President-elect Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) is eager to bolster relations with key economic partner and possible security ally Japan, but those efforts could be hampered by his longtime backing for positions hostile to Japanese interests.
While China and the US remain at the center of strategic calculations, Japan is also an important player in the region because of its close security relations with the US. Some Japanese officials favor aiding Taiwan in the event of an attack by China — still a residual possibility even with China-friendly Ma replacing President Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) on May 20.
Since his election on March 22, Ma has tried to curry favor in Tokyo, describing the country’s security cooperation with the US as an important contribution to overall Asian peace and stability.
Still, many in Japan doubt Ma’s sincerity, recalling his long-standing support for Taiwanese claims of sovereignty over a disputed group of islands in the East China Sea, and his criticism of former Japanese prime minister Junichiro Koizumi’s visits to Yasukuni shrine.
The Diaoyutai (Senkaku in Japanese) were seized by Japan in 1895 when it colonized Taiwan.
Tokyo continues to exert control, though both Taiwan and China claim sovereignty.
Ma led a 1971 student protest against Japan’s position, and reaffirmed Taiwan’s claim of sovereignty during a high profile visit to Japan last year.
After Ma’s election victory, the right wing Japanese daily Sankei Shimbun said that if Ma were to work with China to undermine the Japanese claim, “then relations between Taiwan and Japan could sink to their lowest ebb” — a clear indication of his public relations difficulties with Japan.
Another sticky issue for Ma is his frequent criticism of Koizumi’s visits to the Yasukuni, which honors some 2.5 million Japanese war dead, including executed war criminals.
Many Japanese support the visits and regard Ma’s criticisms — and those from Beijing — as both unwarranted and disrespectful.
The tendency among some Japanese to lump Ma together with China is no accident, and reflects much more than Ma’s campaign promises to try to turn the corner on Chen’s policies and improve relations with Beijing.
In Taiwan, Ma is known as a Mainlander. Many in this group share the anti-Japanese sentiments of large numbers of Chinese, because of Japan’s brutal behavior in China during World War II.
By contrast, the Taiwanese — about 70 percent of the population — have a generally favorable view of Japan, despite Japan’s colonial occupation of Taiwan.
Many in this group revere Japanese culture, and are profoundly grateful for Japan’s contributions to Taiwanese infrastructure and economic development during the colonial period. Chen and his predecessor Lee Teng-hui (李登輝) both belong to this group, as does Frank Hsieh (謝長廷), whom Ma defeated in the March 22 elections.
Both Lee and Hsieh were educated in Japan and speak the language well. Lee’s brother fought with Japanese forces in World War II and gave his life for the Japanese cause.
Japan specialist Li Ming-juinn (李明峻) of the Taiwanese Society of International Law said Ma would have to be careful not to alienate Japan in order to accommodate China, because such a move could hurt its ties with the US, its most important foreign partner.
“Good relations with Japan can come in handy when Taiwan runs into problems with the US on issues such as arms sales to the island,” Li said. “Japan can help Taiwan with direct communications with the US.”