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Former Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui is now on a “private” visit to Japan with a visa the Japanese government issued after days of vacillation — and with strings attached: Mr. Lee should stay in Kurashiki City, Okayama Prefecture, where he will get a medical checkup, and should not conduct any political activities during his stay. He arrived here on Sunday for a five-day visit.

The government’s attitude toward Mr. Lee’s visa application flip-flopped, exposing the diplomatic dilemmas Japan faces in its relations with China and Taiwan. In the end, the outgoing administration of Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori decided to approve Mr. Lee’s application on humanitarian grounds, overriding strong objections from Beijing. When we look back at the visit some time in the future, the decision may turn out to have been a turning point.

China occupies a central position in Japan’s Asian diplomacy, and the Taiwan issue is key to Japanese diplomacy toward China. So far, Japan has “taken a servile attitude toward China, always looking for its reaction,” a Foreign Ministry official who supports Mr. Lee’s visit is reported as saying. That attitude will likely change — at least it will become more balanced. Contributing to that likelihood is the fact that an increasing number of Japanese are beginning to feel uneasy about China’s projection of power.

Public opinion in Southeast Asia seems to be subtly changing, too. It is reported, for instance, that diplomats in the region expect Japan to act as a “counterbalance” to China. In this context, a Japanese diplomat makes an interesting point in his recent book “Chinese Prestige vs. Japanese Pride: Toward Rebuilding International Relations in East Asia.” In it, he says China’s neighboring countries traditionally have cultivated nationalism in reaction to the expansion of Chinese power.

One indication of Japan’s changing public opinion vis-a-vis China is that the nation’s leading dailies have editorially supported a visit by Mr. Lee as a private individual. This is significant, since the Japanese media have almost always been sympathetic toward China. In fact, it is the first time since the early 1970s, when Japan established diplomatic relations with Beijing and severed its official ties with Taipei, that those newspapers have taken a unanimous stand in favor of Taiwan.

Opinion surveys here find that a growing number of Japanese “dislike” China. This is a potentially dangerous trend that, should it accelerate, could lead to discrimination against Chinese. Nevertheless it is a trend that Japan cannot ignore in building its China policy. It should be noted that antipathy toward China and sympathy toward Taiwan, particularly toward Japanophiles like Mr. Lee, are often two sides of the same coin.

Mr. Lee’s visit to Japan does not mean that Japan will shift to a policy of “two Chinas” or “one China, one Taiwan.” However, Japan-China relations, already strained over the history-textbook issue and import restrictions imposed on some Chinese farm products, will likely deteriorate further — the very prospect that prompted the Foreign Ministry to oppose a Lee visit. The government should reassure Beijing that the “one China” policy mutually affirmed at the time of Sino-Japanese normalization in 1972 remains unchanged.

The administration of U.S. President George W. Bush is watching closely to see whether Mr. Lee’s trip will lead Japan to edge closer to Taiwan, despite the one-China policy. With Washington and Beijing facing off over the spy-plane incident and planned U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, the Bush administration appears concerned about how Tokyo would respond if it again faced a divisive issue affecting its ties with Beijing, particularly one with security implications for the United States.

What if a military crisis erupted across the Taiwan Strait? The new Japan-U.S. guidelines for defense cooperation do not make clear whether Taiwan is included in “areas surrounding Japan” where cooperation is anticipated. The U.S. government has indicated that it expects Japan to cooperate in the event of a cross-strait contingency. However, the Japanese position remains ambiguous, which makes it likely that Japan would be thrown into policy confusion if such an emergency occurred.

With the Cold War over, China critics in the U.S. see the communist state as a new “threat” to America. The Bush administration portrays China as a rival. A confrontational approach to China would be counterproductive, but the possibility of a military clash across the Taiwan Strait cannot be ruled out. Were it to happen, however, Japan could be watching from the sidelines, as a U.S. pundit warns, not because it maintained a firm China policy but because of sharp splits in domestic public opinion. The Lee visit provides an opportunity for the nation to rethink the strategic meaning of the Taiwan issue.

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