EDITORIAL: Japan’s a friend, let’s not alienate it

Wed, Sep 16, 2009 - Page 8

When news broke on Monday that the coast guard had dispatched five vessels to the East China Sea in response to a dispute over fishing waters, Tokyo may have wondered what to expect from President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) government this time around. After enduring repeated snubs from the Ma administration over the past year and a half, Japanese officials can be forgiven if they heaved a sigh and thought: “Here we go again.”

Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) Legislator Shuai Hua-min (帥化民) was quick to react, ready to revive the dispute over territory in the area that flared last summer, when a Taiwanese fishing boat and Japanese coast guard vessel collided near the Diaoyutai (釣魚台) islets.

Shuai yesterday called on the government to complain to Tokyo.

“The Japanese coast guard had no right to board the fishing boat as Taiwanese law enforcement officials were present,” Agence France-Presse quoted him as saying.

Shuai’s hasty conclusion was typical of his party, which seems inclined to assume that Tokyo is always in the wrong. This contrasts sharply with the party’s treatment of Beijing, where China, it seems, can do no wrong — no matter how great the insult to Taiwan and its people.

Thankfully, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ response yesterday was subdued, calling for calm while the situation is resolved and details ascertained.

The ministry should exercise restraint this time if it hopes to repair any ill feelings between Tokyo and Taipei following last year’s Diaoyutai incident. In that incident, MOFA accused Japan of “inhumane behavior” after a Japanese probe into the collision said the Taiwanese boat had been at fault.

The Ma government overreacted, recalling the nation’s envoy, Koh Seh-kai (許世楷), from Japan and announcing that the ministry would dissolve its Committee of Japanese Affairs. At home, Koh suffered verbal abuse from KMT legislators, who accused him of being a “traitor” and a “Japanese spy.”

Tokyo, by contrast, apologized to the boat’s captain, coming across as sophisticated and dedicated to maintaining the two countries’ friendship. (Months later, it also compensated him.) Despite the embarrassing behavior of the Ma administration and other KMT members, Japan seemed determined not to let the situation spiral into a more serious spat.

Ill will did not stop there, however. The Ma government last spring summoned Japan’s envoy to Taipei after he dared to state the obvious by saying that Taiwan’s status was “unresolved.” Again, Tokyo apologized and handled the situation with good form. Envoy Masaki Saito was nevertheless repeatedly snubbed by officials in Ma’s government.

Considering the KMT’s history, rash displays of counterproductive patriotism directed against Japan risk being interpreted as racist. They are reminiscent of treatment Tokyo can expect from Beijing, which some academics believe encourages anti-Japanese sentiment among its populace to stoke nationalism.

The KMT’s anti-Japanese streak would be disturbing enough without the fact that Tokyo is a key friend of Taiwan with a stake in the balance of power in the region. Anti-Japanese sentiment could undermine Taiwan’s best interests.

The Ma government now has an opportunity to show its “goodwill” toward a friend with a new government. The administration’s response this time should be measured and respectful.