Japan risks Beijing's wrath over Lee visa
TOKYO, Japan -- Japan is struggling to stay out of the regional diplomatic face-off between China and the U.S. as it mulls over a visa application from former Taiwan President Lee Teng-hui.
While China prepares for high-level talks with the U.S. over the recent spy plane drama, Japan is considering allowing entry to Lee for a medical examination -- a move Beijing has warned may damage ties between the two nations.
The dilemma comes amid concerns in Japan, and other Asian nations, over an apparent escalation of tensions in the region.
Tokyo is continuing to stall for time to work out a solution to the quandary, saying on Tuesday it is still mulling the case.
Foreign Minister Yohei Kono suggested that Tokyo's relationship with Beijing was the central issue, not concerns about Lee's health, and he pleaded for more time to consider the request.
"This is an issue that concerns the foundation of the Japan-China relationship, while I think humanitarian issues are a different matter," he told a committee in the upper house of Parliament.
Analysts say that if Japan permits Lee to visit, it would further complicate a tense diplomatic situation that also takes in Sino-U.S. talks following their 11-day spy plane confrontation and an imminent decision by the U.S. over arms sales to Taiwan.
"Obviously in the current context and environment it would be very much linked together with the U.S.-China issue and the arms sales," said Jean-Pierre Cabestan, director of the French Center for Research on Contemporary China in Hong Kong.
"If Japan were to grant the visa it would be further evidence that the West, and allies of the West in Asia, are not willing to kowtow to China and to give in to Chinese pressure in the region."
"It's a smaller element to the whole scenario, and its importance should not be exaggerated, but it would show an unwillingness to bow to Beijing," he said.
Taiwan's Vice President Annette Lu has urged Japan to have the "moral courage" to allow Lee a visa. She has said if Japan refuses entry to Lee it would be "a rich but heartless nation".
China maintains that it is against any visit to Japan by Lee.
"China is firmly opposed to Lee Teng-hui carrying out any activities in Japan under any pretext," China's foreign ministry spokeswoman Zhang Qiyue said in a statement Monday.
China considers Taiwan to be a breakaway province, and does not recognize its claims to sovereignty.
Zhang said people in both Taiwan and Japan know that Lee's plan to visit Japan for medical treatment is "just a cover" and that he is really seeking support in Japan for "Taiwan independence".
The question of Lee visiting Japan is "not a humanitarian issue but rather it is truly a political issue", Zhang said, adding that Japan should prevent Lee from visiting "to avoid harm to Sino-Japanese relations".
Lee himself has insisted the trip would be for medical and not political reasons, and would be made as a private individual.
Lee, 78, who stepped down as Taiwan's first democratically elected president almost a year ago, confirmed Sunday that he had applied to Japan's de facto embassy in Taipei -- the Interchange Association -- for a visa for a short trip to have his heart examined.
Taiwan has said its ties with Japan will be damaged if Lee is not allowed to visit.
"The Japanese government would violate the rules respected by any civilized country if former president Lee Teng-hui could not be permitted to travel to Japan for health reasons," the foreign minister said.
If that happened, "Taipei-Tokyo ties would have unfavorable impacts," he said.
A bipartisan group of six Taiwanese members of parliament has written a letter to the Japanese government in support of the application.
Meanwhile, Taiwan president Chen Shui-bian Tuesday repeated calls for the U.S. to sell advanced weapon's systems to the island, local media reported.
During a meeting with U.S. Congressman David Wu, Chen said Taiwan's democratic success and security would be ensured if the U.S. were to pass the Taiwan Security Enhancement Act (TSEA) and sell the necessary defensive weapons to the island, a report in the Liberty Times said.
The U.S. is obliged to sell defensive weapons to Taiwan in accordance with the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979.
However, the TSEA, which was approved by the House of Representatives early last year but still requires Senate approval, would further boost those military ties.
The U.S. is due to hold its annual arms sales talks with Taiwan later this month to decide which weapons to sell to the island.
Attention is focused on whether the U.S. agrees to sell Taiwan Arleigh Burke-class destroyers equipped with the advanced Aegis system.
Chen's comments urging the U.S. to sell advanced weapons follow similar remarks made last week in a meeting with a delegation of U.S. congressmen, led by Senator Phil Gramm from Texas.
Gramm's delegation had originally planned to visit China, but came to Taiwan instead due to the recent U.S.-China spy plane incident.
Jin Zhong, editor of the China-focused Open magazine, based in Hong Kong, said Sino-Japan relations would be dented if Japan granted Lee visa.
"Lee grew up and had his education in Japan, he has a strong Japan complex and must trust Japanese health system more than Taiwan," said Jin.
He said Lee is using the trip to "test" China's reaction for his planned trips to the United States later this year.
"But the impact on Sino-Japan relations won't be much. Beijing will just publicly express its anger on Japan. But China won't take any retaliatory measures against Japan over this issue," he said.
Beijing also angrily protested to the U.S. government for allowing Lee into the country for a private visit in 1996 when Li said he was invited to visit Cornell University where he studied agriculture."
U.S. to ask 'tough questions' at China talks
French Centre for Research on Contemporary China (CEFC)
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