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How should the United States and Japan respond individually or collectively in case of a contingency in the Taiwan Strait? This question has been treated as an extremely sensitive issue in the politics of East Asia over the past 50 years and the answer to it has been kept ambiguous.

In the process of normalizing diplomatic relations with China, Washington said it “acknowledged” the Chinese position that Taiwan was part of China, and Tokyo stated that it “fully understood and respected” the Chinese position. Yet the United States and Japan have each refrained from making their stances clear on the question of Taiwan’s sovereignty and have maintained that cross-strait differences should be resolved peacefully through dialogues between Taipei and Beijing.

As China boosts its military capabilities and the era of conciliatory moods between the U.S. and China, and across the Taiwan Strait, is coming to an end, however, more people are calling for both the United States and Japan to rethink their ambiguous positions.

In order to encourage China to continue thinking the issue of Taiwan can only be resolved through peaceful means rather than by force, Japan and the United States are facing an urgent need to consider and quietly prepare responses to possible contingencies in Taiwan and put them forward as part of a deterrence strategy toward China.

Contextual differences

The ambiguous positions of the U.S. and Japan regarding the Taiwan issue have been formed under different historical and strategic backgrounds.

The U.S. policy toward cross-strait issues is generally described as a policy of “strategic ambiguity.” Under this, Washington has deliberately remained ambiguous on when and how it would intervene to defend Taiwan in order to prevent both Beijing and Taipei from taking provocative or venturesome steps.

In 1979, the U.S. switched diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing, but through the passage of the Taiwan Relations Act, it promised to continue supporting Taiwan’s efforts to defend itself.

On the other hand, consistent with the recognition of the government of the People’s Republic of China as “the sole legal government of China,” the U.S. has taken the position that it does not actively support Taiwan’s de jure independence.

By leaving open the possibility that the U.S. might intervene militarily, the policy of strategic ambiguity seeks to deter China from attacking Taiwan while at the same time, by leaving the possibility that the U.S. might not intervene, it tries to deter Taiwan from taking provocative actions. In this way, the U.S. has attempted to establish “dual deterrence” and prevent unilateral change to the status quo in the Taiwan Strait.

M60A3 tanks fire off shells during the annual Han Kuang military drill in Penghu, Taiwan, in May 2017. | REUTERS
M60A3 tanks fire off shells during the annual Han Kuang military drill in Penghu, Taiwan, in May 2017. | REUTERS

The viability of the strategic ambiguity policy has been debated every time the U.S.-China relationship has been reviewed following the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union. In February 2000, then-U.S. President Bill Clinton said the issues between Beijing and Taiwan must be resolved not only peacefully, but also “with the assent of the people of Taiwan.” His remarks demonstrated the U.S. updating its policy in view of a significant change — Taiwan’s democratization.

Over the past year, debate over whether to revise the strategic ambiguity policy has been reinvigorated again. It was sparked by an article by Richard Haass and David Sacks from the Council on Foreign Relations, who argued that the time has come for the United States to introduce a policy of strategic clarity.

The proposal calling for a clear commitment by Washington to intervene to protect Taiwan in the event of a Chinese armed attack and to implement a stronger deterrence against China comes against the backdrop of important trends. The U.S.’ overwhelming military superiority — the pillar underpinning its longstanding strategic ambiguity policy — is being shaken, and amid China’s recent moves, including tightening of control over Hong Kong and coercive behavior by the People’s Liberation Army in the Taiwan Strait, pessimism is growing over a peaceful resolution between the two sides of the strait.

In response to voices urging the U.S. government to shift to strategic clarity, Kurt Campbell, the U.S. coordinator for Indo-Pacific affairs on the National Security Council, said in early May that he believes there are significant downsides to such a policy, and that the best way to maintain peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait is to send a consolidated message to China combining diplomacy and U.S. defense innovation.

Japan’s ambiguity

Japan, a U.S. ally that is geographically located in close proximity to Taiwan, has also remained ambiguous about how to respond in case of a contingency in the Taiwan Strait.

But one should note that Japan’s ambiguity was formed and maintained in a substantially different context from that of the U.S. Japan’s ambiguous position over Taiwan’s defense is neither based on a strategy of dual deterrence against both Beijing and Taipei nor maintained deliberately as a result of open strategic discussions.

