The East China Sea Dispute After Fukuda: Calmer Waters?

Publication: China Brief Volume: 8 Issue: 17

Taiwan has long taken Japan as an ally, both before and after severing diplomatic relations on September 29, 1972. Japan made great efforts to preventing Taiwan’s expulsion from the United Nations in 1971 even more so than the United States had, which was bound to Taiwan’s defense by the Mutual Defense Agreement. Although the normalization communiqué between Beijing and Tokyo read that Tokyo “fully understands and respects” Beijing’s position that “Taiwan is an inalienable part of the territory of the People’s Republic of China,” Japan-Taiwan relations had been generally stable [1]. Since the end of the Cold War, Japan has taken small, but significant steps to roll back its “One China Policy” to align itself to Taiwan. Japan’s efforts largely benefited and were accelerated by the liberalization of Taiwan’s politics, an end to nearly four decades of martial law, and more specifically from ethnic Taiwanese presidents Lee Teng-hui and Chen Shui-bian governing Taiwan with a pro-Japan attitude for twenty years. Since the Kuomintang (KMT) was swept back to a commanding legislative majority and control over the executive in the January and May elections respectively, Japan-Taiwan relations is in the midst of a flux as President Ma Ying-jeou, an ethnic Mainlander, consolidates his hold on power. In the backdrop of such a transition, that the maritime incident on June 10, 2008 escalated into something much more than an accident is significant. The direction of fluctuating relations, as evident in the latest East China Sea dispute, took another unexpected turn on September 1, 2008 as Japanese Premier Yasuo Fukuda unexpectedly announced that he will resign from office.

Japan-Taiwan Relations: Dream of a Decade

Although Chen Shui-bian stepped down as president, universally reviled with nothing to claim as legacy, unprecedented positive development in Taiwan’s relations with Japan had occurred during the eight years under his watch. It is surprising that Chen had achieved more substantial breakthroughs than Lee, who spoke fluent Japanese and claimed to be a Japanese himself until retrocession on August 15, 1945. Both Lee and Chen denounced Japan’s continuous claim of the Diaoyutai Islands, but had done so in relatively low-keyed manner. In examining security, diplomatic, and economic aspects of Japan-Taiwan relations, it may be inferred that Chen had, in fact, bequeathed to Ma a bilateral relation that some called the best state it has been since 1972.

Regional Security. A joint statement on February 19, 2005 following a summit between the Japanese Foreign Minister Nobutaka Machimura, Defense Agency Chief Fukushiro Nukaga, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld stated, among many issues, that the two countries would “encourage the peaceful resolution of issues concerning the Taiwan Strait through dialogue.” Although the statement did not reflect any substantial change in the two nation’s “One China Policy,” it was a rare public declaration that Taiwan’s two most important friends agreed to jointly discourage China’s unprovoked attack on Taiwan.

High Level Visit. In recent years, Japan has provided VIP treatment to Taiwanese leaders. It gave presidential-like treatment to former president Lee during his trip to rural Japan. When a disgruntled Chinese man tried to throw a bottle at Lee in the airport on June 9, 2007, a Japanese court ordered him to pay nearly two thousand dollars in fine (China Post, June 21, 2007). In a farewell reception in Okura Hotel to former Taiwanese ambassador to Japan Koh Se-kai, former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe spoke of his achievements as Chief Cabinet Secretary in strengthening bilateral ties and stated that he expected Koh to continue his role in deepening Japan-Taiwan relations (Sankei Shimbun, June 1).

Business Ties. In spite of ruling KMT’s focus on integrating its economy with the Chinese economy, Chen also achieved closer ties with the Japanese economy as well. According to figures by Japan External Trade Organization (JETRO), two-way trade amounted to $64.6 billion in 2007 with a $25 billion surplus for Japan [2]. Notably, the two sides revised its aviation pact on November 1, 2007 to end the infamous rule that required airlines to fly between Taiwan and Japan through a subsidiary firm. For the first time sine 1973, Japan Airlines (JAL) could now fly to Taiwan and back as JAL, not as Japan Asia Airways (JAA). Japan promoted tourism by opening more Japanese airports to incoming Taiwan flights and waived visas for thirty day travel by Taiwan passport holders.

