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Beijing aside, Tsai presidency looks to draw Taipei closer to Tokyo

by Ko Shu-Ling

Kyodo

Taiwan’s new president, Tsai Ing-wen, has appointed two high-ranking members of her party to handle the island’s relations with Japan.

Former Premier Frank Hsieh will serve as Taiwan’s de facto ambassador to Japan, the Presidential Office announced last Friday, while former Presidential Office Secretary-General Chiou I-jen will head the Association of East Asian Relations, Taiwan’s Foreign Ministry-linked agency tasked with handling ties with Japan in the absence of formal diplomatic relations.

Commenting on Chiou’s appointment, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Eleanor Wan said that, because Tsai relies heavily on Chiou’s service, he is certain to “warm up” relations with Japan.

Indeed, analysts agree that such high-level appointments, like those of Chiou and Hsieh, signal the importance attached to Taiwan-Japan relations by the Tsai administration, and the likelihood that these will improve during Tsai’s presidency.

Given Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s greater affinity for Tsai’s Democratic Progressive Party than he has had with former Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou’s Nationalist Party (KMT), it is also possible Japan will take a more proactive approach in dealing with Taiwan, said Richard Bush, director of the Center for Northeast Asian Policy Studies at the Brookings Institution.

How these dealings play out over the next four years of DPP rule is anyone’s guess of course, but two factors loom large in most calculations, Bush said.

First is the scope of Japan-Taiwan cooperation. Will it focus only on economic issues, which could help the economies of both nations, or will it encompass territorial claims and the sharing of natural resources, which could benefit the region as a whole?

Indeed, Taiwan and Japan have already engaged in such cooperation in their 2013 agreement to resolve a long-standing fisheries dispute in the East China Sea, providing a beacon of responsible compromise at a time when numerous similar conflicts have been left to fester amid diplomatic saber-rattling.

There is also the question of whether Japan-Taiwan cooperation will also extend to defense, which would be more sensitive, especially if it includes sharing military technology and conducting joint training exercises.

Second is the potential fallout from closer ties.

These could provide a degree of leverage for Taiwan and Japan in negotiating with China, encouraging Beijing to behave less imperiously than it has in recent years. Or cooperation between Japan and Taiwan could create greater hostility.

“The critical question for Abe is how he balances his diplomacy toward Taiwan with that toward China,” Bush said. “It seems he wants to improve both. That’s not so easy when Taiwan (and) China are not so friendly.”

Bush’s colleague at Brookings, Evans J.R. Revere, takes a different tack, warning against an overly hawkish interpretation of closer Japan-Taiwan ties, noting that relations between the two have long been good, and were so under the previous Ma administration, which negotiated the fisheries pact.

What counts going forward are the “specific initiatives Japan is prepared to take,” Revere said.

Commending Hsieh’s appointment as Taiwan’s representative to Japan, and Tsai’s inaugural address last month as a “balanced attempt to . . . extend a hand of cooperation to the mainland,” Revere also sees no reason to believe that Beijing may be plotting a confrontation in the East and South China seas to coincide with election year turmoil in the United States, as some have suggested.

This is not to say China’s reaction to Taiwan-Japan relations is unimportant.

While analysts do not foresee a military conflict in the Taiwan Strait, they agree that Beijing will continue to pressure Tsai to accept the “1992 consensus” or “one China” principle.

The “1992 consensus” refers to a meeting that took place in 1992 between semiofficial representatives of Taiwan and China, in which the two sides are reported to have agreed on the one China principle. Controversies remain on the outcome of that meeting and what was agreed.

And, if Beijing considers her reassurances insufficient and opts for a more aggressive response, Tsai is likely to look to the United States for assistance, and Japan would be critical to supporting a U.S. show of force on behalf of Taiwan.

In any such scenario, Bush said, Tsai should act based on her principles and interests and “It is best when Taiwan stands on the side of peaceful resolution of disputes based on international law.”

As for Japan, Bush said, “the Abe administration — along with other countries — should counsel China that it is unnecessarily making a bad situation worse.”