Taiwan feels the heat from missile tests

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 15 July, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 15 July, 2006, 12:00am

North Korea's missile tests reminded the world of an uncomfortable fact: East Asia is a scary place. In the first decade of the 21st century, the region is like Europe after the first world war, in that Chinese, Japanese and Koreans are all nursing nationalist grievances that have never been resolved.

It is common knowledge in the region that the Korean Peninsula and the Taiwan Strait are the two most likely flashpoints for conflict. What is less well understood is the linkage between these two unresolved conflicts, especially the way that events on the Korean Peninsula drive tensions in the Taiwan Strait issue.

Taiwan's fate was irrevocably changed 56 years ago, when North Korea invaded the South. US president Harry Truman decided to contain mainland China's power in Asia, and sent the US Navy Seventh Fleet to prevent Mao Zedong's armies from crossing the Taiwan Strait.

North Korea's missile tests are now having similar, wide-ranging effects on Taiwan's - and, by extension, East Asia's - future. Japan, which is deeply concerned that mainland China's rise may not be peaceful, is using North Korea's missile tests as a reason to strengthen its military, and its alliance with the United States.

That alliance, as Japan has made clear, is intended to include Taiwan. When Taiwan's powerful legislative speaker, Wang Jin-pyng, visited Japan last week, he was given unusual access to Japanese cabinet ministers. What they reportedly wanted to know was why Taiwan's legislature, which is controlled by Mr Wang's Kuomintang party, has failed to pass or even consider a special arms budget to buy billions of dollars worth of weapons from the United States.

Back in Taipei, speculation raged that Japanese leaders saw Mr Wang as the kind of pragmatic, non-ideological, ethnic Taiwanese leader that Tokyo could work with. Mr Wang's relations with his nominal boss, KMT chief Ma Ying-jeou, an ethnic mainlander, have been awkward ever since Mr Ma roundly defeated Mr Wang in last year's election for the KMT chairmanship. The trip to Japan was a tailor-made opportunity for Mr Wang to look like a leader on the international stage for people back at home, and his Japanese hosts were more than accommodating.

They were pointedly less accommodating to Mr Ma during a difficult visit to Japan this week that was cut short, ostensibly because of a typhoon back home. In Japan, Mr Ma is seen as pro-mainland and anti-Japanese, and is blamed for blocking the arms bill. He is also suspected of wanting to remove Taiwan from the US-Japan security arrangements as part of his planned opening to Beijing if he is elected president in 2008.

Remarks before he left Taiwan confirmed Japanese suspicions. Mr Ma argued that North Korea's provocative behaviour demonstrated that Taiwan, as a responsible member of the East Asian community, should not provoke Beijing. That was followed by a newspaper article by a KMT spokeswoman, arguing that Taiwan's policy towards the mainland should be seven parts political and three parts military.

Both comments were read in Japan to mean that Taiwan's maintaining a credible defence would be seen as a provocation by Beijing. If so, the irony would be rich indeed, since the mainland has some 800 missiles aimed at the island which - unlike North Korean missiles - can definitely hit their targets.

In Japan, Mr Ma presented his views on relations with the mainland with a force and clarity that is rarely seen back home in Taiwan. Unification with the mainland, Mr Ma said, is 'one future option'.

More importantly, though, Mr Ma told the Japanese public that unification will happen decades in the future, and depends on the mainland's removing its missiles and becoming democratic.

In essence, Japan is trying to figure out if Mr Ma, who seems increasingly likely to win Taiwan's 2008 presidential election, will be a reliable partner - or if he will turn out to be another Roh Moo-hyun, the South Korean president. Mr Roh paid lip service to the US-Japan alliance against North Korea, then undercut it with his 'sunshine policy' towards the North.

North Korea's missile tests and Japan's strong reaction mean that Taiwan is being asked to take sides by joining the US-Japan alliance.

While Taiwan's ruling Democratic Progressive Party strongly advocates doing just that, Mr Ma wants a closer relationship with Beijing - which will not be possible if Taiwan finds itself allied with Japan against the mainland.

North Korea's missiles are thus forcing Taiwan to clarify its security commitments, thereby constraining Mr Ma's ability to effect a future reconciliation with the mainland. They are also forcing him to answer difficult questions, about how his Chinese nationalism will affect relations with traditional allies.

The Korean flashpoint is hot in the sense that armed conflict is more likely there than in the Taiwan Strait. But it is also important to see that the Korean flashpoint is an active one, with the potential to heat up the passive Taiwanese flashpoint.

Michael Fahey is a Taiwan-based political commentator