As such, many Japanese assumed that the Democratic Progressive Party’s (DPP) Presidential Candidate, Frank Hsieh would be a more suitable choice for the next president following Chen than Ma Ying-jeou as Hsieh, similarly to Lee, had studied in Kyoto University on a government scholarship and spoke Japanese fluently. Ma, on the other hand, had no such ties to Japan and had even vocally condemned and protested Japan’s hold on Diaoyutai in his earlier days (China Brief, October 4, 2006). As such, Ma’s victory in the 2008 presidential elections visibly concerned the Japanese, especially when he did not mention Japan at all in his inaugural address (Taipei Times, May 26).

Domestic Politics Escalating Collision over Disputed Waters

It was in this uneasy transition period when the first challenge involving Taiwan and Japan under Ma exploded. Early morning on June 10, a Japanese coast guard vessel collided with a Taiwanese fishing boat in disputed waters south of Diaoyu Island. The crash caused the boat to sink, but Japan rescued its sixteen crew members. Having provided medical treatment and questioned them briefly, Japan returned thirteen of them the next day and two more the day after. The boat captain was held until June 13 before being repatriated to Taiwan. Taipei’s seemingly handling of the incident reminded that the half-century old territorial dispute remains volatile.

As in many international issues, domestic politics shaped Taiwan’s position. The Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), Chen and Hsieh’s party, upped the ante. Having been marginalized in local government, reduced to less than a quarter of seats in the Legislative Yuan and driven from the Executive Yuan to Ma’s Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) in three successive elections, DPP took the collision as an occasion to show that President Ma’s rhetoric did not equal his action. A DPP legislator demanded Ma “must firm up and say something”, since, “he has yet to say something about it”, contrary to his student days (Deutsche Presse-Agentur, June 11). The DPP added that KMT was being irresponsible and incapable of maintaining Taiwan’s delicate posture and strategic balance in the East China Sea. In its quest to score political points, the DPP, whose Taiwanese members tend to be pro-Japan, then triggered the KMT, whose Mainland members are not so affectionate about Japan, to show its true anti-Japan colors. While confirming that “war is the last option to resolve controversies between two nations,” Premier Liu Chao-shiuan reiterated that Taiwan was always “ready in terms of any action to defend the nation’s sovereignty” (Taipei Times, June 14). From that moment on, the incident took on a life of its own, where the two political parties competed for public attention to show which party took a tougher stance on Japan over Taiwan’s sovereignty.

Japan’s Unlikely Firm and Swift Response

In retrospect, Japan’s swift and effective response was both unexpected and unusual. The country was led by 71 year old Yasuo Fukuda and his long-ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). Fukuda is known for his pro-China tilt that was absent in three predecessors including Abe. Fukuda had just hosted a second-ever official visit to Japan by Chinese President Hu Jintao that ended cordially unlike the first one nearly eleven years earlier. It was not likely that Japan’s political climate would encourage cooperation with Taiwan.

Furthermore, Fukuda was a politically weak leader as his resignation proved. When he replaced Shinzo Abe as premier a little under a year ago, Fukuda inherited a political party that had just been devastated by the July 29, 2007 Upper House elections. Fresh from that victory, the opposition party harassed Fukuda at every turn, taunting him to dissolve the LDP-dominated Lower House. Fukuda refused to call for new elections and instead resorted to his party’s absolute majority in the Lower House to override opposition-dominated Upper House vetoes on legislation after another. Rather than continuing the political gridlock, Fukuda announced that his resignation would hopefully bring more cooperation between the ruling and opposition parties. In retrospect, Japan’s swift handling of the East China Sea dispute despite Fukuda’s weak political mandate was unexpected.

Despite Japan and Taiwan lacked direct official channels, Japan allowed extensive high-level access to facilitate resolving the issue. Representative Koh met in person with seven Japanese government leaders on June 10 and two more on June 11 including a pro-Taiwan former foreign minister and aspiring premier Taro Aso (China Post, June 17). Japan also made concessions to an island that it did not formally recognize as an independent nation. When Foreign Minister Francisco Ou threatened to recall Koh by June 13 if the boat captain was not released, Japan met the deadline. Japanese officials also told Koh that it would compensate for the sinking of the Taiwanese ship. Despite concluding that both sides were at fault for the collision, Japan expressed “regret” over the incident, which Koh took as a linguistic equivalent of an apology in Japanese. Thus, Japan met Taiwan’s demands promptly.

