokyo on June 7. Former prime minister Junichiro Koizumi is reportedly among the political figures Lee meets then.
Japan lifted visa requirements for short-term Taiwanese tourists in 2005. So this time Lee entered Japan without a visa. Lee's two previous visits took him to western and central Japan. This time he stepped on Tokyo soil.
As the first major event on his itinerary, Lee is scheduled to receive the First Shimpei Goto Prize in a ceremony in Tokyo on Friday. Goto served as the first head of civilian affairs of Taiwan under Japanese colonial rule, which began in 1895 and lasted until Japan's defeat in World War II in 1945.
Lee then plans to visit four northeastern prefectures, Miyagi, Yamagata, Iwate and Akita, tracing the route of the places written in the travel diary Oku no Hosomichi ("The Narrow Road to Oku [the Deep North]"), written by the master of haiku (poetry), Basho Matsuo (1644-94), during the Edo period (1603-1867).
After returning to Tokyo, Lee is to deliver a speech on June 7 about "the global situation in 2007 and beyond".
Thaw in Sino-Japanese ties
Because of warming ties, officials in Beijing and Tokyo are watchful about what Lee will say and do during his trip.
Sino-Japanese relations sharply deteriorated under Abe's predecessor, Koizumi, who upset Beijing by repeatedly visiting Tokyo's Yasukuni Shrine, which honors some convicted war criminals involved in the invasion of China and much of Asia before and during World War II, along with some 2.5 million war dead. During the last few years of Koizumi's five-and-a-half-year premiership, China shunned top-level contacts with Koizumi, even during international conferences in third countries, in protest against what it viewed as his glorification of Japan's militaristic past.
But bilateral relations began to warm up when Shinzo Abe succeeded Koizumi last September and made a fence-mending trip to Beijing soon afterward. In Beijing, Abe met with top Chinese leaders, including President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao. They agreed to "strive to build a mutually beneficial relationship based on common strategic interests", according to a joint press statement issued then.
Lee's visit comes about two months after Wen came to Tokyo in April, becoming the first top-level Chinese leader to step on Japanese soil in nearly seven years. Abe and Wen agreed to boost cooperation in economic, energy, environment and other areas to build "strategic, mutually beneficial relations".
Abe conveyed his intention to visit China some time this year, as requested by Wen. Abe also extended an invitation for Hu to visit Japan early next year. This year marks the 35th anniversary of bilateral diplomatic relations being normalized in 1972, and next year marks the 30th anniversary of the 1978 bilateral peace and friendship treaty.
In his talks with Abe, Wen said, "China will not accept an independent Taiwan, and I want Japan to clearly oppose Taiwan's independence." In response to Wen's request, Abe, who is known as a pro-Taiwan politician, reassured the Chinese leader that Japan will uphold its "one China" policy and will not support Taiwan's independence.
In stark contrast with the Koizumi era, during which Sino-Japanese relations were often said to be "hot in business" amid booming trade and investment but "cold in politics", the April meeting between Abe and Wen was already the third in just six months.
The Japanese and Chinese governments are preparing to set up a bilateral meeting between Abe and Hu on the fringes of the upcoming summit of the Group of Eight (G8) major countries, slated for June 6-8 in Heiligendamm, Germany.
Contrast with Ma's visit
Unlike Lee's visits to Japan, Taiwanese opposition leader Ma Ying-jeou's trip to Japan last July did not spark an angry response from Beijing, reflecting the reality of recent Taiwan politics and cross-strait relations.
After ruling Taiwan with an iron fist for more than half a century, the Kuomintang (KMT), or Nationalist Party, lost power in the 2000 presidential election, which pro-independence Chen Shui-bian won.
The governing Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) led by Chen is widely seen in Tokyo as pro-Japan and anti-China, while the pro-unification KMT is considered anti-Japan and pro-China.
Chen, who won re-election in 2004, is scheduled to leave office next May, two months after Taiwanese go to the polls to elect a new president. That contest will pit the DPP's Frank Hsieh, a former premier, against the main opposition KMT's Ma, a former Taipei mayor.
Since Chen became president in 2000, cross-strait diplomatic relations have been frosty, even as economic linkages have heated up bilateral business. Meanwhile, relations between the KMT and Beijing have warned up. In 2005, then-KMT president Lien Chan 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.
Japan wants status quo
Over the long term, Japan sees China as a potentially formidable security threat. Tokyo has become increasingly alarmed by China's rapid military buildup and increasing naval activities in the seas around Japan. And Japan views gravely the possibility of a Chinese military takeover of Taiwan as it would give Beijing control of the sea lanes that carry the bulk of Japan's oil imports from the Middle East.
In early 2005, the United States and Japan identified a peaceful settlement to tensions in the Taiwan Strait as one of their "common strategic goals" under their security alliance. This raised eyebrows in Beijing, which is alarmed by any possible interference in what it regards as its internal affairs. The Japan-US final agreement signed in May 2006 on the realignment of US bases and forces on Japanese soil will promote further integration of their military operations and pave the way for Tokyo to assert itself in regional and world affairs.
Japan is also investing billions of dollars in a joint missile-defense system with the US, which some experts say could eventually involve Taiwan. In a lecture in 2005, the top leader of Taiwan's de facto embassy in Tokyo called for Japan to legislate a version of the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979, which obliges the US to defend the island in case of an attack. Chen has said that Japan-Taiwan relations are at their closest since their 1972 diplomatic break and expressed hope for a thee-way "quasi-military alliance" among the US, Japan and Taiwan.
Like a majority of Taiwanese, however, both Japan and the US want to see the status quo in cross-strait relations maintained. And there have been serious concerns in Tokyo and Washington that a perceived sudden shift in US security policy could embolden Chen to take steps toward declaring formal independence, risking a cross-strait conflict in which the US would be obliged to intervene.
To be sure, Japan has no formal diplomatic ties with Taiwan. But its relations with Taiwan, a capitalist democracy, have been in full bloom in recent years. At the same time, economic and cultural exchanges between Japan and Taiwan have expanded. Bilateral tourism ballooned after Japan dropped visa requirements, and Taiwan is currently Japan's fourth-largest trading partner.
In a project widely viewed as a symbol of Japan-Taiwan friendship, the 345-kilometer Taiwan High Speed Line between Taipei and Kaohsiung, which uses the Japanese Shinkansen bullet-train technology system, fully opened in March.
There is also strong sympathy toward Lee, not only among many conservative Japanese politicians but among many ordinary Japanese. Lee studied at Kyoto Imperial University, now Kyoto University, in the closing years of World War II, speaks fluent Japanese and has close ties with Japanese politicians. He even wrote a book titled Bushido Kaidai, a commentary on the traditional samurai spirit, a few years ago. The DPP's presidential candidate in next year' election, Frank Hsieh, also studied at Kyoto University and is a fluent speaker of Japanese.
Many Taiwanese are said to harbor pro-Japanese sentiments. Some Taiwanese even think that Japan's 1895-1945 colonial rule in the region contributed to the island's current economic prosperity through the universities, roads and other infrastructure the Japanese left behind. According to a survey conducted by the Taiwanese business magazine Global Review last year, Japan topped the list of countries to which Taiwanese would prefer to emigrate or travel or think is the "greatest".
Lee has been staunchly pro-Japan and even defended Koizumi's Yasukuni visits. On a flight to Tokyo, Lee told Japanese reporters on Wednesday that he himself wanted to visit Yasukuni, where his elder brother is enshrined. Such a visit would draw an angry response from Beijing.
Hisane Masaki is a Tokyo-based journalist, commentator and scholar on international politics and economy. Masaki's e-mail address is [email protected]