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March 28, 2017

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Japan unlikely to aid Taiwan in war with China

President Tsai Ing-wen is almost elated by a scheduled change of the quasi-official Association of East Asian Relations (AEAR, 亞東關係協會) that facilitates "quasi-official relations" between Taiwan and Japan. After Tokyo changed the name of Japan's AEAR counterpart Japan Interchange Association (交流協會) to the Japan-Taiwan Exchange Association (日本台灣關係協) on Jan. 1, it was announced recently that the AEAR's name will be changed to the Taiwan-Japan Relations Association (台灣日本關係協會) by the end of this month.

Tsai is happy that Japan is getting closer to becoming an unofficial ally in the case of military conflict with the People's Republic of China, which she regards as a potential enemy of Taiwan. But is Japan really growing more likely to fill such a role? Only a few people in Taiwan think it is.

So then, what do these name changes really mean for Taiwan? Nothing. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe wanted to please Tsai, who is doing what she can to bring Taiwan nearer to her possible ally in confrontation with China.

The stark fact is that the conversion of the names does not change the unofficial nature of the relationship between the two countries, whose diplomatic ties were cut off in 1972. The Japan Interchange Association and the AEAR were set up to handle all nongovernmental business, like trade and investment, after Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka derecognized Chiang Kai-shek's Republic of China to befriend Mao Zedong's People's Republic. Japan needed China as a friend.

In addition, the name change has angered Beijing, which by all indications will retaliate against Taiwan, further adversely affecting the already tense Sino-Japanese relations. Perhaps Prime Minister Shinzo Abe actually wants this right now, though he might make an about-face if he were convinced that he could not win a third term toward the end of next year.

Unlike Tanaka, who considered China a friend, Abe regards the People's Republic as an enemy. He tried to befriend China during his brief one-year term as prime minister in 2006-2007, but changed course after stepping back into the job in 2012.

Well, Japan's potential enemy has changed many a time since the Meiji Restoration in 1868. Qing China was the first one. Without any help from any world powers, the Land of the Rising Sun won the first Sino-Japanese War of 1894-1895 to become a rising Asian power. Beijing ceded Taiwan to Japan at the end of the war, making it Asia's first colonial power. Czarist Russia, through the Triple Intervention alliance, got a lease on the Liaodong Peninsula, which was ceded to Japan together with Taiwan, to pose as Tokyo's second potential enemy.

To cope with the Russian threat, Tokyo signed an Anglo-Japanese Alliance treaty in 1902. With the treaty in hand, Meiji Japan dared to fight Czarist Russia in 1894.

The British Empire and the United States helped Japan defeat Russia in 1905. President Theodore Roosevelt arranged the Treaty of Portsmouth in 1905, under which the southern half of Sakhalin was ceded to Japan, which also won the lease of the Liaodong Peninsula.

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