I have been struck by recent moves out of Tokyo, particularly as they relate to Taiwan. It appears that Japan has decided to be more forthcoming about its support for Taiwan’s separate status, bringing it closer to Washington’s current stance — especially as regards the defense of the island. This comes after many years when the Japanese seemed constrained by Beijing’s rigid conception of the problem, which has sought to trap Tokyo in early post-World War II concepts. Yet today relations between Tokyo and Taipei seem to be flourishing. I note that former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe recently made an appearance at a forum in Taiwan via a video link and that there is talk of a possible visit by him next year. The current Prime Minister, Fumio Kishida, has also demonstrated his respect for Taiwan and its people in his early statements.
Unfortunately, the People’s Republic of China — and to a somewhat lesser extent Korea — continue to ground their foreign policy in outdated concepts. They act as if the war ended yesterday, and no amount of change or reconciliation is enough.
I view Lee Teng-hui (李登輝), the father of Taiwan democracy, as an example of the benevolent aspects of Japanese rule. Born in 1923, Lee grew up speaking fluent Japanese and was educated at Kyoto University during the war years. I recall visiting Lee at both his Taipei home and his country house in nearby Taoyuan. Lee would take me down into his extensive library, and proudly display his collection of Japanese language books. What came through is that President Lee had great respect for Japan and what it had done for Taiwan over the years. This even though Lee’s older brother had been conscripted into the Japanese army and died fighting for Japan in World War Two.
The history is well known. An assertive Japan began its military expansion over a hundred years ago and built a massive empire through force of arms. This ended with a crushing defeat by a multinational Allied force in 1945. The culminating blow was the dropping of two nuclear bombs on the island nation, forcing the militarists who had led the country down this doleful path to capitulate. The government that emerged embarked on a dramatically new course, foreswearing the use of force as a tool of foreign policy. All their colonial conquests — as well as a few pieces of traditional Japanese territory — were stripped away. Tokyo proceeded to build both a thriving democracy and a dynamic and innovative economy. Yes, there was a time when some skeptics scoffed at the expression “Made in Japan.” But before long the world was pounding a path to the land of the Rising Sun in pursuit of business and trade.
The wounds of World War II were lasting, particularly in colonized Korea and mainland China, but also throughout southeast Asia. However, I would argue that the statute of limitations has expired on the idea that Japan must forever be viewed as an unreconstructed militarist society.
The backdrop to the Japan-Taiwan warming has deep roots. A weak China ceded Taiwan to Japan after being defeated in a war in 1895. Over the following fifty years, Japan played an important, and largely positive, role in the development of my favorite Asian island. They methodically built dams, railroads, factories and schools across the island. Yes, at times their rule was harsh, particularly in suppressing local rebellions. This was especially the case for tribal settlements in Taiwan’s mountains, which were among the last to succumb to the outsiders’ invasion. I recall the abundance of Japanese tourists I would encounter at the Palace Museum, Taroko Gorge, and other points of interest when I lived in Taiwan. On a lighter note, the Japanese introduced baseball to the island, and it is one of the most popular sports there to this day.
This warming trend is significant from the geo-political perspective. Should the mainland escalate its aggression against Taiwan through force of arms, America’s longstanding military support for the island would undoubtedly come into play. But any successful defense of Taiwan would of necessity require at a minimum logistical support from Japan. Our military bases in Japan would have to play a central role in — and successful counter to — PRC aggression across the Taiwan Strait.
The real solution to this festering problem would be a dramatic shift in the attitude of Beijing’s leaders toward Taiwan. It is time they stop relitigating the Second World War and develop a more temperate policy toward Taipei. The existence of extensive Taiwan investments on the mainland, as well as a thriving tourist business, could serve as a springboard to such a shift. But until this happens, the authoritarian leaders in Beijing should be under no illusions that the United States would stand idly by if China provoked conflict in the Taiwan Strait, quite possibly with Japanese assistance.
Ambassador Stephen M. Young (ret.) lived in Kaohsiung as a boy over 50 years ago, and served in AIT four times: as a young consular officer (1981-’82), as a language student (1989-’90), as Deputy Director (1998-2001) and as Director (2006-’9). He visits often and writes regularly about Taiwan matters. Young was also US Ambassador to Kyrgyzstan and Consul General to Hong Kong during his 33-year career as a foreign service officer. He has a BA from Wesleyan University and a PhD from the University of Chicago.
With a Taiwan contingency increasingly more plausible, Taiwanese lobbies in Japan are calling for the government to pass a version of the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA), emulating the US precedent. Such a measure would surely enable Tokyo to make formal and regular contact with Taipei for dialogue, consultation, policy coordination and planning in military security. This would fill the missing link of the trilateral US-Japan-Taiwan security ties, rendering a US military defense of Taiwan more feasible through the support of the US-Japan alliance. Yet, particular caution should be exercised, as Beijing would probably view the move as a serious challenge to
As the Soviet Union was collapsing in the late 1980s and Russia seemed to be starting the process of democratization, 36-year-old US academic Francis Fukuyama had the audacity to assert that the world was at the “end of history.” Fukuyama claimed that democratic systems would become the norm, and peace would prevail the world over. He published a grandiose essay, “The End of History?” in the summer 1989 edition of the journal National Interest. Overnight, Fukuyama became a famous theorist in the US, western Europe, Japan and even Taiwan. Did the collapse of the Soviet Union mark the end of an era as
During a news conference with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida in Tokyo on Monday, US President Joe Biden for the third time intimated that the US would take direct military action to defend Taiwan should China attack. Responding to a question from a reporter — Would Washington be willing to get involved militarily to defend Taiwan? — Biden replied with an unequivocal “Yes.” As per Biden’s previous deviations from the script of the US’ longstanding policy of “strategic ambiguity” — maintaining a deliberately nebulous position over whether the US would intervene militarily in the event of a conflagration between Taiwan and
Will the US come to the defense of Taiwan if and when China makes its move? Like most friends of Taiwan, I’ve been saying “yes” for a couple decades. But the truth is that none of us, in or out of government, really know. This is precisely why we all need to show humility in our advice on how Taiwan should prepare itself for such an eventuality. After all, it’s their country, and they have no choice but to live with the consequences. A couple weeks ago the New York Times published an article that put this reality in stark relief. As