TAIWANESE MUST RECOGNIZE WHO THEIR REAL ADVERSARY IS FOLLOWING DPP’S CRUSHING LOSS
Taiwan’s ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) led by President Tsai Ing-wen suffered a disappointing defeat in the quadrennial local elections on November 26. The outcome constitutes a disturbing situation for both Japan and the US.
Taiwanese voters elected more than 10,000 public officials in nine different categories, including mayors of the six special municipalities inclusive of Taipei, and magistrates or mayors of 16 counties and cities. The DPP barely managed to secure five of the 21 posts—five less than four years ago—while the main opposition Nationalist Party (KMT) won 13.
The Taiwan Foundation for Democracy, which surveyed approval ratings of parties in the self-governing island, reported on October 18 that the DPP got a 33.5% rating against the KMT’s 18.6%. And yet, the ruling party suffered the disastrous setback. On the eve of the elections, Akio Yaita, Taipei bureau chief of the conservative Sankei Shimbun, referred to Tsai’s “strategic miscalculation” on my Friday night “Genron” Internet TV news show:
“Top issues in local elections are traditionally those closely related to everyday life, such as the cost of living and the unemployment rate. In the past six years since Tsai came to power, the entire world, including Taiwan, has been afflicted by the COVID-19 epidemic, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and the inflation that has followed. This situation has been tough on all government parties across the globe. Under these circumstances, Tsai has put forward a remarkable fighting attitude against the Chinese threat, asserting that only the DPP can protect Taiwan with its solid diplomatic and security policies. There has been nothing wrong with that, but voters were more concerned with bread-and-butter issues.”
The mayoral election of the city of Taipei attracted a great deal of attention. As its candidate, the DPP put up Chen Shih-chung, a rising star in the party. Serving as Minister of Health and Welfare (2017-2022), Chen won wide recognition as the public face of Tsai administration’s successful fight against COVID-19. He was generally seen as well-qualified to run Taipei, but was no match against the KMT’s 43-year-old candidate Chiang Wan-an. A great grandson of Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, the former US-licensed corporate attorney is generally viewed as a possible future presidential candidate.
There has no doubt been criticism against Tsai for having improperly made the Chinese threat the main point of contention in the elections, but I feel we need to pay attention to the following point made by Yaita:
“Because China unquestionably has been preparing to launch an attack on Taiwan, one would ordinarily expect public opinion to be overwhelmingly anti-China. But that’s far from reality. While nearly 80% of the population have negative views of China in Japan, the US, and Europe, the number is only slightly higher than 60% in Taiwan. Due to the presence of a significant number of ‘mainlanders’ living in Taiwan and the influence of money and fake news pouring in from China, some 35% of the Taiwanese genuinely think that China is not to blame and that they cannot trust America.”
“Attack on Taiwan is Attack on Japan”
The key election issues may have been domestic matters. But that in fact was only constantly on the surface. The results must be seen as having been heavily influenced by Chinese intervention. China definitely is the real adversary the Taiwanese must deal with. So the real key election issue was which party assumes the tougher policy toward China based on its unwavering diplomatic and security policies.
China has persistently been interfering in Taiwan’s affairs on all fronts, putting Taiwan consistently on the defensive. There should be more that Japan and the US can do to help Taiwan more effectively counter Beijing’s aggravating drive to interfere. The US and Taiwan have already been working closely together, but Japan is lagging behind. If our politicians can develop a keeper awareness of the present geopolitical situation involving Taiwan, one thing I believe they can do would be to start spreading carefully targeted messages globally.
The late Prime Minister Shinzo Abe hit on the essence of the Japan-Taiwan relationship when he stated last December 1 that “an attack on Taiwan is an attack on Japan.” His remarks were a wake-up call for a significant number of Japanese, and a heartening declaration of support for the people of Taiwan. America welcomed Abe’s remarks as a manifestation of our firm grasp of the geopolitical realities in the region. While China could not have been happy, it must have also clearly understood Japan’s solid commitment to helping safeguard Taiwan’s security. Abe’s remarks have thus acted as a powerful deterrent against China.
