Japan-Taiwan Ties Blossom As Regional Rivalry Grows

By Anthony Faiola
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, March 24, 2006

TAIPEI, Taiwan -- Early rising seniors have gathered for years to exercise among the yellow lotus blossoms and fuchsia rhododendrons of Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Park, the sprawling gardens in this island's capital. Now local residents stretch their limbs in slow-moving tai chi routines amid a landscape distinctly altered by the addition of 450 cherry trees, a national symbol of Japan.

The trees, set in a park commemorating a leader who fought Japan during World War II, are among the first of more than 10,000 that Japanese and Taiwanese groups intend to plant across Taiwan. They are seen as emblems of the newly blooming relationship between the Pacific neighbors -- a tie that only underscores the competition for regional influence between Japan and China, East Asia's two major powers.

With Japan seeking to shed a half-century of pacifism and reassert itself in world affairs, and China acquiring vastly larger economic and military might, relations between the two are as tense as they have been at any time since World War II.

Nowhere is their contest more visible than here in Taiwan, which China regards as a renegade province that must be reunified with the mainland, by force if necessary. In recent months, Japan has made a series of unprecedented overtures toward Taiwan, which was a Japanese colony from 1895 to 1945. In Tokyo, leading politicians are increasingly adopting the view that Japan must come to the island's aid in the event of Chinese aggression.

Many analysts say they believe Japan's evolving interest in Taiwan could tilt the regional balance of power. The United States, which has diplomatic relations with mainland China, is nonetheless sworn by the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979 to defend the island territory if it is attacked.

"The peace and stability of the Taiwan Strait and security of the Asian Pacific region are the common concerns for not only Taiwan, but also Japan and the United States," Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian said during an interview last week. Therefore, he said, "Japan has a requirement and an obligation to come to the defense of Taiwan."

Like many countries, Japan severed diplomatic ties with Taiwan in the 1970s in deference to Beijing's "one-China" policy. But lately, Japan has been less particular about its rule of maintaining a careful distance. Twice in the past two months, Japan's foreign minister, Taro Aso, has angered China by publicly referring to Taiwan as "a country." Last year, the Tokyo government dropped visa requirements for visitors from Taiwan. And Japanese and U.S. leaders have for the first time jointly declared protection of the Taiwan Strait a "common strategic objective."

In a less public gesture, Yoichi Nagano, formerly a general in the Japanese Ground Self-Defense Force, the army, is serving as the first military attaché at Tokyo's de facto embassy in Taipei, the Interchange Association. In an interview, Nagano said he conducts meetings with Taiwanese government and military figures and sends regular dispatches to Tokyo.

In 2004, a group of Japanese legislators formed a committee on Taiwanese security. This May, Tokyo is set to allow former president Lee Teng-hui, the Japanese-educated champion of Taiwanese democracy, to visit Japan for the second time in 18 months. So-called Track 2 meetings between Japanese and Taiwanese politicians, academics and retired military officials have intensified, according to officials in Taiwan and Japan.

These moves coincide with the rise to power in Japan of a new crop of hawks in the long- ruling Liberal Democratic Party headed by Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi. During his five years in office, Koizumi has pushed aside rivals in the LDP who had long stressed the importance of maintaining a respectful distance from Taiwan.

The shift also comes as China's military buildup is causing growing concern in Japan. The Beijing government boosted military spending by 15 percent this year. Tensions were particularly heightened after riots broke out across China last year against Japan's bid for a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council and the publication in Japan of textbooks allegedly whitewashing the country's militarist past.

The Japanese view a potential Chinese takeover of Taiwan gravely. Such a move would give Beijing a perch for its missiles a mere 66 miles from Japanese territory while helping China to control the shipping lanes that carry the bulk of Middle East oil coming to Japan.

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