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Sino-Japan ties poised for improvement while cross-strait tensions rise

Updated On: Oct 02, 2007

In the same week, Northeast Asia sees both positive and negative forces at work that are likely to have wider implications for the Asian region. 

Beijing is trying to convince the international community that it is serious about stopping Taiwanese attempts at independence and would go all out to stop it. Just to be sure its message gets across in case its indirect warnings have failed, China has even privately indicated to Taiwan's main backer - the United States - that it is well-prepared for a military strike against the island, so says a recent report by the Stratfor intelligence agency. Options considered by Beijing are a partial sea blockade or occupying a small islet just off Taiwan.

Regardless of the reliability or accuracy of this information, the issue is important enough for Chinese President Hu Jintao to personally call for 'harsher warnings' to Taiwan when meeting his US counterpart George W. Bush at the APEC summit in Australia. President Hu also said that cross-strait relations had entered a 'highly dangerous period'. Mr Jia Qinglin, the Communist Party's fourth-ranking official, also said: 'Taiwan independence activities are extremely rampant, pushing the situation in the Taiwan Strait into a period of high danger.' Mr Jia had painstakingly carried this message to senior politicians in Japan.

Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi urged Japan to abide by its pledge and properly handle the Taiwan question. During a meeting with his Japanese counterpart, Masahiko Komura, on the sidelines of the 62nd session of the United Nations General Assembly, Yang expressed appreciation that Japan does not support Taiwan's attempt to "join" the United Nations. Komura reiterated that there has been no change in Japan's stance on the Taiwan question as stated in the Japan-China Joint Statement, and that Japan does not support Taiwan's "joining" the United Nations.

The Prime Minister of China also went into action. "We will continue to work with all the Taiwan compatriots to oppose and repulse separatist activities for 'Taiwan independence' and advance the great cause of China's peaceful reunification," Wen Jiabao said.

The cause of Chinese anxiety is that Taiwan's ruling party has succeeded in passing a resolution asserting the island's separate identity and calling for a referendum on its sovereignty. The resolution calls for holding a referendum on Taiwan's sovereignty, and making the island's formal name "Taiwan." It also calls for the enactment of a new constitution. "We should rectify our name to Taiwan and enact a new constitution as soon as possible," the resolution said. "A public referendum should be held at an appropriate time to underscore Taiwan as a sovereign state."

The Taiwanese leader Chen Shui-bian is also seeking UN membership for the island under the name 'Taiwan', instead of its formal title 'Republic of China'. This is a last minute attempt by lame-duck scandal-hit President Chen - who has only eight months left in office - to hold the nationwide referendum alongside Taiwan's presidential polls on 22 March 2008. This is supposedly his last attempt to leave a legacy for himself.

In other moves to assert its independence from China, Taiwanese officials have announced plans to revise school textbooks to drop references that recognize Chinese historical figures, places and artifacts as "national" and said they were considering abandoning Taiwan's long-standing policy of recognizing Mandarin Chinese as the island's only official language.

While all these are happening across the Taiwan straitBeijing can at least heave an easier sigh that its nearest and most powerful neighbour, Japan, has a dovish old China hand at its helm. In addition, many of the new members of the cabinet have a more moderate stance on China and its rising power. This can only be positive for China which needs all the international support now in countering its Taiwanese pro-independence rival.

For example, Kisaburo Tokai, Minister of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology, aged 59, belongs to the pro-China Taku Yamasaki faction that had been at odds with former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's foreign policies. Masahiko Komura, Foreign Minister, aged 65, is the chairman of the parliamentary league to promote friendship between Japan and China. In a bilateral defense ministers' meeting in Tokyo in August, Komura strongly urged his counterpart, Cao Gangchuan, to make China's military spending more transparent.

Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda himself has showed sensitivity to China’s feelings revealing that he decided not to run for president of the Liberal Democratic Party last September because he did not want to make Yasukuni Shrine the focus of the race. He was not at ease with the outgoing Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s visits to the Shinto shrine, which honors Japan's war dead as well as Class-A war criminals. Koizumi’s repeated visits to Yasukuni had strained relations with China and South Korea.

In contrast to both former Prime Ministers, Koizumi and Abe, who were more hawkish in their foreign policies, Fukuda is an advocate of more conciliatory policies toward Japan's Asian neighbors, especially China.  In his first maiden policy speech (1 Oct 2007), Fukuda pledged to pursue a “peace-creating diplomacy” by working with China to contribute to peace and stability in Asia and to strengthen ties withSouth Korea and ASEAN.

"I think the Sino-Japanese relationship will further improve. He has strong personal connections with China," said Tomohito Shinoda, a professor at the International University of Japan and an expert on diplomacy.  (2 October 2007)

Sources:

Fukuda pledges diplomacy of peace (Straits Times, 2 October 2007)

Japan urged to abide by pledge, properly handle Taiwan question (People’s Daily, 30 September 2007)

Taiwan party asserts separate identity (AP, 30 September 2007)

China may stop Taiwan's UN poll by force-Experts (Straits Times, 29 September 2007)

Yasukuni issue kept me out of '06 presidential race: Fukuda(Japan Times, 29 September 2007)

Cabinet Who's Who: PROFILES OF FUKUDA NEW TEAM (Asahi, 27 September 2007)

Fukuda's pragmatism to prevail (Japan Times, 25 September 2007)