Prime Minister Fumio Kishida would do well to proactively disseminate well-aimed political messages like his predecessor’s. It won’t cost a single yen. The words of a Japanese leader should travel across the globe at the speed of light, so to speak. A good opportunity for Kishida to act was missed came when Taiwan needed Japan’s backing in its attempt to become a member of the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement (TPP11). A week after China applied for membership on September 16, 2021, Taiwan followed suit. At the time, the Japanese government should have immediately reached out to the other TPP member nations with a proposal to create a committee to consider Taiwan’s credentials for membership. More than 14 months have passed since then, but it is never too late to set up such a committee.
The committee may not immediately materialize even if Japan should propose it. And a quick conclusion may naturally be hard to come by, even if the committee should be launched. And the committee itself may not see the light of day because some of the TPP’s 11 members may oppose the move for fear of rubbing China the wrong way. But what counts is the fact that the Japanese government would have made an effort to back Taiwan. And the people of Taiwan would get a feel of Japan’s eagerness to assist. Beyond that, they would positively evaluate Tsai’s diplomatic initiatives, which could result in public opinion favoring the DPP.
Seven months before applying for TPP membership, on February 21, the Tsai administration lifted an import ban imposed in the wake of the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster on agricultural and marine products from Fukushima and four other prefectures. Japan felt unduly restricted by Taiwan’s continued import ban when even China had already partially removed its ban on Japanese food products. The food products produced in the five prefectures are “the safest in Japan,” as they are shipped out only after passing a rigorous series of radioactivity inspections. That is why the Japanese side was grossly frustrated by Taiwan continuing to maintain the ban despite these safety measures.
“Japanese Spirit” binding Japan and Taiwan
Meanwhile, there is a public consensus in Taiwan that regards food products from Fukushima and its vicinity as hazardous to health. Overcoming persistent opposition, the Tsai administration removed the ban completely. Behind the decision was an expectation that Japan would return the favor by backing Taiwan’s entry into the TPP.
Japan of course cannot by itself grant Taiwan entry into the partnership. But Taiwan had a strong expectation that Japan would cooperate. That is why Tsai took the plunge to lift the ban, but Taiwan found Japan’s response disappointing, as Japan failed to take the expected action to move Taiwan’s application forward. This led to criticism of Tsai, with critics complaining bitterly: “Tsai’s diplomacy toward Japan hasn’t born fruit. She has failed to influence Japan despite removing the import ban.”
It serves Japan’s national interests for Taiwan’s public opinion to not be swayed by the pro-Beijing KMT. That is why it is sensible for Japan to make clear its political will to support the DPP and President Tsai. Unlike the US, Japan can only contribute militarily to Taiwan in limited ways, but that can be significantly offset if we are able to make some clever political moves.
Going forward, there is something I personally wish to expect from the Taiwanese, who often note that “the Japanese spirit” is very important. There obviously are varied meanings behind this phrase. But one meaning, I feel, would be synonymous with what Yukichi Fukuzawa (1835-1901), the legendary Meiji-era advocate for reform in Japan, noted in a magazine article in 1891: “The founding of a nation must be founded on individual efforts, not the power of the government.”
Here’s my interpretation: A nation prospers only when eager individuals join hands for a common purpose. The foundation of a society becomes solid when each citizen forms a sound purpose in life and works hard to fulfill it, which will ultimately lead to that nation’s prosperity and stability. Only then will the future of the nation become rock solid. Supported by a prosperous and stable state, each citizen can live out his or her life. It is crucial for each citizen to resolutely bear in mind that building a nation and safeguarding its security is impossible without everyone having the will to commit themselves to serving the nation.
Many Taiwanese have encouraged today’s Japanese to move forward by not forgetting the traditional Japanese spirit. So I would like for Taiwanese and Japanese together to understand freshly what this spirit is all about. Together we should come to grips with the fact that no nation can survive without its citizens banding together for a common purpose. With that spirit in mind, let us do our utmost to protect our respective motherlands. And lastly, allow me to mention that the worst thing for our Taiwanese friends to do would be to vote for pro-Beijing candidates in the next national election—an election that very well may decide the fate of their island.
(Translated from “Renaissance Japan” column no. 1,027 in the December 8, 2022 issue of The Weekly Shincho)