A Year for Change in the “1972 Setup”


The year 2012 is an important one on the global calendar, with national leadership going up for election or scheduled to change hands in a number of key countries. East Asia is no exception in this regard: China will see a new set of leaders take the reins, and Taiwan will hold its presidential election in January.(*1) The South Korean president serves a five-year term, which means Lee Myung-bak will hold the office until 2013; across the border in North Korea, though, Kim Jong-il died in late 2011, and the following year will likely bring new faces to the leadership there as well.

All this promises change in the region’s international politics in 2012 as well. In particular, there is the chance we will see signs of transition in the situation on the Korean Peninsula and the cross-strait relationship between China and Taiwan, two dynamics that have been predictable parts of the basic structure of regional relations for more than a half-century. Japan will be called on to foresee the various changes that may take place and respond flexibly to shifting conditions, making appropriate judgments with its national interests in mind.

New Attention on the 1972 Setup

From the broad historical perspective, too, 2012 is likely to be a key year. It marks the fortieth anniversary of Japan’s severing of formal ties with Taiwan and normalization of ties with China, as well as the twentieth year since South Korea ended diplomatic ties with Taipei and normalized relations with Beijing. In the academic sphere, debate is increasingly focused on something called the “1972 setup.” This views the framework put in place when Japan normalized ties with China in that year as the basis for ties between the two nations ever since. Within this framework, the nations based their relations on bilateral friendship, and also dealt with issues like the Taiwan problem, arguments over historical perception and territorial disputes by either reaching a consensus or shelving the issues to be dealt with later.

From the early years of this period right up to today, the question of Taiwan’s status has been the key problem in Sino-Japanese ties. (Indeed, a close examination of the territorial flap over Japan’s Senkaku Islands—which China claims as the Diaoyu Islands—shows it to be a mere manifestation of the bigger issue of Taiwan.) The shared history of the nations, too, remains a major facet of their relationship. But today the Taiwan situation is in flux, and China’s national strength and its relationship with the United States are also showing signs of transformation. Viewed against this backdrop, the 1972 setup appears ever more dubious as a reliable foundation for ties between Japan and China.

The Question of Taiwan

The flip side of the 1972 setup is Japan’s relationship with Taiwan. The framework put in place when Tokyo severed formal ties with Taipei has similarly served as the basis for the Japan-Taiwan relationship ever since. In a word, the framework sought to limit bilateral ties to the spheres of economy and trade on the one hand and culture on the other. Japanese investment in Taiwan increased following the end of formal diplomatic ties, and the actual relationship between the two sides grew extraordinarily close. There is a strong mutual friendship in place, as seen by the ¥20 billion in Taiwanese donations that poured forth following the March 11, 2011, earthquake and tsunami in Japan.

Today, however, the Taiwan Strait situation is shifting. There is also the potential for fundamental change in the East Asian international political scene caused by the dramatic rise of China. And this is bringing certain irritating factors to the fore in the 1972 setup.

For all these reasons, 2012 promises to be a year in which Japan must give deep thought to the transformation of East Asian international dynamics, as well as to the future of these two sides of the 1972 setup. (December 22, 2011)

(Originally written in Japanese.)

(*1) ^ On January 14 the incumbent, Ma Ying-jeou, won his second four-year term as Taiwan's president.—Ed.

diplomacy China East Asia Kawashima Shin Taiwan North Korea South Korea Min Jong-il Sino-Japanese ties normalization history