Although the government cited “humanitarian reasons” in deciding to issue an entry visa to former Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui, the Foreign Ministry recognizes the decision will have political implications and will certainly serve Tokyo-Beijing ties yet another blow.
To avoid further turbulence in its diplomatic relations with China, which have already been strained through a dispute over a history textbook and curbs on farm imports, the government has taken pains to ensure Lee will not engage in any political activities during his visit.
It has limited his itinerary to a medical checkup by a heart surgeon in Okayama Prefecture. Nevertheless, a senior ministry official said, “China will be furious that Lee has been allowed entry into Japan for whatever reason.”
He noted that Lee is still considered a political figure of some stature and, even in retirement, is a symbol of Taiwan’s independence movement. China considers Taiwan a renegade province, and furiously opposes any overseas trips by its political leaders.
Taiwan, on the other hand, will feel that Lee’s entry into Japan constitutes a victory in its diplomatic efforts to win recognition from the international community, the official said. “It’s a matter of 50 years of rivalry between mainland China and Taiwan, and we don’t want them to use Japan as a stage for that,” the official said.
China has already warned against the visa issuance several times. On Thursday, Chinese Ambassador to Japan Chen Jian visited Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda and officially voiced opposition toward the move.
Moreover, on Friday night the Chinese Foreign Ministry summoned Koreshige Anami, Japan’s ambassador to Beijing, again in an apparent show of protest. Ministry officials in charge of Asian relations are worried that China will go as far as to temporarily recall Ambassador Chen back to Beijing.
Some other officials in the ministry predict, however, that the issue will not pose a serious threat to bilateral ties in the long term, as Japan continues to give a considerable amount of economic aid to China and is also its major trading partner.
Initially, the government had hoped that Lee would back down quietly if he learned of Japan’s intention not to issue him with a visa. This was the case in October, when Lee decided not to apply for a visa despite his wish to attend an international symposium in Nagano Prefecture.
These hopes were smashed, however, after Lee filed application documents on April 10 with Japan’s top representative in Taipei, Shintaro Yamashita. Japanese officials remained indecisive on the matter for days, provoking criticism from both Taiwan and China, as well as from domestic politicians and the domestic media.
Divisions inside the government were exposed, and officials made inconsistent remarks on the issue.
Just a week ago Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda and Foreign Minister Yohei Kono were still insisting that the visa application had not been filed formally. Senior Vice Foreign Minister Seishiro Eto said, however, he had confirmed with the Taipei representative that Lee had submitted the application documents.
Eto went on to suggest that Japan should issue a visa for Lee. “The government should decide on the matter promptly as the application was filed by a private citizen who is in a serious health condition,” Eto told a news conference on April 12.
Outgoing Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori, known as a pro-Taiwan lawmaker, also instructed the Foreign Ministry to reconsider the matter from a humanitarian viewpoint. But Kono continued to resist, delaying a final decision until a few days before Lee’s planned arrival.
Echoing Kono’s sentiments, another ministry official said, “We have the textbook issue and other difficult problems with China . . .we feel that we cannot make the relations with China any worse than now.”
Despite these concerns, the opinions expressed by the domestic media and lawmakers increasingly shifted in favor of a visa for Lee. Last week, a group of some 90 Diet members from across party lines urged Mori and Kono to issue a visa, claiming that Lee is now a private citizen and needs to visit Japan desperately to receive medical treatment. The lawmakers argued that Japan should make its decision as a sovereign state, rather than fearing criticism from China.
In recent years, resentment toward China has been growing in Japanese political circles. Questions have been raised as to whether Japan should continue extending large-scale official aid to China as it continues its large-scale military buildup program.
Yasuhisa Shiozaki, one of the group’s representatives from the LDP, criticized the ministry’s indecision, saying it further clouded the issue by delaying its decision.
The group also visited Chinese Ambassador Chen on Wednesday and asked him not to interfere with Japan’s decision. Katsuei Hirasawa, an LDP member and another representative of the group, said he explained to Chen that allowing Lee entry into Japan does not mean that Japan has altered its policy toward Taiwan.
“It doesn’t mean that Japan is recognizing two Chinas,” he said. “The issue is simply about granting a visa to a private citizen.”
Eventually, the Foreign Ministry was unable to resist the mounting pressures urging it to make humanitarian considerations. “If the visa was not issued after all the (wrangling), Japan’s public sentiment toward China would have turned worse,” another senior ministry official said. “It’s also a no-win situation for China.”
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