The Taiwan factor in US–Japan alliance relations

Author: Editorial Board, ANU

With the rise of China and the intensification of strategic rivalry between China and the United States, the US–Japan alliance continues to serve as a critical cornerstone undergirding peace and security in the Asia Pacific. Increased tensions between China and Taiwan have attracted international attention, including on what a cross-Strait conflict would mean for the US–Japan alliance and the defence of Japan.

Over the last half century, Japan–Taiwan relations tended to focus on economic relations and people-to-people exchanges with weak political and security relations — but this may be changing. As rhetoric emphasising Taiwan as a potential flashpoint of US–China conflict has increased, the Suga administration in Japan has increasingly shown its support for Taiwan.

At the US–Japan leaders’ summit in April, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and President Joe Biden underscored ‘the importance of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait’ and encouraged ‘the peaceful resolution of cross-Strait issues’. This was the first such reference to Taiwan in a US–Japan joint leaders’ statement since 1972 when Japan and China normalised their diplomatic relations. Japan similarly referred to ‘peace and stability’ across the Taiwan Strait in the US–Japan 2+2 joint statement in March, the Japan–EU joint statement in May, and the Japan–Australia 2+2 joint statement and Carbis Bay G7 communiqué in June. The latest edition of Japan’s Defence White Paper included an increased focus on Taiwan.

The Suga government also held party-to-party talks between the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and Democratic Progressive Party in late August. The talks included a heavy focus on security issues as well as discussion of planned investment in Japan by Taiwanese semiconductor manufacturer TSMC and cooperation on semiconductor chip supply chain resilience. While such a party-to-party meeting is within the bounds of the ‘one China’ policy, the move nevertheless irked Beijing.

The Japanese and Taiwanese people have come to see each other as friends who will help out in times of need. Taiwan was the largest donor to Japan after the 3/11 earthquake–tsunami–nuclear triple disaster. Japan is now repaying the favour. A poll by the Nikkei Shimbun soon after the Biden–Suga summit in April showed that nearly three-quarters of respondents supported Japan’s engagement for the stability of the Taiwan Strait. After China suspended imports of Taiwanese pineapples, ostensibly due to a biological pest, Japan stepped in to fill the gap increasing its imports of the fruit from the island eightfold between March and June compared with the same period in 2020. Nationalist Japanese politicians competed to share their Taiwan pineapple photos on social media. Japan has also donated over 3 million AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccines to Taiwan.

Yet as Japan navigates its increasing closeness with Taiwan it will need to finetune a delicate balance. This means maintaining the deterrence power of the US–Japan alliance, demonstrating Japan’s commitment to burden-sharing to keep the United States engaged while working within the framework of Japan’s Constitution, and avoiding antagonising China in ways that would unnecessarily make conflict more likely.

As Sheila Smith explains in this week’s lead article, which launches the latest edition of East Asia Forum Quarterly, a contingency scenario across the Taiwan Strait would constitute a credibility test for the US–Japan alliance. Because of Japan’s southernmost islands’ proximity to Taiwan and the fact that Japan ‘hosts a considerable array of US military forces’ in Okinawa — ‘making it a likely staging area for any US assistance to Taiwan’s defences’ — any conflict over Taiwan will have a major impact on Japan’s security.

‘Regardless of the intensity of such a confrontation’, Smith explains, ‘Tokyo would be faced with difficult decisions about how Japanese and US forces would cooperate in response’. Specifically, ‘Japan’s role would likely involve two distinct actions. First, Japan would be asked to provide support for US operations. Second, Japan’s Self-Defense Forces would need to consider how best to defend Japanese territory during a conflict’.

Since the international criticism that Japan faced for its so-called chequebook diplomacy during the 1990–1991 Gulf War, it has sought to avoid another Gulf War shock that could undermine credibility in the US–Japan alliance. Back then, political…

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