It is hard to believe that retired ambassador Saito Masaki, head of the Japan Interchange Association (JIA), Tokyo’s de facto embassy in Taipei, would deliver himself of so profound a “personal” observation as “Taiwan’s status is unsettled” without instructions from his government. With the Taipei government increasingly inclined to define Taiwan as China’s sovereign territory, it’s no wonder Japan is alarmed. Taiwanese themselves should be alarmed. Taiwan’s post-World War II “undetermined” international status, an explicit artifact of the San Francisco Peace Treaty, is after all the metaphysical nucleus of Japan’s relationship with Taiwan.
It is the core precept in the US’ relationship with Taiwan as well. Other countries that signed the treaty, like the UK, Australia and Canada, also share a philosophical appreciation of Taiwan’s "undetermined-ness,” although 58 years later, they don’t necessarily lie abed every night fretting about it. Taiwan’s “undetermined” status does, however, keep Japanese diplomats awake at night — at least the ones dealing with China and Taiwan. It is possible that in his talk at Sun Yat-sen University’s international affairs symposium in Chiayi on May 1, Saito may have slipped from his intended talking point: ie, that Japan “takes no position” on the matter of Taiwan’s international status. This was the alternative position that JIA Chairman Atsushi Hatakenaka proffered in response to the partisan firestorm of indignation that swept the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) last week.
In the eyes of the KMT, it is evidently permissible for the Japanese government to say it “takes no position,” but Japan must not be allowed to explain why. And the “why,” as Saito so impolitely put it, is because Japan’s government believes “Taiwan’s status is undetermined.” A better question is why the KMT cares if the Japanese representative’s statements reflect his government’s views. Surely the KMT remembers that Japan broke relations with the KMT’s “Republic of China” (ROC) in 1972 and instead recognized the People’s Republic of China (PRC) as the “sole legal government” of “one China.” But while Japan “respected” China’s claims to Taiwan in 1972, deep down inside, the Japanese government really does consider Taiwan to be a separate entity from the PRC — and calling Taiwan’s status “undetermined” is the only workable way around the issue.
Americans make similar “misstatements,” but not so elegantly or so well thought-out. In August 2007, Dennis Wilder, then US president George W. Bush’s senior Asia adviser, allowed his tongue to slip in a direction just the opposite of Saito’s — but botched it completely: “Taiwan, or the Republic of China,” he stammered, “is not at this point a state in the international community.” He then confused the issue by adding: “The position of the United States government is that the ROC — Republic of China — is an issue undecided, and it has been left undecided, as you know, for many, many years.” Wrong, wrong, and (oh my!) wrong again.
The “Republic of China” does not exist in US eyes. The PRC succeeded the ROC as “China.” As far as the US government is concerned, there is only one China and the PRC is China’s sole legal government. Period. There is nothing “undecided” about the US position on the “ROC” at all, I’m afraid. That’s the essence of the Dec. 16, 1978, Normalization Communique. Wilder, unlike Saito, apparently did not take the time to distinguish mentally between “Taiwan” and the “Republic of China,” otherwise he would have noted that Taiwan — not the “ROC” — was the “undecided issue.”