Geopolitical Tensions Between the World Powers

by Brian Hioe

Photo Credit: 蔡英文 Tsai Ing-wen

TSAI ING-WEN’S recent trip to Japan would seem to mark the second of trips abroad by Tsai in the lead up to 2016 presidential elections. The first, of course, was Tsai’s visit to the United States in June.

We can point to the obvious foreign policy implications of both trips. Tsai’s visit to the United States was aimed at building better ties with America in order to shore up relations with America in order to counter the threat of China. Moreover, Tsai’s visit was aimed at reassuring the American political establishment that Tsai, as president of Taiwan, would not be disturbing to the status quo of cross-strait relations. 

In the way that previous DPP president Chen Shui-Bian was viewed as a troublemaker by Washington intent on disrupting the precarious balance of cross-strait relations, this was the image Tsai sought to avoid. Indeed, in past months, the heads of state of the client states of America in the Asia-Pacific region have made visits to Washington, including Japan’s Shinzo Abe in May, a visit by the Philippines’ Benigno Aquino also in May, and an upcoming visit by South Korea’s Park Geun-Hye in mid-October. We can fit Tsai’s visit to the US in a similar framework, in the sense that the heads of states broadly operating under US hegemony in the Asia-Pacific have visited the US in order to coordinate with US policy relating to efforts at countering the rise of China.

Tsai’s visit to Japan would be of a different order to her visit to the United States, given that Japan, like Taiwan, is another one of the powers caught between China and the United States. Yet like Taiwan, Japan operates largely under the hegemony of the United States. But if the DPP has historically been focused upon building closer ties with the United States to the exclusion of everything else, probably it is a smart move by Tsai to build ties with other powers caught between China and the United States, but broadly operating under the umbrella of American influence in the Asia-Pacific. By contrast, as bound up with its pro-Beijing bias, the Ma administration would seem to be bent on alienating potential allies against Chinese encroachment at present.

12091443_10152958105371065_7662809281856205738_oOne of the stranger press photos to emerge from Tsai’s visit to Japan. Photo credit: 蔡英文 Tsai Ing-wen

And if it seems almost inevitable that Tsai will be the next president of Taiwan, it is also quite an intelligent move for Tsai to take advance steps for Taiwanese foreign policy despite not yet attaining the office of president. Although it seems that Hung Hsiu-Chu is slated to be replaced by Eric Chu as presidential candidate of the KMT, after all it is that actually Hung refused to visit the US after Tsai’s visit, acting on some deep-seated inferiority complex towards Tsai. Hung did not seem at that point in time to understand the importance of building ties with the US, hence one of the reasons why despite traditional American opposition towards the DPP, Tsai would actually seem to have found acceptance within many sectors of the American establishment. 

However, Tsai’s visit to Japan is aimed at consolidating the presence of Taiwan within the American sphere of influence in the Asia-Pacific, whereas America is consolidating through its “Rebalance Towards Asia” in order to counter China. To be sure, the much talked about “Asia Pivot” has largely tanked, with a failure to secure congressional approval for spending aimed at increasing and building up military presence in Asia. But America seems to be seeking to rebalance of its existing forces towards Asia in the present. 

So it is, for example, that Tsai advocates for Taiwan to enter the TPP trade agreement, which Japan is also a member of. Tsai’s visit to Japan is no doubt also aimed at securing Japanese support for Taiwan’s entrance to the TPP, although whether Japanese support would actually happen or not is a larger question. 

Following the Footsteps of Lee Teng-Hui?

IF TSAI’S VISIT has raised the hackles of China, Tsai’s visit comes in wake of Lee Teng-Hui’s visit to Japan which similarly provoked China. Lee, the former Taiwanese president who was born during the Japanese colonial era and has openly expressed nostalgia for that period, would announce during a visit to Japan that the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands belonged to Japan. Where in announcing this view of his about the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, claimed by Japan, China, and Taiwan alike, Lee was in some way taking Taiwanese foreign policy into his own hands, Lee would be roundly condemned by the KMT. Tsai herself would later declare that, in lines with the policy of the ROC government, her view was that the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands belonged to Taiwan.

But Tsai’s visit to Japan was quite definitely in the footsteps of Lee’s visit where Tsai’s visit would involve meetings with the figures of the current Japanese political establishment that Lee met with. Lee, for example, met with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Tsai met with his brother, LDP politician Nobuo Kishi, Abe and Kishi hailing from a longstanding political dynasty which includes a number of Japanese prime ministers. Though Tsai did not officially meet with Abe, there are unsubstantiated rumors about a “chance meeting” between Abe and Tsai that took place during her visit.    

We may note with irony that Tsai, the candidate of the “center-left” party of the DPP, would be seeking to align herself with the conservative and increasingly far right political forces of the Japanese LDP, however. If the LDP is seeking to take a stronger stance against rising Chinese power in the Asia-Pacific, alliance between the LDP and DPP does seem natural. However, Tsai’s campaign has been coasting off of the momentum from Taiwanese civil society after the Sunflower Movement, given that the explosion of a new generation of Taiwanese onto the political scene against the policies of the KMT have given her campaign crucial momentum. Taiwanese civil society largely backs Tsai, given that Tsai would be preferable to any KMT president.

