JAPAN MUST HELP TAIWAN COPE WITH CHINESE THREAT
Over the weekend, I interviewed Taiwan’s former premier Lai Ching-Te. On a five-day visit to confer with top Japanese political leaders, Lai (60) impressed me as a “gentle intellectual,” although Taiwan-born critic Ms Birei Kim had earlier described him to me as “the nicest looking politician in the whole of Taiwan.”
A Harvard-educated former physician, Lai went into politics in 1993, serving as a legislator in the Executive Yuan (1996-2008) and Mayor of Tainan (2010-17) before taking office as premier under President Tsai Ing-wen of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in September 2017. Resigning his office in January this year, Lai announced his candidacy for president in next January’s election.
I find Lai’s spirit admirable. But he will need more than just a gentle intellect to clear the two tough hurdles lying ahead: 1) first, he must win the primary to win the nomination; and, 2) he then must defeat the candidate of the pro-China opposition Nationalist Party (Kuomintang, also called KMT) in the general election.
Lai was in Tokyo May 8-13 in the middle of his hard-fought battle for the nomination. He commands stronger support than Tsai (62) from within the ruling party at this juncture, but Tsai is fiercely fighting back.
In Tokyo, Lai held successive meetings with a string of Liberal-Democratic Party heavyweights, starting with three former prime ministers including Yoshiro Mori, in an effort to publicize on the home front his strong connections with Japanese political circles. Major Japanese media outlets vigorously followed Lai’s activities in the Japanese capital, while the Taiwanese media reported on the interest Japan takes in Taiwan’s political scene. Lai’s visit to Nagata-cho this time could build a momentum for his campaign back home.
Lai’s coming into power as the next president would be extremely desirable for Japan. Unlike TMK lawmakers typically represented by former president Ma Ying-jeou, Lai is not pro-China, among other things. In point of fact, Lai is a great fan of Japan who rushed to Kumamoto Prefecture in 2016 to aid the victims of earthquakes that devastated parts of the southern Japanese prefecture. Lai brought with him a check representing relief funds donated by the citizens of Taiwan.
Lai, who sees a strong “family-like” bond between Taiwan and Japan, has a warm feeling towards Japan in marked contrast to a somewhat cool posture on the part of Tsai, which I will explain later. Japanese political circles are counting heavily on Lai’s role as the next possible leader of Taiwan.
Asked about the specific purpose of his visit to Japan at this time, Lai had this to say:
“With the threat of China becoming more serious than ever, now is a critical time for my nation. Taiwan would never be able to survive if crushed under the Chinese threat. I wish to share with Japan, our closest friend, a common understanding of the international geopolitical situation, including China. That is the purpose of my visit this time.”
Xi Declares “Force Is an Option”
In a new-year address on January 2 this year, Xi Jinping declared that “force is an option” after demanding that Taiwan, like Hong Kong, honor the “one country, two systems” framework and the 1992 Consensus (in which Beijing claims China and Taiwan have agreed that Taiwan is a Chinese province). At the 3rd session of the 10th National People’s Congress in March 2005, China enacted the Anti-Secession Law, allowing China to resort to force against any move towards Taiwan’s independence, including foreign intervention.
Should Taiwan be annexed by China, both the Taiwan Straits and the Bashi Channel of the Philippines would be incorporated into Chinese territorial waters—a situation Lai warns would seriously endanger Japan’s security. He is absolutely right about that. Lai obviously holds no illusion about China; behind his outward gentleness one discerns a scrupulous recognition of the harsh international geopolitical situation Taiwan is faced with.
The prime concern one inevitably develops observing the Taiwanese situation today is the seeming failure on the part of Taiwanese to share a common sense of crisis vis-à-vis China, as pointed out by Lai. Reflecting disappointment with Tsai’s economic policies, opinion polls show increasing support for the KMT despite the almost certain prospects of Taiwan brought under China’s control if the KMT wins. In other words, at least at this juncture, only a minority of voters is willing to suffer a somewhat less robust economy as the price of avoiding Chinese domination.
Should the KMT manage to march back into power next January, the result will not be a mere change of administration for Taiwan. There will be a high possibility of a sea change in Taiwan’s status as a democracy. I believe Taiwan will dramatically be transformed, almost overnight, from a nation ruled by the Taiwanese into a Chinese province ruled by the Chinese instead.
