Former Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui was in Japan last week, where he met with a number of Japanese officials, including Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Since his return on Sunday, Lee’s comments on the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands (made while in Japan) have created a firestorm of controversy in Taiwan, with mainland Chinese media paying close attention.
Lee’s trip to Japan was controversial even before he left. Beijing had urged the Japanese government not to allow the visit, without success. In a statement, Lu Kang, a spokesperson for China’s Foreign Ministry, expressed China’s “deep concern and strong dissatisfaction.” The statement called Lee “an obstinate propagandist of the ‘Taiwan independence’” and accused Japan of providing a convenient platform “for his ‘Taiwan independence’ activities in Japan.”
Still, Lee’s trip was hardly unusual. The former president, now 92, has visited Japan seven times since he left office in 2000, with his previous trip in September 2014. On this trip, Lee gave a speech before roughly 400 Japanese legislators at a Diet office building, a first for Lee or any former Taiwanese leader. He then visited Fukushima Prefecture, the site of the devastating March 2011 earthquake and tsunami, and Miyagi Prefecture, which was hit hard by an April 2011 aftershock quake.
Lee also met with Abe, who reportedly visited Lee’s hotel in Tokyo. According to The Yomiuri Shimbun, the two discussed “Japan’s current political situation, including the issue of security-related bills now under deliberation in the Diet.” Lee supports Japan’s right to exercise collective self-defense.
In his speech at the Diet, Lee emphasized the need for Taiwan to undergo further democratic reform, especially constitutional reform, to complete its democratic development. He also reiterated his views on cross-strait relations: “I can never agree to what China has repeatedly been saying about the ‘one-China’ (principle) or that Taiwan is part of China.” Lee earned Beijing’s eternal wrath while in office for seeking to redefine the cross-strait relationship as a “special” kind of state-to-state relationship.
However, Lee’s remarks on Taiwan’s political system and identity aren’t what caused the controversy. The firestorm arose from a comment at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club in Tokyo, when Lee said that the Senkaku Islands, called the Diaoyutai in Taiwan and the Diaoyu in mainland China, belong only to Japan. The islands are currently controlled by Japan, but disputed by both Beijing and Taipei.
This isn’t the first time Lee has waded into the Senkaku/Diaoyu controversy. He made similar comments in September 2012, in an interview with a Japanese magazine. “The Diaoyu islands, no matter whether in the past, for now or in the future, certainly belong to Japan,” Lee said then.
Still, politicians in Taiwan were quick to slam Lee for his remarks, which critics said damaged Taiwan’s claim to the islands. A Ministry of Foreign Affairs official appeared in a press conference, emphasizing the official government position that the Diaoyutai are part of the inherent territory of the Republic of China. Tsai Ing-wen, the presidential candidate for the opposition Democratic Progressive Party, also reiterated that “the Diaoyutai belong to Taiwan” when asked by reporters for her stance.
Lee was attacked most strongly, however, by members of his own party, the ruling Kuomintang (KMT). Party Chairman Eric Chu said that he “would never concur with the view that the Diaoyutai Islands and South China Sea islands do not belong to the ROC no matter who is behind the contention.” Lai Shyh-bao, head of the KMT policy committee, said that Lee’s remarks “damaged Taiwan’s rights and reputation.” He vowed to try to scrap Lee’s taxpayer-funded annual stipend of NT$10 million ($317,000), even if laws must be amended to do so. “If he (Lee) wants to enjoy the perks, he should go to Japan,” Lai said scathingly. Another KMT legislator, Wu Yu-sheng, said Lee’s comments were a form of treason and suggested he would be happy to see the former president charged in court with “disgracing our nation.”
Yok Mu-ming, chairman of the New Party, took things a step farther by actually filing a complaint against Lee at the Taiwan High Prosecutor’s Office. Yok’s complaint accused Lee of colluding with foreign states with the intent of subjecting ROC territory to foreign control. Lee “sold his soul and the ROC,” Yok claimed.
Lee also came under fire for making remarks praising Japan’s colonial rule over Taiwan. “Lee said in Japan that Taiwanese feel nostalgia for Japanese rule, but in fact, people were harshly bullied, abused, humiliated and oppressed during the colonial period,” Lai said. “As a former president, how dare he [make] the remarks to flatter Japan.”
Mainland China also stepped into the fray, slamming Lee for his comments. “The Japanese were cruel in governing, slaughtering civilians and soldiers in Taiwan,” one commentary in Xinhua fumed. “How could Mr. Lee speak of such a dark and shameful history with gratitude?”
A spokesperson for the State Council’s Taiwan Affairs Office, which handles cross-strait relations, tied Lee’s controversial remarks to his “Taiwan independence” stance. “Lee’s contemptible acts have made compatriots from both sides see more clearly the extreme harms ‘Taiwan independence’ forces do to the peaceful development of cross-Strait relations and the integral benefit of the Chinese nation,” spokesperson Ma Xiaoguang, said on Friday.
While Lee’s comments on Japan are not directly tied to his stance on the cross-strait relationship, there is a connection. Those who see Taiwan as a unique country, separate from mainland China – and separate from the ROC’s historical territorial claims – are less likely to care about staking out Taiwan’s claim to the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, or even to disputed territories in the South China Sea.
As evidence of this divide, two warring camps – the China Unify Party and the pro-independence Taiwan Solidarity Union – were there to greet Lee at the airport upon his return to Taiwan. The CUP came to protest; the TSU welcomed Lee with flowers and shouts of “I love you.”