On April 16, 2021, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga became the first foreign head of state to meet with US President Joe Biden at the White House since the latter took office. The summit was held less than three months after Biden’s administration was inaugurated, and has undoubtedly inspired the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs in the Suga cabinet. The topics discussed in the US-Japan summit included 5G mobile networks, Covid-19 and decarbonization, amongst others. The two sides worked together on projects ranging from climate change to military affairs, covering the key interests of the left-right political spectrum in the US.
Japan claimed that China had dispatched naval vessels around the Senkaku Islands (Ishigaki city, Okinawa Prefecture) as a unilateral challenge to Japan’s sovereignty. Both sides reaffirmed Article 5 of the Security Treaty, which applies to the Senkaku Islands. The US successfully included Japan as an ally in the global competition between the US and China. Both sides reaffirmed that the US-Japan Alliance is the core of Indo-Pacific regional security and declared they wanted to create “a future of a Free and Open Indo-Pacific.”
The joint declaration stated, unusually, ” We oppose any unilateral attempts to change the status quo in the East China Sea” and the aim of destabilizing the region, and ” underscore the importance of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait.” It also focused on every sensitive topic related to China and the Indo-Pacific region, such as the sovereignty of the Senkaku Islands (called the Diaoyu Islands in China and the Tiaoyutai Islands in Taiwan, respectively), security issues and human right issues in the South China Sea, Xinjiang and Hong Kong. Even more unusually, they discussed issues such as Taiwan as well as the future international industrial chain and high-tech competition.
Comparing the new US-Japan Joint Declaration with previous ones clearly shows that their background and space-time context are radically different. In 1969, the United States promised to guarantee the security of its regional alliances and to “defend the Republic of China (Taiwan) in accordance with the treaty.” At that time, both the US and Japan had diplomatic relations with the Republic of China (Taiwan), but not with mainland China. In 2022, the US and Japan will not only have diplomatic relations with China, they will also be crucial trading partners.
The US-Japan Joint Declaration shows that the US is committed to re-consolidating the core of the US-Japan Alliance and to promoting the US, Japan, India and Australia Quadrilateral alliance to meet all aspects of the challenges from China. Although it was not stated in the 1969 US-Japan Joint Declaration about the security commitment to Taiwan, it emphasized “the importance of peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait” and hoped that the Taiwan issue can be resolved peacefully.
Taiwan becomes the rhino horn of the US “Anti-China Alliance”
Japan established diplomatic relations with China in 1972, and its government has always been cautious on the Taiwan issue to avoid offending its larger neighbor. Japan has long maintained a balanced relationship between the United States and China, without ever abandoning the United States. Japan used to lean towards China due to economic and trade interests, but after the US-China trade war, high-tech industry chain degradation and COVID-19, Japan’s Suga cabinet tacked towards the United States and proved it via a joint statement.
On April 18, 2021, Japanese newspapers and media ran front page stories on Taiwan, showing the importance of Taiwan in the US-Japan Joint Declaration. The United States under the Biden administration has abandoned the “strategic ambiguity” on cross-strait issues which has been in place for more than 40 years and chose a clearer policy by “supporting Taiwan.” The main reason for this was China’s military power in the Asia-Pacific region, which has risen rapidly because of its economic development and has led to an increasing disparity in military power across the Taiwan Strait. If the status quo across the Taiwan Strait can no longer be maintained, the US will lose more of its “free and democratic world.” Further, the “first island chain” built after World War II will collapse, and the regional order in Asia-Pacific region could face disruption.
The policies of “resisting China” or “controlling China” are now similar to the US Containment Policy towards China and Russia in the 1950s. South Korean President Moon Jae-in is expected to visit the White House in late May, following the Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga. The United States is also actively repairing its relations with European allies and strengthening its countermeasures against mainland China. “The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue” between the US, Japan, India and Australia in the Indian and Pacific Ocean region ostensibly aimed to establish a free and open Indo-Pacific region, but some believe the alliance was formed by the United States to fight against China.
Different Interpretations between the Taiwanese ruling and opposition parties
For the first time since 1969, the US-Japan Joint Declaration emphasized the importance of peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait and encouraged peaceful resolution of cross-strait issues, which gives it a crucial historical meaning. However, the ruling and opposition parties in Taiwan interpreted it completely differently.
The deputy chairperson of the KMT Culture and Communications Committee Cheng, Chao-Hsin, who is from the opposition party, said the declaration contains many issues of which the Taiwan Strait is only one. To avoid an increased risk of conflict, Taiwan should prioritize its own sovereignty and the interests of the Taiwanese people. Further, Taiwan needs to maintain peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait region and prevent it from becoming a battlefield for superpowers.
The US-Japan Joint Declaration reaffirmed that the Senkaku Islands are within the scope of the US-Japan Security Treaty. Yoshihide Suga and President Biden stated that Article 5 of the 1960 US-Japan Security Treaty applies to the Senkaku Islands (the Tiaoyutai Islands, as they are called by Taiwan). The United States will defend Japanese territory from armed attack. Ho Chih-Yung, the KMT spokesperson and Deputy Director of the International Affairs Department said that the Tsai government should firmly defend the country’s sovereignty, and called on Frank Hsieh, Taiwan’s representative to Japan and MOFA, to respond to this issue appropriately.