The prime concern one inevitably develops observing the Taiwanese situation today is the seeming failure on the part of Taiwanese to share a common sense of crisis vis-à-vis China, as pointed out by Lai. Reflecting disappointment with Tsai’s economic policies, opinion polls show increasing support for the KMT despite the almost certain prospects of Taiwan brought under China’s control if the KMT wins. In other words, at least at this juncture, only a minority of voters is willing to suffer a somewhat less robust economy as the price of avoiding domination by China.
I base my assertion on the fact that all of the KMT’s candidates support signing a peace agreement with China, expecting that this will raise Taiwan’s economic growth. Leading candidates such as former KMT head Zhu Lilin and Kaohsiung mayor Han Kuo-yu, considered far more powerful than any of his opponents if he decides to run for president, are no exceptions.
Lai issued this warning against signing the agreement with Beijing:
“Taiwan should never concede to such an agreement. The negative effects are crystal clear from China’s track records. Look at Tibet, for instance. In 1951, China and Tibet signed a peace agreement, but no peace or economic development ever came to Tibet. Instead, the Tibetans were deprived of their homeland and the Dalai Lama was forced into exile in India. I am absolutely opposed to a peace agreement with China, which will subject we Taiwanese to a horrendously tragic situation at the hands of the Chinese. The ‘one state, two systems’ framework will be the same story. We should never allow Taiwan to become a second Hong Kong.”
If the KMT should prevail in the January elections, a peace agreement would almost surely be signed with Beijing. The alarming thing is that, despite Lai’s warning that the KMT’s policies will inevitably lead to the danger of forever losing Taiwan as a democracy, more people appear to be supporting the KMT than the DPP at this stage.
Taiwan Must Be Ruled by Its Own People
A public opinion poll conducted by TVBS, a major Taiwanese TV network, recently revealed stunning results: if the presidential elections are held today, the KMT would score a landslide victory. The survey found that Tsai wouldn’t be a match against any of the KMT candidates; Lai would have a slightly better chance.
But Tsai has so far stood firm in her resolve to run for president again. I have met her several times and got the impression that she is scholarly, serious, and rather pure, reminding me somewhat of former South Korean President Park Geun-hye. Tsai and Park both obviously share an inordinate amount of confidence in China. than one can imagine. In Park’s case, she turned heavily to China for two years after taking office, slighting Japan. By the time she finally came to grips with China’s true colors and belatedly decided to approach Japan, her power base had been seriously eroded. Strategic mistakes she made prevented her from reining in rampant left-wing forces inside South Korea.
It was fortunate that Tsai refused to bow to China’s demand to endorse the 1992 Consensus, but she has maintained a posture all along that she wants to avoid friction with Beijing and resolve problems through talks as much as possible. The conciliatory stance towards Beijing of Tsai’s democratic administration was apparent from the appointments of KMT executives to key cabinet positions under her administration, such as the foreign and defense ministers. Although she had them replaced later with DPP lawmakers, the public could not have been impressed with her personnel decisions.
Due presumably to her academic background, Tsai has tended to procrastinate, unable to make quick decisions, more often than not falling behind on important issues. Her indecisiveness, coupled with poor economic management, might have been another reason for her loss of public support. As one seriously concerned about the future of Taiwan, I would venture to propose that it would be better for Tsai to withdraw from this race she has little chance of winning. I cannot but think that now is the time for her to set aside her personal interests and concentrate on helping build a bright future for the people of Taiwan.
Lai told me that, if he should assume office next January, he would reinforce Taiwan’s military without overly playing up independence, and revealed a plan for Taiwan to join Australia, India, Japan, and the US in a joint Asia-Pacific strategy. He also said he was looking forward to Taiwan’s participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement and to opening the way for Taiwan to resume imports of marine and agricultural products from northern Japanese prefectures, including Fukushima, hit by the nuclear disaster in 2011.
The US—the White House and Congress alike—has expressed its resolve to support Taiwan, effectively committing itself to backing the DPP. Japan also should come up with measures to help Taiwan truly become a nation ruled by its own people. What Japan urgently needs is a robust strategy led by the prime minister’s office to do all it can to help Taiwan cope effectively with the Chinese threat. (The End)
(Translated from Renaissance Japan column no. 852 in the May 23, 2019 issue of The Weekly Shincho)