Sunday, June 15, 2008

What’s behind the Diaoyutais Incident?

During his presidential campaign, Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) always emphasized how, if elected, he would strive to achieve better relations with Beijing and the US. Now that he has been elected, the first half of his promise appears to be underway while the second remains to be determined. But what about countries? Surely, any self-respecting country would seek to improve relations with as many governments as possible.

Sadly, it would appear that Japan is of little importance to the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) administration. First, its large delegation was snubbed in Ma’s inaugural speech and now, following the collision between a Taiwanese fishing boat and a Japanese patrol boat off the Diaoyutai islands, what should have been a minor incident is being turned, somewhere, into a disproportionate row, with Taiwan’s representative to Japan being recalled on Saturday. This is not to mention, of course, the abominably irresponsible —and dangerous — remark by Premier Liu Chao-shiuan (劉兆玄) that he could not rule out going to war against Japan over the contested islands, words that, even if discredited by their sheer idiocy, will nevertheless be picked up in Tokyo and cannot but strain relations. Allies do not use such language when talking about one another; China did — still does — over Taiwan, but then again, we’re supposed to be friends now.

All of this points out to a two-pronged strategy of rapprochement with Beijing and distancing from Japan. A new regional divide may be in the process of being created, and the ramifications for Taiwan’s sovereignty are serious.

The danger in alienating Tokyo (aside from the risk of losing an ally who has made assisting Taiwan in case of a military invasion by China part and parcel of its security arrangement with Washington) is that it risks creating unnecessary complications with the US, whose Asia-Pacific security strategy finds its center of gravity in Japan. A Taiwan that, through its rhetoric as much as its actions, integrates the Chinese circle at the expense of other allies will have direct repercussions on Japan’s sense of security and wariness vis-à-vis Beijing’s intentions. Forced to choose between Taiwan and Japan, the US would undoubtedly choose the latter, which would risk pushing Taipei ever deeper into China’s embrace. Without US help, security guarantees for Taiwan would be nil, and its sources of weapons procurement would dry up. Without these, and absent a diversity of strong allies, formal or nominal, Taipei would no longer be in a position of strength to negotiate with Beijing. Nor could it defend itself if those negotiations failed.

These events also dovetail with the almost complete disappearance of President Ma from public view, which lends credence, as I have argued before, to the theory that he serves as a front for unelected officials, for a select few whose objectives certainly do not coincide with the interests of Taiwanese and of the millions who voted for the KMT in March. When an international incident such as the Diaoyutai one occurs, and when such an incident risks being blown out of proportion, any president would intervene and make public statements or get on the phone with his counterpart in the other country. Ma hasn’t. Images of Taiwanese stepping on the Japanese flag in anger — behavior of a type rarely seen in Taiwan — is also strikingly reminiscent of state-managed “spontaneous” demonstrations in China, as occurs whenever a Japanese prime minister visits the Yasukuni shrine or when the US “mistakenly” bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in 1999. Might not these demonstrations also have been stage-managed to exacerbate tensions and, with help from pro-KMT media, create a public consciousness of adversity toward Japan?

It may be too soon to make such assertions. Perhaps all of this is just coincidence and incompetence. Even if this were the case (and let us hope that it is) diplomacy involves as much error and unintended consequences as it does well-crafted policy. It would be disheartening if an unfortunate, albeit not uncommon, incident at sea prompted a divide between Taiwan and a country that has been a staunch ally in the past fifty years.

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