Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to the Yasukuni Shrine has made countries in the region nervous. They believe Abe is sending a message: Not only is Japan back as an economic force, but it has designs on returning as a military force.
Abe’s three-pronged economic renewal policy has given momentum to Japan’s economic recovery. Now, he also wants to implement some of his national defense proposals, to reform the country’s Self-Defense Forces, amend the pacifist constitution and normalize this aspect of Japan’s development.
He would have preferred to wait until the economic situation stabilized before embarking on this national defense reform, but the international situation forced his hand.
Following the Third Plenary Session of the 18th Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Central Committee in Beijing, CCP General Secretary and Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) was given even more license in national security affairs. After promoting young military officers and strengthening the military, he unexpectedly announced a new air defense identification zone that includes the disputed waters around the Diaoyutai Islands (釣魚台) and immediately sent a Chinese aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, into the area.
South Korea responded by announcing its own air defense zone, something Japan did not take too kindly to. Abe, his popularity undermined after railroading a contentious state secrets bill into law, visited the Yasukuni Shrine to pander to conservative elements and shore up his popularity.
The visit was met by vociferous opposition from China and South Korea, and Japan’s main diplomatic ally, the US, was not impressed. Luckily for Abe, Okinawa finally — and with exquisite timing — approved the relocation of a US military base on the island. This means that the controversial US military presence can remain in Okinawa, thereby securing Japan’s strategic status as part of the so-called “first island chain” and mitigating some of the US’ dissatisfaction.
Meanwhile, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is developing nuclear weapons, and this, together with the recent decision to purge his uncle, Jang Song-thaek, and Kim’s refusal to rule out launching an attack, has left South Korea jittery.
This was the climate in Northeast Asia late last year. Although Taiwan does not have a major role to play in these affairs, moves by any of the countries in the region have repercussions for its national security and development, and the complex international situation is testing Taiwan’s foreign affairs capabilities.
The government seems to have high expectations that a meeting between President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) and Xi will occur during the APEC summit to be held in Beijing this year. Although Ma said in an interview that Beijing has already ruled out a meeting between the two men, Mainland Affairs Council Minister Wang Yu-chi (王郁琦) is set to discuss the possibility of such a meeting in imminent talks with Taiwan Affairs Office Director Zhang Zhijun (張志軍).
Even if Ma did attend the APEC summit in the capacity of a leader of an economic entity and shakes hands with Xi, this will not change China’s stance on Taiwan, nor will it change the international community’s attitude toward Taiwan’s status.
What could bring about change are the concessions that the government could make to secure this meeting. Taiwanese, who will be the ones to bear the consequences of these concessions, will have to pay close attention to any deals that are being made.