TAIPEI – Taipei’s relations with Tokyo will remain strong despite jitters in Taiwan over whether new Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda will distance his country from the embattled island, experts say.
Like Shinzo Abe, his predecessor, Fukuda is expected to seek improved relations with Beijing as prime minister, but at what cost — if any — to Taiwan, is a question that now looms large in Taipei.
“People say that (Fukuda) is good to China,” said David Wang, Taiwan’s Foreign Ministry spokesman. “However, we don’t speculate on such matters.”
Despite anxiety as to future relations with Japan, the self-ruled island claimed by Beijing has little to fear beyond a “time-out” in high-level meetings, said Luo Chi-cheng, a Japan watcher and director of the independence-advocate Taiwan Thinktank.
China’s territorial claims in contested waters near Japan and security issues involving Beijing “are points of friction that any Japanese prime minister must face,” Luo said.
China became Japan’s top trading partner in 2004, forcing Tokyo under Abe two years later to improve relations with China after a frosty stint in diplomacy with Beijing under his predecessor, Junichiro Koizumi.
“There may be more diplomacy and compromising with China by Japan under Fukuda, but the problems will always be there,” Luo said. “That won’t change under any leader in Tokyo.”
Under threat of attack by Beijing, Taiwan — a democratic island of 23 million — relies heavily on help from the United States and Japan for its security.
The island has been self-governed since 1949, when the Chinese nationalists and communists split at the end of a civil war in China, with the nationalists fleeing to Taiwan while the communists established their government in Beijing.
Beijing has since claimed the island as its own, vowing to unify it with the mainland, and threatens to invade it if it moves too far toward formal statehood.
Although legally obliged to help Taiwan defend itself against China, Washington is perennially irked by Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian’s proindependence agenda, and appears to waver in its commitment to protect Taiwan as trade relations between the United States and China also take off.
Chen’s support for a referendum next year on whether Taiwan should enter the United Nations under the name Taiwan, a move slammed by Beijing and Washington as needlessly provocative, is the latest example of rocky relations between Washington and Taipei.
Amid that rockiness, Taiwanese officials should also brace themselves for a lull in meetings with high-level Japanese officials as Fukuda courts Beijing, even as unofficial ties between Taiwan and Japan and Taiwan’s strategic importance to Tokyo grow, Luo said.
“Changes will happen in the way high-level officials from Taiwan and Japan interact,” he added.
Fortunately for Taiwan, Fukuda is just as focused on maintaining peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait as he is on boosting ties with China, said Luo Fu-chuan, Taiwan’s former de facto ambassador to Japan in the absence of official diplomatic relations.
“(Fukuda) has always been focused on Asian security. He seeks to employ peaceful means to maintain the status quo in the Taiwan Strait,” he said.
“I can’t see any big changes in Japan-Taiwan relations on the horizon,” he added. “Japan won’t sacrifice Taiwan for China.”