Pacific Rim Bureau (CNSNews.com) - Historically seesawing relations between China and Japan look set to enter the new year on an even cooler note than usual, with tensions heightened over Tokyo's decision to grant a visitor's visa to a prominent Taiwanese figure.
China has formally protested Japan's decision on Tuesday to allow Lee Teng-hui, Taiwan's 81-year-old former president, to pay a five-day sightseeing visit with family members, beginning Dec. 27.
Like his successor, President Chen Shui-bian, Lee is reviled by Beijing for promoting the idea that Taiwan is a de facto independent country.
China views the island as a wayward province. As part of its multifaceted campaign to deny it legitimacy on the world stage, China routinely demands that foreign governments do not allow Taiwanese leaders to visit.
Governments generally comply, as happened in 2001 when Denmark, the Netherlands and France refused to allow the current president, Chen, to collect an international democracy award at a function on their soil.
There have been exceptions, however. Lee visited the U.S. in 1995, and gave a speech at Cornell University attacking mainland policies on Taiwan. The episode sparked a rift between Beijing and Washington, and led to eventual Chinese wargames off Taiwan's coast, prompting the U.S. to send warships to the area.
Five years later, Britain risked China's anger by allowing Lee to visit to attend his granddaughter's high school graduation ceremony and receive an honorary award from a private economic foundation.
In 2002, senior State and Defense Department officials met with Taiwan's defense minister Chen, on the sidelines of a private defense gathering in Florida.
The U.S. has on a number of occasions also given Chen permission to have "stopovers" in American cities, usually en route to Central America, where several small countries have diplomatic relations with Taiwan.
Adding to the sensitivities around the present situation is the history between China and Japan.
Parts of China, as well as Korea and Taiwan, were annexed by Imperial Japan early last century and the often harsh occupations only ended some 60 years ago, at the conclusion of World War II.
Formal protests about Lee's planned visit came from the Chinese Embassy in Tokyo, where a diplomat, Cheng Yonghua, warned that the issue would become a "new dispute" between the two countries.
The foreign ministry in Beijing urged Tokyo to cancel the visa, and several dozen Chinese demonstrators protested outside the Japanese Embassy, shouting slogans denouncing Japan and its militaristic history.
Although Lee has not been president since 2000 and despite his age, China still regards him as a leading separatist influence. He is the spiritual leader of the Taiwan Solidarity Union, a pro-independence party which is a member of Chen's ruling coalition.
Japan argued that the visit was a private one by a private citizen, and Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi told reporters there was "no reason to deny" Lee a visa.
The government did, however, signal that it hopes to play down the visit. Cabinet Secretary Hiroyuki Hosoda took the rare step of urging media organizations not to report on the matter, and members of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party were instructed not to meet with Lee during his trip.
Lee, who attended university in Japan, last visited the country in 2001 for medical treatment for a heart ailment. That visit too caused tensions, although Tokyo said it issued the visa on humanitarian grounds.
The latest row comes at a time when relations between Japan and China -- never particularly warm despite growing trade ties -- have soured.
A new opinion survey by the Japanese Cabinet found that the Japanese view ties with China far more negatively than in the past.
Japanese who believe Japan and China are enjoying good relations dropped from almost 47 percent in the last such survey to just over 28 percent today. (By contrast, 77 percent of respondents though Japan-U.S. ties were "quite good" and 55 percent had the same view of ties between Japan and South Korea.)
Earlier this month, Japan announced changes to its defense doctrine, for the first time identifying China as a potential security threat -- a step Beijing called "totally groundless and extremely irresponsible."
The new defense program also confirmed that Japan would move ahead with cooperating with the U.S. in building a joint ballistic missile defense system. China opposes the planned missile umbrella.
The two East Asian countries have several territorial disputes, and China recently pointedly sent a nuclear-powered submarine into Japanese waters near one contested area.
Koizumi regularly upsets China by paying annual visits to a national shrine to Japan's war dead, where war criminals from Imperial Japan's aggressive past are also buried.
With New Year's Day - the traditional day for the visits - approaching, the question of whether the prime minister will again visit the Yasukuni Shrine has again arisen.
Some lawmakers have said another visit would further undermine the Japan-China relationship, but others argue that he risks strong criticism if he bows to outside pressure and does not make good on an earlier pledge to pay the visit.
An opinion piece in Beijing's official People's Daily Wednesday said Koizumi's visit to the shrine on January 1 this year had cast "a dark shadow" over bilateral ties for a whole year.
Noting the significance of next year's 60th anniversary, the mouthpiece said 2005 would be a "sensitive year" in which bilateral relations could improve or worsen.
It said leaders, governments and people of the two countries would need to make "great efforts."
The Taiwanese government was established in 1949 after two million nationalists fled the mainland after losing a civil war to communists. The U.S. broke diplomatic relations with the island upon recognizing the People's Republic of China in 1978.
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