Taiwan: Interference may cost Chen
Hisahiko OKAZAKI (Director, Okazaki Institute)
I still do not understand why the Japanese and U.S. governments are intervening in Taiwanese affairs -- especiall since I believe the administrations of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and President George W. Bush are the best alternatives available at this time for both countries. Japanese and U.S. government officials strongly deny that they are hoping for the defeat of President Chen Shui-bian in the March 20 presidential election and for the return of Nationalist power in Taiwan.
Yet, as a result of Japanese-U.S. intervention in Taiwanese affairs, Chen's popularity rating has fallen several points from about par with his rival.
Should Chen lose the election by a narrow margin, few would dispute that the loss was likely due to Japanese-U.S. intervention following Chinese pressure.
This unusual situation has seen changes in the position of U.S. administration officials and lawmakers who had expressed understanding and support of Chen's plans for a national referendum in a congressional hearing Feb. 6. U.S. Defense and State department officials apparently coordinated their views before that hearing.
Former U.S. Sen. Alfonse D'Amato, a New York Republican, had sympathized with the Taiwanese government's moves to resort to a national referendum as a democratic means of rousing public opinion against China's targeting nearly 500 ballistic missiles at Taiwan.
Defense officials had stressed the growing threat of Chinese missiles. State officials, while quoting from previous statements, had said their answer to the referendum questions -- (1) whether Taiwan should acquire advanced antimissile weapons if China refuses to withdraw its missiles and (2) whether Taiwan should negotiate with China to establish a peaceful framework for interaction -- would be a resounding "yes." They also said Washington did not intend to impose its will on Taiwan under a free, democratic government.
Immediately after the session, I was asked what Japan should do, and replied there was little it could do.
U.S. democracy incorporates a system of checks and balances. This system prevents any one view from becoming too powerful. In Japan, however, once a statement is made, all officials try to ossify it with prepared statements even though they may realize it was a mistake.
A typical example was a Lower House Budget Committee session Feb. 20, in which government officials answered questions from Democratic Party lawmaker Akihisa Nagashima. I do not sympathize with -- but understand -- the difficulties of bureaucrats who have no option but to defend existing policy by using any far-fetched logic.
As a consolation to Japanese democracy, checks by opposition forces worked this time, but the balances failed.
Nagashima said it was China that was changing the status quo by adding 50 to 70 missiles a year to its missile battery, currently at 496 units. He said Taiwanese were only trying to promote democracy, hold a referendum and write their own constitution. Some backbenchers shouted, "That's right." I am afraid that strained logic such as this, though, could distort Japanese diplomacy.
Foreign Minister Yoriko Kawaguchi, answering questions at the Diet session, mentioned the 1996 Taiwan Strait crisis twice, very likely reading from a prepared text -- and that was outrageous. If Japan had wanted to express its concern to Taiwan at that time, the only option would have been to urge suspension of the election or to work for the defeat of President Lee Teng-hui. But Japan could not have possibly done that.
With the 1996 crisis as a precedent, the only partner Japan could possibly express its concern to regarding security in the Far East was China. If China's warnings regarding Taiwan had been taken at face value, Lee's visits to Japan, the United States and Europe would not have taken place. In fact, nothing untoward has happened since Lee's visits. Chinese-affairs experts are aware of that.
I do not understand why Japan should take China's threats seriously this time and worry about regional peace and stability. The threat was not taken seriously at the U.S. congressional hearing. The real problem is the effects of a change in the status quo resulting from the referendum. As lawmaker Nagashima asked in the Diet session, what will be the substantial change in the status quo?
The argument that the referendum could anger China and destabilize the region is not worth discussing among experts in international politics.
The foreign minister's remarks appear to show that top government officials are not aware that the U.S. government has subtly modified its position regarding Taiwan. I do not know the truth behind the scene, but am a bit concerned as a former official in charge of intelligence.
(This article appeared in the March 16, 2004 issue of The Japan Times which was translated from the Sankei Shimbun's Seiron column of March 4)