In an effort to diversify Taiwan’s economy, President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) has begun a much-needed southbound policy. In plain terms, it is a move that is good for business.
In a constantly and regularly changing world, even the most simplistic economist knows that one should never put all one’s eggs in one basket. That was Taiwan’s problem under former president Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) and one of the reasons his party was voted out of office. Such a policy puts any nation at risk, as well as at the mercy of the nation that can overturn that basket, in this case, the much larger nation, China. And China has already shown that it can do this by turning off the tap of its tourism industry.
However, while a southbound policy is good for economic diversity to preserve Taiwan’s nationhood and democracy, there is a northbound policy that cannot be ignored. In pursuing that policy, Taiwan needs a stronger military alliance with its northern neighbor, namely, Japan.
Taiwan is a mid-sized nation with a population larger than about 75 percent of the members of the UN. And so, like any other nation, Taiwan must seek what is in its best core interest. An essential part of Taiwan’s core interest is the preservation of its hard won democracy and nationhood.
Across the Taiwan Strait, the People’s Republic of China, whose flag has never flown over Taiwan, continues to push its regional hegemonic demands. It insists that Taiwan return to “the motherland” and has passed laws to make it illegal for Taiwan to “secede” from that which it has never joined. Going further, China refuses to renounce military force in settling these hegemonic demands as it has in the South China Sea. Thus the question naturally arises: Which nation would stand by Taiwan most if Taiwan’s core interest is threatened? That nation is Japan.
More than any other nation in the region and even more than the democracy-promoting US, the preservation of Taiwan’s national core interests and democracy are most closely aligned with those of Japan. Put directly, Japan’s security and democracy depend most on a free and independent Taiwan on its southern flank. And while Japanese politicians will rarely admit this in public, they know in their hearts that the future of these two nations is bound by this mutual codependence.
Examine the other nations in the region; they have their own problems. The Philippines is a friendly neighbor. True, the Philippines have fishing disputes with Taiwan, but what help would the Philippines be in an attack by China? The Philippines is already wavering in its relations with China vis-a-vis what is happening in the South China Sea. At best, the Philippines could be a place to retreat to. The same can be said for many of the nations south and southwest of Taiwan.
In the north, South Korea cannot be expected to be of too much help. It is a divided nation, which has a history of constantly defending all its borders. It would not be a hindrance to Taiwan, but could not be counted on for too much support. South Korea can at best be like a border blockhouse that would force the enemy to go around it.
And Russia? It would also be of no assistance; it might even evaluate that helping China would be in its best interests vis-a-vis the US and Japan.
What, then, about the US? In this the US has had its on again, off again support of Taiwan as it looks after its own core interests. The US has the Taiwan Relations Act; it is officially “undecided” on Taiwan’s democratic nationhood; but it also wishes to protect its trade with China, the economic powerhouse it ironically helped build. Furthermore, the US is distant from Taiwan; Japan is a very close neighbor.
Because of this distance there would always be pundits in the US who would question whether it is worth going to war with China over Taiwan. In this the US still has the Pacific Ocean between it and China, where one Chinese admiral had once put it to a US counterpart: “You take everything east of Hawaii and we will take everything west of it.”
As Taiwanese look internally, they find that their identity issues quickly rise up.
One of the most common phrases uttered by old guard Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) members and nostalgic waishengren (Mainlanders, 外省人) is the cajoling phrase: “We are all Chinese.” That is a meaningless canard to true Taiwanese; as if ethnicity would protect their welfare.
For true Taiwanese, whenever “we are all Chinese” is heard, it is the immediate tip-off; it is the prelude to the con, the hoodwink and betrayal of profiteers. Historically this phrase was uttered to mollify Taiwanese just before the 228 Massacre, martial law and four decades of the KMT’s White Terror with its one-party state.
This background justifiably supports Taiwanese wariness of Chinese who mouth the talk of brothers. However, what it means is that in China’s hierarchy, you are second-class Chinese; at best you would be treated better than Tibetans and the Uighurs, but you would remain at the lower end of the hierarchy. Ask a Hong Konger what they think “we are all Chinese” means and the answer becomes clear.
If that is not enough, former government information officer Kuo Kuan-ying (郭冠英) is the best example of KMT falsehood; he described himself and fellow KMT at heart as “high-class Mainlanders” in contrast with “redneck Taiwanese taibazi.”
On the other hand, history supports the fact of Taiwan favoring Japan in any alliance; many Taiwanese know their suffering under the KMT White Terror and one-party state days and have a more positive and even nostalgic attitude toward the Japanese colonial era.
Taiwan’s history with Japan is clearly different from that of China. Films like Cape No. 7, and Kano reflect this nostalgia. Among the KMT stalwarts, their nostalgia is either for their “glory days in China” before they lost it, or the days when they enjoyed the privilege of the one-party state in Taiwan and the waishengren children could have their education in the US subsidized by the KMT.
At the end of the day, those who can read the realpolitik of Asia can see that Japan’s core interest and its trade depends on a free, democratic and independent Taiwan on its southern flank.
Japan’s actions in the far off South China Sea already betray its consciousness of the dangerous hegemony of China. Japan’s survival ultimately depends on free shipping through those lanes. What would happen if it lost Taiwan?
In support of Taiwan, Japan is a strong neighbor. It has a developed navy and air force and has changed its constitution so that it can now come to the aid of an ally that is attacked. In practical terms this means that if Japan considers Taiwan an important ally, and it is, Japan could and no doubt would come to Taiwan’s aid if it were attacked. It would do Japan no good to stand back wait like a slow boiling frog. An attack on Taiwan would be an attack on Japan’s security.
This is not to say that Japan and Taiwan would not have other controversies and issues to settle, whether it be the Diaoyutai Islands (釣魚台) or Senkakus matter, trade and fishing disputes, past “comfort women” issues etc. In these, Japan would seek its best interest, but it would also be conscious of the importance of Taiwan’s democracy, and if Japan is in that fight, then the reluctant US would also join in. The US by treaty is bound to defend Japan; it is not bound to defend Taiwan except for a peaceful resolution of issues with China.
Taiwan’s democratic core interest and Japan’s core interest are united here. The threat to both has always been China.
Jerome Keating is a writer based in Taipei.
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