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During a virtual keynote speech on Japan-Taiwan relations Wednesday, former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe warned Beijing that an attack on Taiwan would be “economic suicide.”

Beijing immediately lashed out at the former Japanese leader who made the remark at a forum organized by the Institute for National Policy Research, a Taiwanese think tank. A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson expressed China’s “strong dissatisfaction and firm opposition,” denouncing Abe’s remarks as “openly nonsensical” and said: “If you challenge the bottom line of the Chinese people, your head will surely be smashed and start bleeding.”

Japan’s mainstream media are mostly indifferent. No editorial of major newspapers has discussed Abe’s remarks thus far. The exception was the conservative Sankei newspaper, whose Taipei bureau chief reported that officials of Taiwan’s ruling Democratic Progressive Party “felt relieved to hear Abe’s speech.”

Was Abe’s speech “openly nonsensical”?

Cliches such as “strong dissatisfaction and firm opposition” are nothing surprising. In Chinese diplomatic speak, there is no plain “dissatisfaction and opposition.” They are always strong and firm. What was surprising, however, was the use of vulgar expressions such as a “smashed” and “bleeding” head.

As always, Abe was cautious in his use of words. He neither referred to the Republic of China nor Taiwan as an independent state. He neither called for its independence nor separation. Abe never deviated from the 1972 Japan-China Joint Communique in which Japan “fully understands and respects,” but not accepts, China’s position on Taiwan and “firmly maintains its stand under Article 8 of the Potsdam Declaration.”

In his speech, Abe, without saying what Taiwan should or should not do, just stated that “Japan, Taiwan and all the people who believe in democracy need to keep urging President Xi Jinping and other Chinese Communist Party leaders not to step onto the wrong path.”

Will Japan intervene in case China attacks Taiwan?

What might have alarmed China was Abe’s reference to an armed contingency. He said, “A Taiwan contingency is a Japanese contingency, and therefore a contingency for the Japan-U.S. alliance. Beijing, President Xi Jinping in particular, should not have any misunderstanding in recognizing this.”

What Abe said is far from nonsensical. He explained that the Japanese islands including the Senkakus and the Yonaguni island in the East China Sea are geographically too close to Taiwan that China cannot attack and conquer Taiwan without violating or attacking Japanese territories, territorial waters or air space.

Whatever China does militarily — whether by its maritime militia, its military or both — to occupy Taiwan will most likely constitute an armed attack against Japan. That may not only become a Japanese contingency but also trigger Article 5 of the Japan-U.S. mutual security treaty.

What Abe wished to signal to Beijing is for China to consider its ultimate national interests. He said in the virtual forum that “any military adventure in Taiwan will have serious repercussions for the global economy” and therefore “China will suffer badly,” because it is deeply involved in the global economy.

China will be or perhaps is already facing what I call “the middle-income trap with Chinese characteristics.” If China attacked Taiwan in the near future, China could immediately see its wealth and assets evaporate, which the nation and its people worked hard for over the past 40 years. Surely China does not wish for this.

Therefore, Abe went on to say, “A military adventure against Taiwan is the way to economic suicide for China and would also have a significant impact on the world economy,” which China will continue to heavily depend on. As long as China’s political leaders are rational, they will clearly understand what Abe meant to say.

That said, as the English proverb says, “To err is human, to forgive divine.” All people commit sins and make mistakes but only God forgives. Unfortunately, since there is no room for God in the Chinese Communist Party, nobody will be forgiven for their sins and mistakes.

This simply reflects the possibilities that Chinese leaders may make mistakes, as Japan did in the 1930s, by making the strategically wrong decision to pursue its nationalistic goals through the use of military force.

Abe is fully aware of this, which is why he said: “We must continue to demonstrate our determination by building up our economic and military capabilities, and at the same time, we must repeatedly tell China that if it puts its national interests first, peace is the only way forward in cross-strait relations.”

Abe also emphasized in his speech that “A stronger Taiwan, a thriving Taiwan and a Taiwan that guarantees freedom and human rights are also in Japan’s interests. Of course, this is also in the interests of the whole world.” This reflects the views of the great majority of the people in Japan.

The Japan-Taiwan relationship is defined in the above-mentioned 1972 joint communique. As to the future of Taiwan, Japan maintains that Taiwan is to be returned to China in accordance with Paragraph 8 of the Potsdam Declaration. This means that as far as Japan is concerned, the final status of Taiwan is unresolved.

For Japan, however, it also means that Taiwan is an entity to be returned to “China” which is now represented by the government of the People’s Republic of China. Therefore, Japan endorses neither “two Chinas” nor Beijing’s “One-China policy.” This is the essence of the Taiwan deal with China in 1972.

Although this logically means that Japan does not support Taiwan’s independence, Japan also wishes that the issue of Taiwan is to be resolved peacefully.

In this sense, Shinzo Abe’s remarks in his latest speech are perfectly compatible with the 1972 joint communique. As for Beijing, it should avoid using such vulgar expressions.

Kuni Miyake is president of the Foreign Policy Institute and research director at Canon Institute for Global Studies. A former career diplomat, Miyake also serves as a special adviser to Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s Cabinet. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect the positions of the Japanese government.

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