The balance of power in East Asia is a tenuous thing, and can be tipped in an uncontrollable direction in various ways if the players involved are not careful. This is why Japanese Diet members told visiting Taiwanese lawmakers that they should not sidle up so close to the People’s Republic of China after a recent dispute over the Diaoyutai Islands (釣魚台), which Taiwan, Japan and China all claim, and which ended up taking an ominous twist.
Currently, East Asia, especially the countries on the Pacific Rim, is experiencing an era of almost unprecedented peace. No major wars, neither land nor sea, have unsettled this conflict-free period in more than three decades. This state of affairs has allowed one of the fastest and deepest economic expansions of any region in world history. Where 40 years ago this region was characterized by rural, agrarian societies with bloody rebellions going on everywhere and revolutionary movements ripping cultures apart, today there are Starbucks outlets and 7-Elevens on street corners in all major cities in the area and the region has become the world’s factory.
There is a lot to lose and playing around with the balance of power is not something that should be done lightly. Japan knows this from its drastic experience prior to and during World War II. Imperial Japan tipped the scales in the late 1930s, and paid the price.
The situation now is even more dynamic, and potentially more explosive, than it was back then. In the 1930s, the center of world economic power was in Europe. Now, the world’s second-biggest and third-biggest — China and Japan respectively — economies are in Asia. China fields one of the world’s largest militaries and it is becoming increasingly advanced. Japan also has the potential to throw its weight around, despite its pacifist constitution.
On the peripheries of both of these countries are smaller but very powerful players — Taiwan, South Korea, Vietnam, Singapore. If the military balance were to be tipped out of whack, ASEAN could get involved, and the US military, which has bases and interests everywhere, would be sure to throw its weight into the ring.
The intricacies of this military balance are profound and all-encompassing. It is a bad idea for Taiwan, under the leadership of the President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) administration, to trample on the military balance by cozying up too much to a country that has hitherto been Taiwan’s enemy.
In a luncheon with Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party representatives Yoshitaka Shindo and Hakubun Shimomura, as well as Democratic Party of Japan representative Shozo Azuma — all major players in Japanese politics — the visiting Taiwanese legislators were told that Taiwan should not venture overly close to China to maintain the balance of power. This veiled warning came shortly after Coast Guard Administration ships escorted a fishing vessel carrying Chunghua Baodiao Alliance activists to within eyeshot of the Diaoyutais, several of which Japan administers. In a provocative twist to the event, one of the Baodao members unfurled a People’s Republic of China flag as his boat was being escorted by coats guard vessels from Taiwan flying the Republic of China flag and as a Japanese coast guard vessel confronted them.
The flag incident could send a signal that Taiwan is now in the China camp, which would be a major shift in the region’s strategic alliance and would effectively transform the balance of power if it were true.