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Why didn't Japan send a thank-you note to Taiwan? One word: Beijing.

Taiwan gave more money to Japan after its triple disaster than any other country. So why did Japan leave Taiwan off the list of nations it thanked? China. If Japan can't stand up to Beijing on such a small matter, what does that mean for US and Japanese security interests in the region?

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International political correctness on the China-Taiwan issue has perpetrated a sad injustice that signifies a larger problem.

After Japan’s tragic triple disasters this March, Taiwan, befitting its history of humanitarian concerns, led the world’s response, providing more assistance than any other nation. Taiwan’s contribution ($165 million) surpassed that of the United States ($125 million), South Korea ($19 million), and China ($4 million).

To mark the first month after the earthquake, a Japanese cabinet spokesman announced that “Prime Minister Kan wished to express his gratitude directly to the public of foreign countries for their sympathy and assistance.”

He did so in an advertisement in newspapers in China, Russia, South Korea, and France – but not in Taiwan. An accompanying government statement singled out the United States, China, Australia, Mexico, and Europe for sending help, again without mentioning Taiwan.

Japanese foreign ministry officials said the thank-you list was based not on the magnitude of the donations but, oddly, on “the size of the country and the impact it may have on its neighbor countries.”

Rather, it is widely understood that the Japanese chose to ignore Taiwan’s humanitarian contribution in order to avoid embarrassing China, whose financial resources dwarf Taiwan’s but whose generosity pales by comparison.

That disparity aside, Japan’s mere acknowledgement of Taiwan as a separate donor entity would have incurred Beijing’s ire as a violation of its “one China principle.” Such is the Beijing mindset – and the extreme sensitivity of other governments to it.

Japan’s willingness to offend the dignity of Taiwan on a matter of so little real consequence to China raises the question of Tokyo’s steadfastness on more important security issues in the region – where competing Chinese and US interests will be central.

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Japan's snub to Taiwanese

With Japan failing to reciprocate Taiwan’s earlier public gratitude for Japanese help after its own 1999 earthquake, the Taiwanese once again had reason to believe that no good deed goes unpunished. The incident also slighted the Taiwanese people’s open affection for Japan, their former colonial master.

In an opinion survey taken on Taiwan last year, more than half of those polled, 52 percent, listed Japan as their favorite country, while only 8 percent preferred the US, and 5 percent chose China. The Taiwanese admire their large Asian neighbor’s cultural traditions, successful economy, and shared democratic values.

Presumably, Japan could have navigated that shoal by identifying Taiwan as “Chinese Taipei” (the name used in the Olympics and the Asia-Pacific Economic forum) or the “Separate Customs Territory of Taiwan, Penghu, Kinmen and Matsu” (its identification in the World Trade Organization). In official international circles, none dare call it Taiwan.

The Taiwanese have become accustomed to well-intentioned governments finding it expedient to yield to Beijing on the question of formal diplomatic recognition.

International kowtowing to Beijing

South African President Nelson Mandela, revered for his intellectual integrity and strength of character, held out longer than leaders of more self-sufficient nations in his fealty to Taiwan’s independent democracy. But in 1998, he too felt compelled to yield to Chinese pressure and financial inducements for his country, and switched diplomatic allegiance from Taipei to Beijing. Such is the cruel and corrosive effect of China’s economic power and ideology on longstanding friendships among peoples.

Japan itself had changed diplomatic relations in 1973, six years before the US. But for Japan to kowtow to Beijing on a purely humanitarian matter of so little diplomatic or political moment may seem to Taiwan the unkindest cut of all.

Though unnecessarily hurtful to a decent and sharing people, it is not monumental in the scale of indignities Taiwan has endured because of China’s intimidation of the international community.

Taiwan’s scientists, for example, have made major contributions in medical research, global disease control, and pandemic prevention – in sharp contrast to China’s lamentable record on H1N1, avian influenza, SARS, HIV/AIDS, and other health threats.

Yet China has succeeded in keeping Taiwan out of the World Health Organization and only recently allowed it to acquire observer status – as Chinese Taipei.

(Taiwan does participate in its own name in the Proliferation Security Initiative, a US-led collaborative effort, rather than a formal organization, and played a significant role in intercepting contraband weapons aboard a North Korean vessel. China has refused to participate in PSI.)

When a US ally can't stand up to China

As a strategic ally of the US, Japan plays a critical role in Washington’s efforts to ensure regional stability, including Taiwan’s continued de facto independence from China – unless and until the Taiwanese freely choose a different relationship.

In the relatively innocuous test of Tokyo’s willingness to risk Chinese umbrage over Taiwan’s humanitarian assistance, the result was not encouraging. Japan has an opportunity to undo some of the damage and restore its moral standing by sticking to its earlier commitment to use “Taiwan” instead of “Chinese Taipei” in official documents.

China certainly will object, but Japan’s honor, and potentially its long-term security, may be at stake if it does not draw a line against Chinese pressures on matters large and small.

Joseph A. Bosco served in the office of the secretary of Defense as China country desk office (2005-2006) and managed the humanitarian assistance and disaster relief portfolio for the Asia-Pacific region (2008-2010). He previously taught graduate seminars on China-US-Taiwan relations at Georgetown University’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service. He is now a national security consultant.

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