Mori's visit, Taipei-Tokyo ties

The current visit to Taiwan by former Japanese Prime Minister Mori Yoshiro together with an exhibition of Japanese national art treasures carries greater significance than the usual visits to our country by retired politicians.
President Chen Shui-bian indicated this fact indirectly through his award to Mori of the Order of Brilliant Star with Special Grand Cordon, which he pinned on the former Japanese prime minister's chest Tuesday in recognition for his long-term and resolute support for Taiwan and his exceptional contributions to the promotion of a substantive friendship and relation between Taiwan and Japan.
However, Mori's visit at this time has another deeper meaning.
In the wake of the retirement of former Prime Minister Koizumi Junichiro and the election of Abe Shinzo to both the chairmanship of the Liberal Democratic Party and the Japanese prime ministership last month, the Taiwan government has been anxious to establish a relationship with Abe's new administration.
Abe, who is Japan's youngest ever prime minister and the first to be born after the end of World War II, has always adopted a friendly stance toward Taiwan and many Taiwan politicians have entertained high expectations for Abe to continue to promote improvement in Taiwan-Japan ties in his new LDP administration.
However, as soon as Abe took over the reins of leadership in Tokyo, he embarked on a whirlwind set of state visits to the People's Republic of China, Taiwan's chief rival and military threat, and South Korea.
In summit meetings with PRC State Chairman Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao in Beijing and President Roh Moon-hyun in Seoul, Abe expressed his resolve to improve the cool relations between Japan and the PRC and South Korea, respectively.
In addition, during a four day stay in Hanoi, Vietnam for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum Economic Leaders Meeting, Abe held further talks with the PRC's Hu and issued a statement reaffirming that Tokyo continued to respect Beijing's "one China principle" and did not support Taiwan independence.
Abe met again with Roh as well as with U.S. President George W. Bush in a diplomatic campaign to secure support for a firm stance to compel North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons program, a campaign in which Beijing's support as chair of the six-party talks on the issue is essential.
Moreover, in a press conference held Monday before his departure from Hanoi, Abe related that he had a "very candid exchange of views" with the PRC leader and stated that the discussion was "helpful in coordinating views."
The question of whether Abe could abandon Tokyo's recently improved relations with Taiwan in order to repair links with the PRC and secure success for the drive to make the Korean peninsula "nuclear free" is naturally dominating the thoughts of Taiwan policy makers and other observers.
Abe's vigorous promotion of "surprise diplomacy" undoubtedly aims to shore up the domestic position of his new administration, an important priority since the charismatic Koizumi is certainly going to be a hard act to follow.
Abe has acted so far to both repair tense relations with Beijing and to adopt an ambiguous position on the sensitive issue of whether he will visit Tokyo's controversial Yasukuni shrine in his status as prime minister.
Abe's three objectives
During his summit meeting with Hu, Abe put forward the core concepts of his "multilayered diplomacy," which has three objectives.
First, Abe realizes that differences on Asia diplomatic issues are likely to become the main target of attacks on him by rivals in the LDP and opposition parties, especially the Japan Democratic Party. Therefore, by launching positive initiatives in Asia diplomacy, Abe may be able to gain a strong initial advantage.
Second, Abe can thereby ease concerns in Washington over the deterioration of relations between China and Japan.
Third, Abe's "surprise diplomacy" can create an strong political edge for Abe and the LDP in next summer's House of Councillors elections.
However, substantive relations between Taiwan and Japan can be said to be in the best phase for over three decades.
In 2004, Japan voted to approve Taiwan's application to participate in the World Health Assembly as an observer and the following year, together with the United States, listed the Taiwan issue as a matter of common concern for the U.S.-Japan security partnerships.
In addition, in September 2005, the Japanese Diet approved a bill submitted by the Japanese government that granted Taiwan tourists permanent visa-free entry into Japan, a privilege not enjoyed by PRC citizens.
Moreover, the bilateral trade between the two economies broke a historical record by topping US$60 billion. Nevertheless, it is evident that the long-time pro-Taiwan and conservative hawk Abe wishes to break new ground as Japan's prime minister. His decision to restore summit meetings between the PRC and Japan was clearly made for the benefit of Japan's national interests as well as his own political situation.
For these same national interests, Abe clearly believes that it is impossible to avoid making some concessions on the Taiwan issue to Beijing.
This trend may have been a factor in the repeated delays to the planned visit to Japan by former Taiwan president Lee Teng-hui.
Although Lee abruptly postponed his planned visit citing ill health, the real reason was apparently that Abe had suddenly canceled his own invitation to hold a meeting with the former Taiwan head of state.
Hence, Mori's visit to Taiwan at the head of a large delegation is evidently timed to complement Abe's "multilayered diplomacy" and calm anxieties in Taipei over the possible impact of his initiatives on our country's ties with our closest northern neighbor.
Facing the new situation in Sino-Japanese relations, Taiwan should not place unrealistic expectations on Abe's administration or entertain illusions that Taiwan - Japan ties will continue to improve if we do nothing.
Instead, we should carefully reassess the emerging new East Asian political situation and reformulate our diplomatic strategy toward Tokyo.
Besides driving regional political change, relations between Japan and Taiwan and between Japan and China involve complicated historical links and complexes as well as nationalistic feelings.
Taiwan should take care to find its unique and more sophisticated diplomatic vision as a guide to navigate these turbulent waters.