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Taipei’s new Tokyo envoy pick has affinity for Japan, looks to strengthen ties

by Ko Shu-Ling

Kyodo

Taiwanese foreign policy is often criticized for its preoccupation with China and the United States at the expense of its relations with other nations, especially regional neighbors. But that may be about to change.

The incoming Democratic Progressive Party government of Tsai Ing-wen is taking a significant step toward redressing this imbalance with the appointment of former Premier Frank Hsieh as the island’s chief representative to Japan.

Revealing his acceptance of the new position last week, Hsieh said his appointment indicates the Tsai administration attaches great importance to Taiwan-Japan relations.

Indeed, Hsieh’s resume is particularly suited to his new post.

Educated at Kyoto University, where he studied law in the 1970s, Hsieh, 69, speaks fluent Japanese and is broadly familiar with the county’s history and culture.

As a longtime member of the DPP’s inner circle, Hsieh is also widely respected as a pragmatist with a keen intellect and a straight shooter who isn’t afraid to speak his mind.

Elaborating on these strengths, experts have been quick to commend the move by the incoming administration, which will assume full power with Tsai’s inauguration later this month.

Wong Ming-hsien, director of the Graduate Institute of International Affairs and Strategic Studies at Tamkang University, commented that sending Hsieh to Japan suggests Tsai attaches great importance to Taiwan’s ties with its island neighbor.

In addition to acknowledging the historical and economic nature of these ties, Wong said Hsieh’s appointment “bears strategic significance.”

By developing a closer relationship with Japan, Tsai will indirectly bolster relations with the United States by dint of the strength of the U.S.-Japanese alliance.

With ties between Japan and China currently strained, cultivating relations with both would also give Taiwan a strategic advantage between the two, as it did in 2013 when Japan agreed to long-sought concessions that led to its landmark fisheries agreement with Taiwan.

Finally, a stronger connection with Japan would help reinforce Tsai’s “go south” policy, which is also adopted by the Abe administration to diversify its focus from China to India and Southeast Asian countries.

Hsieh was born in 1946 to a blue-collar family from “Blacksmith Street” in the famous Tataocheng section of old Taipei, graduating with a bachelor of law degree from National Taiwan University before pursuing advanced studies in Japan.

While working as a lawyer in the 1970s, Hsieh was drawn into the rising democratic reform movement, serving as defense counsel for those indicted in the 1979 “Formosa Incident,” which involved an anti-government demonstration.

Hsieh went on to devote much of his life to public service.

In 1986, he helped found, and named, the Democratic Progressive Party. He twice served as party chairman, was twice elected mayor of Kaohsiung, did two stints as a Taipei City councilor, two stints as a legislative lawmaker, and was once a DPP legislator at large.

In 1996, Hsieh stood as party candidate for vice president in the country’s first presidential election, losing to the Nationalist Party (KMT) ticket.

In 2005, he was appointed premier, and three years later led the DPP in the 2008 presidential election, which he lost to current President Ma Ying-jeou.

As a senior DPP member still active in politics and working closely with Tsai, it is clear that Hsieh’s posting to Japan is more than a figurehead appointment.

Even for a political workhorse like Hsieh, current Taiwan-Japan affairs include a list of issues requiring attention that can only be called daunting.

From immediate concerns about disputed territory in the East China Sea, a pending economic cooperation agreement, ongoing fisheries negotiations and restrictions on Japanese food imports since the Fukushima nuclear disaster started, to touchier problems of defense cooperation and the decades-old controversy over Taiwanese wartime “comfort women,” Hsieh will have his hands full. Comfort women were made to work in Japanese army brothels around the time of World War II.

This is not to say Hsieh’s tenure as Taiwan’s de facto ambassador to Japan will not have an upside, as the former colony and colonizer enjoy one of the most stable and mutually respectful relationships in the region.

The appointment will also afford Hsieh plenty of opportunity to enjoy Japanese ramen, his love of which is well known.