However, if the Sunflower Movement was the largest youth movement in Taiwan in decades, Japan has in recent weeks and months seen a series of massive demonstrations by Japanese youth against the Abe administration-led reinterpretation of Article 9 of the Japanese constitution. This would allow for the military intervention by Japan in case of one of Japans’ allies being attacked. If anything, this is Japan’s defining youth movement of the current generation. Because, namely, the reinterpretation of Article 9 is taking place on grounds which much of Japan’s young finds profoundly disturbing.

Controversy over Article 9: Is Tsai Seeking Imperial Alliance with Japan?

RECENT YEARS have seen crackdowns on free speech in recent years through the employment of the so-called “Secrecy Law”, the rise of nationalist far-right wing politicians as Abe himself, former Tokyo mayor Shintaro Ishihara, or former Osaka mayor Toru Hashimoto, who deny or downplay war crimes committed by Japan during the Pacific War, and limitations placed on individual freedoms because of the conservative vision of social order that these politicians seek to enact. Article 9 of the Japanese constitution has come to powerfully stand for the post-war Japan which has renounced war and embraces peace and this is precisely what Japan’s young do not want to give up in favor of the militarist and nationalist visions of Japan embraced by Shinzo Abe and his LDP. If anything, this is Japan’s equivalent to the Sunflower Movement, in which Taiwan’s youth stood up for their vision of Taiwan against that which the KMT would have forced upon them.

But if Taiwan faces the threat of China, it may be that the reinterpretation of Article 9 which unbridles Japanese military force would be good for Taiwan, in the sense that Japan can come to Taiwan’s aid against potential Chinese aggression. Yet it is ironic that Tsai, in riding on the momentum of Taiwan’s youth uprising, would in that way be going against the will of Japan’s young. To put it provocatively, Tsai, in aligning herself with right-wing Japanese political forces quite willing to crack down on individual freedoms, may be aligning herself with Japan’s equivalent of the KMT. 

PhotoCreditSEALDS4Youth demonstrations in Japan. Photo credit: SEALDs

Indeed, though the Japanese LDP never employed authoritarian politics and police repression, in the seventy years since the end of World War II, the Japanese has been Japan’s only ruling political party. The victory of the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) in 2009 to become ruling party of the House of Representatives was seen as marking the beginning of genuine two-party politics in Japan. But the inability of the DPJ to distinguish itself from the LDP concerning hotbed issues as US bases in Okinawa or nuclear energy following the Fukushima disaster has led to the return of LDP power. Since then, it has been back to the same, entrenched LDP politics as before, with the dominance of wealthy, politically powerful families over electoral politics. Abe, the latest member of a longstanding political dynasty which has contributed a number of past Japanese prime ministers, is not any exception.

There is the claim made in Taiwan that Taiwan is not truly a democracy, because the lingering power of the KMT and its disproportionate power over government and industry is not yet broken. We can make much the same claim about Japan regarding the LDP. But even if Japan never went through any authoritarian period after World War II analogous to Taiwan’s longstanding decades of martial law, foreign observers were too happy to claim about both Japan and Taiwan that they were, in fact, democracies. Unbroken one-party rule in both countries was explained away on culturalist grounds that the peculiarity of “Confucian” democracies was their tendency to democratically voting in one party, over and over again, without any other parties becoming significant threats to that one party—never mind that this was truly not democracy with Asian characteristics, but precisely the lack of democracy.

Reminisces of the Cold War

WHERE TSAI IS seeking to ally herself right-wing political forces in Japan is concerned, it would seem that such are the “realities” of international geopolitics. And so to call attention to the paradoxes of Tsai in doing so may fundamentally be a moral criticism, to which one can offer little “realistic” alternatives. 

However, we might instead call attention to the way in which the supposed “realities” of international geopolitics leads the national leaders of countries caught between superpowers as China and America such as Japan, the Philippines, South Korea, and Taiwan, to seek to navigate between the two powers in seeking to ally with one superpower or another. Sometimes it seems that we are not so far from the days of the Cold War. 

CRGw0WnUAAAPAjbPhoto credit: SEALDs

After all, in “three worlds theory,” the original meaning of “First World” referred to the US and its allies, the “Second World” referred to the Soviet Union and its allies, and the “Third World” referred to non-affiliated countries navigating between the US and Soviet Union. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the apparent victory of the US in the Cold War, we have come to use the term “Third World” today to refer to underdeveloped countries. To borrow the terms of World Systems Theory, the meanings of “First World” and “Third World” have come to mean something closer to “Core” and ‘Periphery” nations. If the term “Second World” is used today if at all, it has little reference to Soviet Union and its allies, but more generally refers to the “Semi-Periphery.”

Yet if we can see shades of the Cold War in this state of affairs, it would seem that there is nothing today like the “Non-Alignment Movement” in which Third World countries sought to ally together in order to avoid confrontation and political entanglement with both the US and Soviet Union. And so it would be that there is no notion today of countries between China and the US seeking to ally in order to avoid confrontation with either, but simply the view that countries must simply side with either China or America. This is what we see today with Tsai’s visit to Japan, her previous visit to America, and the recent visits of the leaders of other Asia-Pacific countries broadly operating under US hegemony to the United States in past months.

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