December 16, 2008: Dr. Yasuhiro Matsuda

(Click to Enlarge) Dr. Yasuhiro Matsuda discusses cross-strait relations.

A Japanese Perspective of Cross-Strait Relations


(Washington D.C.) December 16– Though Japan’s engagement with cross-strait disputes is limited compared to the United States, Japan’s presence in the region causes it to observe the relations between China and Taiwan very closely. In an East-West Center Asia-Pacific Security Seminar, Dr. Yasuhiro Matsuda of the University of Tokyo described recent developments in cross-strait relations, the attempts of the Japanese government to balance its relationship with both Taiwan and China, and current Japanese perceptions of the precarious peace across the Taiwan Strait.


Professor Matsuda characterized Japan’s relationship with Taiwan as “low-key” and noted that it tends to be a passive player in the cross-strait dialogue. However, Tokyo is deeply interested in the maintenance of peace in the area, concerned about the shifting balance of power in Northeast Asia brought about by China’s rise, and enthusiastic about increasing economic integration between Taiwan and China. The Japanese people are also very involved with exchanges with the people of both Taiwan and China. Generally, Professor Matsuda noted, Japan’s current relationship with both Taiwan and China is good, but these relationships, on both a governmental and popular level, can change very rapidly.


He explained that during the Chen Shui-bian administration in Taiwan, domestic politics led to troubled Taiwanese relations with both China and the United States. This resulted in acute cross-strait and U.S.-Taiwan tensions that deeply troubled Japan despite the good bilateral relationship it had with the Chen government.


At the same time that Chen was stirring up tensions with China, however, Chinese leader Hu Jintao was taking steps to prevent a military confrontation with Taiwan by promulgating policies and laws that, while retaining the right of China to use force against Taiwan in certain situations, also constrained China’s ability to use force to very specific circumstances. These actions by Hu Jintao signaled to the Japanese that China was not in a hurry to force reunification and that the status-quo would remain for some time.


Chen’s party lost Taiwan’s most recent elections, and the new president, Ma Ying-jeou, quickly took advantage of China’s new policies to repair the damage caused during the Chen years. He also made efforts to mend relations with the United States. However, despite this improvement in relations, explained Professor Matsuda, the Japanese were uncertain of Taiwan’s new president.


The people of Japan have long felt an affinity for the Taiwanese. Particularly during the Koizumi government, when relations between Japan and China were poor, the Japanese were able to feel a kind of cooperative sympathy for the Taiwanese because they felt that they shared in a struggle against China. Chen, his supporters, and his message were well known in Japan. But at the time of his election, Professor Matsuda explained, Ma was a stranger to many Japanese and his stance on such issues at the disputed territory of the Senkaku islands made many Japanese feel that though cross-strait relations might be more stable under a Ma-led administration, bilateral relations between Taiwan and Japan might become worse.


Despite problems with both Taiwan and China in the past, Professor Matsuda noted that current relations between the all parties are satisfactory. The Japanese people are currently becoming more comfortable with Ma because they see that he is a pragmatist who is trying to have better relations with China, the United States, and Japan, and is interested in improving economic ties all through the region. At the same time, the Japanese appreciate that China is pursuing multilateralism and economic expansion in the region rather than behaving aggressively toward its neighbors.


However, some important questions remain. In Taiwan, as an older generation more familiar with the Japanese is beginning to disappear, and the Japanese are anxious about how the relationship between Taipei and Tokyo will proceed in the future. And though the Japanese do not feel threatened in an immediate sense by China’s rise, there is concern about the implications of China continuing to grow more powerful while important considerations of human rights, territorial disputes, and historical conflict are basically ignored. Further, the Japanese know from experience that an amicable situation in the cross-strait can quickly turn for the worse. Japan will therefore continue to be an uneasy observer of the cross-strait situation.


Dr. Yasuhiro Matsuda is associate professor of the Institute of Oriental Culture at the University of Tokyo. He specializes in the political and diplomatic history of Asia, politics and external relations in the PRC and Taiwan, and cross-strait relations. From 1992 to 2008, he was an assistant research fellow and a senior research fellow at the National Institute for Defense Studies, a division of the Japanese Ministry of Defense. Dr. Matsuda has been a visiting research fellow at numerous institutions, including the Consulate-General of Japan in Hong Kong (1994-96), the Henry L. Stimson Center in Washington, DC (2000), the Division of Strategic and International Studies of the Taiwan Research Institute in Taipei (2001), and the Center for Japanese Studies of Fudan University in Shanghai (2007). Dr. Matsuda is the author of numerous publications in English and Japanese.