On April 19, the Institute for National Policy Research hosted the “US-Japan Summit and Taiwan Strait Issues” symposium. The president Tien,Hung-Mao stated that China’s economic might continues to grow and its neighboring countries feel threatened. First, the number of military aircraft surrounding Taiwan through the Taiwan Strait has increased. Second, China has challenged Japan’s security in the Tiaoyutai Islands area through the Coast Guard Law, which the Japanese government is seeking to resolve. Third, there are also dispute within the South China Sea.
Will the United States and Japan defend Taiwan? This depends on whether the United States will assist Taiwan by implementing “strategic ambiguity” and whether Japan will support the United States’ “assisting ambiguity”. Taiwan Thinktank Advisory Committee Member Lai I-Chung stated that the United States will not abandon strategic ambiguity, but it is clear that the US will defend Taiwan. Although the Japanese Constitution formally renounces war, forbids the use of force and outlaws war, and so is called an “anti-war” or “peaceful” constitution, after the amendment to its Article 9 and two amendments to the guidelines of the US-Japan Alliance, the options for action by the Japan Self-Defense Force have been loosened considerably, and actions that it can take under certain conditions are clearly defined.
The prototype of the “US-Japan-Taiwan Alliance”
In 2015, the Abe Cabinet enacted the “Peace and Security Preservation Legislation” which includes the “Right of Collective Self-defense” and proposed the concept of a “significantly affected state of affairs.” Although this legislation did not address Taiwan directly, Japan has actually included the security of the Taiwan Strait in the scope of Japan’s peace and security issues for more than 20 years.
China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs expressed “strong dissatisfaction and resolute opposition” regarding inclusion of the Taiwan issue in the US-Japan summit joint declaration, and stated that “China will take all necessary measures to defend its national sovereignty, security and development interests.” The world is waiting to see what countermeasures China takes next. China’s President Xi Jinping, who has delayed his visit to Japan for more than a year, may not make a state visit to Japan in 2021. The obvious reasons are that China and Japan are still dealing with the Coronavirus pandemic and China is still busy with Hong Kong and Xinjiang issues. Sino-Japanese relations are expected to worsen after the US-Japan Joint Declaration. Noting that 2022 will be the 50th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between China and Japan, we shall see whether this crucial milestone will influence President Xi’s visit to Japan.
Beijing authorities have been very sensitive about the United States and Japan intervening in the Taiwan Strait issue. This situation US-Chinese relations and Chinese-Japanese relations are worrying countries throughout the Asia-Pacific region. When the joint declaration was issued after the US-Japan Leaders’ Summit on April 16, the Japanese Minister of Defense Nobuo Kishi, who has close ties to Taiwan, went to Yonaguni Island, Japan’s westernmost island. This Island is located in the west of Okinawa Prefecture, which is fairly close to Taiwan -111 km from Hualien, 117 km from Ishigaki Island, 509 km from Naha, and 2112 km from Tokyo. Nobuo Kishi posted a photo of himself standing on a shore and looking towards Taiwan on his Twitter account, and wrote that he could not see Taiwan because of the cloudy sky. This was his way of expressing that Taiwan and Japan are actually so adjacent that they are facing a mutual threat from China.
In 2021, the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress of the People’s Republic of China authorized an amendment to the “Coast Guard Law” to allow the use of force when in conflict with foreign vessels. This has caused tensions in the South China Sea and the East China Sea to rise. China used to send its Coast Guard vessels to track Japanese fishing vessels by sailing into the waters around the Diaoyu Islands. Japan has also seen the “Chinese Militia Vessels” deployed by China in the South China Sea, comprising tens of thousands of people and thousands of ships. These Chinese Militia float in the grey area, overwhelming their opponents by their hordes of fishing vessels, and gradually obtain overall control of the entire South China Sea. These militia vessels may set course for the East China Sea to surround the island without using military force, and ask for Japan’s territorial sovereignty over the Diaoyu Islands.
Is Taiwan ready for the “US-Japan-Taiwan Alliance”?
Since 2020, China’s PLA military aircraft have constantly crossed the center line of the Taiwan Strait and flown over the southwestern part of the Taiwan Air Defense Identification Zone. Unlike the conflict in the South China Sea and the US Indo-Pacific strategy for free navigation, attention must also be paid to the skies over the Miyako Islands to the northeast of Taiwan. There is potential for a misjudgment between Japanese, Taiwanese and Chinese military aircrafts that could spark a conflict and cause a crisis in the Taiwan Strait.
The Taiwanese government should know that, without diplomatic relations, it is hard for the Japanese government to build up military cooperation with Taiwan at this stage. However, Japan can participate by supporting the US through the US-Japan Security Treaty and their alliance. This could form a cooperative relationship similar to the “US-Japan-Taiwan Alliance”. In addition to the United States-centric military intelligence-sharing, joint military exercises by the three parties should not be ruled out.
The US-Japan Joint Declaration demonstrates that the Taiwan Strait issue will be settled through the “US-Japan Alliance” strategy. Rather than focusing on the future of the Taiwan-US-Japan trilateral relationship, the Taiwanese government should pay more attention to its bilateral relationship with the US-Japan alliance and actively establish and strengthen the mechanism for communication and dialogue for the bilateral relationship between the United States and Japan.