With tensions rising throughout East Asia as a result of competing territorial claims for islands in the South China Sea, North Korean nuclear tests and threats, and increased aggression by the mainland Chinese, Taiwan remains particularly vulnerable. This is largely due to the island nation’s relative diplomatic isolation (it is not a member of the United Nations and has formal diplomatic relations with only 22 countries) and the significant influence that China exerts on it as Taiwan’s largest trade partner and neighbor.
“The Chinese activities, especially in the last few years, have been very aggressive and it’s a key destabilizer for this region,” said Lai I-Chung, vice president of foreign policy at Taiwan Thinktank.
A key to regional stability, as well as to Taiwan’s security, is the security network provided by the U.S. military in the region, particularly that provided by the U.S. alliance with Japan, according to Lai.
“We’d like to encourage the continued strengthening of the U.S.-Japan alliance and sustained U.S. presence (in the region),” Lai said. “The strengthening of the U.S.-Japan alliance is very important for the stabilization in the Asia-Pacific. Taiwan would also like to seek the integration of Taiwan into the U.S.-Japan led security network, whether that’s formal or informal.”
The relocation of U.S. Marines from Okinawa to Guam is a result of the U.S.-Japan alliance.
Lai spoke to a group of journalists from foreign media, including the Post, on Sept. 7 in Taipei in a meeting arranged by Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He was asked whether Taiwanese integration into the U.S.-Japan security network was “realistic,” in light of Taiwan’s lack of diplomatic relations with both Japan and the U.S. and its dispute with Japan over the Senkaku Islands in the South China Sea.
“There are a lot of things we can do under the radar,” he said. “It is not just about the formal alliance.” He noted that Taiwan is about 70 miles from Japan at its closest point, and the proximity makes it essential that the countries cooperate in such areas as the fights against narcotics trafficking and terrorism.
“There are tons of the non-traditional threat issues that we need to work with,” Lai said. “It is not just about realistic; it is a necessity. … We all realize that.”
Unlike other Asian nations, Taiwan is not concerned about the Japanese military, Lai said. “Some countries are alarmed or they accuse Japan’s process of normalization as remilitarization,” Lai said. “But we will not look at it like that. … We do not think Japan is a country like that, and also Japan is a democracy.”
While the think tank has no formal government relationship, it is closely aligned with the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which came into power with the May 20 inauguration of President Tsai Ing-wen. Since Tsai’s election, Taiwan’s relations with Beijing have cooled significantly in light of the DPP policy of Taiwanese “independence” from China as opposed to the more mainland-friendly policies of her predecessor, former President Ma-Ying-jeou. His party, the Kuomintang (KMT), held power for most of Taiwan’s recent history.
In apparent retaliation for Tsai’s election, the Chinese have cut back on the number of tourists to Taiwan – down as much as 30 percent from the 4 million Chinese visitors in 2015, according to the government’s Tourism Bureau. The Chinese have also blocked Taiwan’s participation in something as seemingly benign as the International Civil Aviation Organization, a U.N. organization.
To lessen Taiwan’s dependence on mainland China, the Tsai administration has implemented what is referred to as the “southbound policy,” wherein the country looks to strengthen and develop relations with the nations of Southeast Asia, South Asia, Australia and New Zealand.
The KMT government “believed that Taiwan’s international participation and our foreign engagement have to run through China,” he said. “So good Taiwan-China relation is the key for Taiwan’s other external relationships. But this government believes that the Taiwan-China relationship is an external relationship. So we are not going to prioritize the stabilization of the cross-strait relations above everything else. It’s just part of it and we’re going to look at Taiwan’s whole national interest and see what priority we should have. But of course, we will not prioritize China above everything else.”
Lai said the TransPacific Partnership (TPP) is another vehicle for Taiwan to interact in a meaningful way with other Asian nations.
“TPP failure would be devastating,” he said. “It would be very bad for the whole Asia Pacific, particularly to Taiwan because TPP to us is not just about the regional economic integration. It means a new way of regional integration [as] TPP also talks about the harmonization of regulations and the ways to deal with the new forms of economic activities, as well as new forms of social activities.”
Six of the 22 nations that have full diplomatic relations with Taiwan are Pacific Island nations, including Palau and the Marshall Islands. The Federated States of Micronesia (FSM), however, has diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China, which has funded a number of capital improvement projects in Pohnpei including the gym at the College of Micronesia – National, a government office complex in Kolonia, and federal government buildings at Palikir, the FSM’s capital.
Lai said that in order to counter Chinese activities in the Pacific, aimed at increasing influence in the island nations in the region, require “a coordinated effort not just from Taiwan, but also from Australia, the U.S. and Japan and other countries to improve the governance (of the islands).” He said that Taiwan wants to not only sustain its diplomatic alliances, but to sustain them “in a healthy way, in a way that is beneficial to everybody, including the local people.”