In spite of meeting seemingly unreasonable demands quickly, Japan did not see the Taiwanese government do its part in managing the issue. Ou recalled Koh anyway on June 14 to diplomatically slap Japan. The KMT then called Koh a traitor for not voicing stronger on Taiwan’s claims over the islands and for being a permanent resident in Japan, where he had taught for decades following black-listing by the ruling party (China Post, June 17). The apology issue was not resolved quickly either. In his meeting with de facto ambassador Tadashi Ikeda on June 18, Legislative Speaker Wang Jin-pyng asked Ikeda that Japan express a stronger apology as “many people in Taiwan know that ‘regret’ is not equal to an apology” (Taipei Times, June 18). Moreover, a group of nine vessels from the Taiwan coast guard escorted a boat filled with Taiwanese protesters to enter disputed waters on June 16 for more than two hours (Yomiuri Shimbun, June 18). Such actions by Taipei suggested that Taiwan was not committed to peaceful resolution of the accident.

The Road Ahead

Nine days after the incident, Japan’s deputy de facto ambassador to Taiwan, Hitoshi Funamachi, personally delivered a letter written by Japan’s coast guard chief to the boat captain that read, “I am writing this letter to express my sincere apology and hope to discuss with you about the compensation issue as soon as possible” (Taipei Times, June 21). In response, Taiwan’s foreign ministry took the action as goodwill and pledged to improve bilateral relations. While the crisis testing Japan-Taiwan relations appears to have subsided for now, the new Ma administration has serious challenges ahead to preventing the strategically important ties from deteriorating further.

It is not in the interest of Taiwan to use an issue such the Diaoyutai dispute to provoke bitter resentment with Japan. While Taiwanese people may feel strongly about recovering the islands soon, they need to realize that Taiwan does not have many friends abroad. It has only twenty-three diplomatic allies, a group that could shrink further if Beijing sees an opportunity in bypassing Ma’s pledge for a modus vivendi in dollar diplomacy. Taiwan will be naïve to think that recent agreements with China would replace Japan as its ally. China has never ever given up its dream of unifying Taiwan with the mainland, a fate that an overwhelming number of Taiwanese oppose intensely at the moment. Japan has consistently treated Taiwan as an independent state for functional purposes under its “Japan Formula,” in which it carefully separates economics from politics. Japan has spoken for Taiwan on numerous occasions such as voting in favor of Taiwan’s observer status in the World Health Assembly. As United States and Japan are bound by a firm military alliance, antagonizing Japan would only lead to antagonizing the United States, something Taiwan would not see in its interest. Thus, as long as the majority of the Taiwanese people are opposed to China’s goal of unification, it cannot afford to drastically antagonize Japan.


Both Taiwan and China claim that Diaoyutai Islands belong to Taiwan regardless of its status as a Chinese province or an independent state. Former President Chen Shui-bian has been relatively cautious over his rhetoric on the issue. During Chen’s tenure, Taiwan managed to achieve breakthroughs in relations with Japan on security, politics, and economy. While Ma was expected to bottle his party’s traditionally anti-Japan position upon assuming the presidency, that effort came under intense pressure following the collision between a Japanese coast guard vessel and a Taiwanese fishing boat on June 10 over disputed waters. Despite Japan’s extraordinary efforts to resolve the issue quickly and painlessly, Taiwan did not match Japan’s efforts. Claiming that Japan provoked it, Taiwan even suggested military action.

With the likelihood that Aso or former Defense Minister Yuriko Koike, both pro-Taiwan, would replace Fukuda as prime minister, the situation deceivingly looks calmer. Regardless of who succeeds Fukuda, Japan’s political climate will remain volatile as long as the opposition senses historic opportunity to unseat the LDP in the next Lower House election, which must occur before September 2009. While Ma Ying-jeou must reassess its Japan policy to place greater weight on national security and regional stability over emotions, the ongoing political hurricane in Tokyo will make Ma’s job exceedingly difficult in the near term.


1. Clough, Ralph, Island China, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1978, pp.187.

2. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan, Taiwan, June 2008,