President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) and the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) have found themselves dragged into the political mess that is the result of former Executive Yuan secretary-general Lin Yi-shih’s (林益世) allegedly being caught with his hand in the cookie jar. Their backpedaling tactics and lame promises to crack down on corruption are pretty obvious, but the worst consequence is the sudden outbreak of tensions between Taiwan and Japan, one of the nation’s closest allies, over a few rocks in the Pacific that both sides claim as their sovereign territory.
There is no proof that Ma, the KMT or anyone involved in the Lin corruption case deliberately instigated this latest spat of tensions between Taiwan and Japan over the Diaoyutai Islands (釣魚台), but its timing seems suspicious. The Lin case was making waves throughout the nation’s media just days before Coast Guard Administration decided to escort a fishing boat to within spitting distance of the islands, provoking a confrontation with Japanese coast guard vessels.
Why is it that this issue, which has not been high on the agenda for four years, has once again become an irritant in Taiwan-Japan relations?
This boat, ostensibly sent to protect Republic of China (ROC) sovereignty, set off in such a hurry that activists aboard said they had no time to grab an ROC flag and had to make do with one from the People’s Republic of China.
Is it possible that Ma and the KMT are deliberately trying to inflame anti-Japanese sentiment among some segments of the population to distract their attention from the ongoing investigations?
Obviously, it is not a question that can be answered, but if this is indeed Ma’s intention, it would be short-sighted in the worst possible way. If a cross-strait conflict were to ever occur, Japan would be the only country likely to come to Taiwan’s aid, besides the US. Protection in the form of US air and sea power would be launched from Japanese soil; Tokyo has declared peace in the Taiwan Strait a national interest; and it would not stand by and meekly watch if China threatened its sea lanes with a cross-strait war.
It is not a good idea to provoke tensions with the one country that is most likely to come to your rescue if a giant neighbor decides to invade.
However, that is exactly what the Ma administration is doing by sending coast guard vessels to escort fanatical activists to within eyeshot of these disputed islets. And this is not the first time the Ma administration has decided to do this for short-term political gain.
When Ma had just been inaugurated for his first term in 2008, activists, under the watchful eye of Taiwanese authorities, did the same thing, resulting in Japan lodging a protest. Back then, Ma was likely trying to send a message to Beijing about his intentions to side with China over Japan. This time, though, his reasons do not even appear strategic, just politically motivated.
It would be regrettable if the Ma administration were to jeopardize Taiwan’s relationship with Japan just so he can turn the public’s anger away from his government’s alleged corrupt dealings. Not only would this alienate a loyal friend of Taiwan, but it would also put the nation’s ability to defend itself with the aid of allies in danger, should China decide to attack.