During the Cold War, whenever the issue of the Taiwan contingency surfaced during debate in the Diet, the focus was on whether Japan should allow the U.S. to use its military bases in Japan in such an instance.

The current Japan-U.S. security treaty requires the U.S. to engage in prior consultation with the Japanese government if it wants to use its military facilities in Japan as bases for combat operations elsewhere, including the Taiwan area. And the Japanese government maintains publicly that Japan’s response upon such prior-consultation from the U.S. “could be either yes or no.”

In November 1972, two months after Japan normalized diplomatic relations with China, then-Foreign Minister Masayoshi Ohira announced the unified government’s position on related questions. He stated that “when it comes to the operation of the Japan-U.S. security treaty during a contingency in Taiwan,” Japan would “carefully consider” the issue while “also keeping in mind a future friendship between Japan and China.”

Admitting Taiwan into the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership could help strategically integrate Taipei into the international community. | KYODO
Admitting Taiwan into the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership could help strategically integrate Taipei into the international community. | KYODO

Nevertheless, according to declassified diplomatic documents, the Japanese government reached out immediately, yet privately, to the U.S. government about this statement and highlighted the word “also” in Ohira’s statement. The Japanese diplomats explained that “the U.S.-Japanese relationship is most important to Japan and Japan puts top priority on its relationship with the United States when it comes to the operation of the U.S.-Japan security treaty.”

Japan’s position on Taiwan’s defense was literally an equivocal one, enabling Tokyo to walk a tightrope between its alliance with the U.S. and its nascent friendship with China.

Japan and the U.S. revised their guidelines for defense cooperation in 1997, and two years later the Diet passed the related laws to enable its provision of rear support for the U.S. military in “situations in areas surrounding Japan.” When asked whether a contingency in Taiwan would be designated as one such situation, the government maintained that the answer would depend on the characteristics of the contingency.

Takakazu Kuriyama, who as a diplomat played a critical role in diplomatic negotiations with China in the 1970s, reflected in his memoirs the following:

“How Japan will respond in case of a contingency in Taiwan is obviously a big concern for the United States. As concerned as the United States is, it is also aware that pressing the question on Japan beforehand will be like stirring up a hornet’s nest. Japanese politicians in responsible positions also know that when they are asked the question, it would cause problems in various ways if they clearly said they would protect Taiwan. Therefore, simply put, I think (both Washington and Tokyo) understand the issue as something in which Japan’s positions shouldn’t be made clear.”

In short, Japan’s ambiguous stance on the Taiwan issue appears to have been created more as a result of compromises to keep a balance between the U.S. and China as well as to overcome a political divide within the country at the time, than something maintained as part of a deterrence strategy. At the very least, no debate has been publicly conducted on the strategic backing of this ambiguous position.

To be sure, ambiguity was a reasonable position to take at a time when the probability of a contingency in Taiwan was low. As long as the U.S.’ overwhelming military superiority had been sustained and military confrontations in the Taiwan Strait had not been anticipated, Japan could keep on being ambiguous and deterrence against China would still be maintained. Such an ambiguity simultaneously allowed the Japanese government to reassure its public, which still held pacifist and anti-military views.

This is why a series of prime ministers added a caveat whenever they commented on Japan’s stance on the issue that a Taiwan contingency was unlikely to take place.

In March 1996, the U.S. aircraft carrier Nimitz was dispatched to East Asia to monitor the Taiwan Strait Crisis. | REUTERS
In March 1996, the U.S. aircraft carrier Nimitz was dispatched to East Asia to monitor the Taiwan Strait Crisis. | REUTERS

In 1969, Prime Minister Eisaku Sato issued a joint statement with U.S. President Richard Nixon, which read, “the Prime Minister said that the maintenance of peace and security in the Taiwan area was also a most important factor for the security of Japan.” But at a news conference following the release of the statement, Sato indicated his recognition that there was no imminent threat to Taiwan, saying, “Fortunately, such a situation is not foreseeable.”

The government made the same point in 1972 in the aforementioned statement by Ohira, saying that it believed there was no possibility of the Taiwan issue developing into military conflict. Even in 1997, a year after the 1996 Taiwan Strait Crisis that involved a series of Chinese missile tests in the waters surrounding Taiwan, then-Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto continued to reiterate this point during a visit to China.

Deterrence strategy

However, now that the power balance between the U.S. and China is quickly shifting and the probability of a contingency in Taiwan is increasing, Japan is facing the need to rethink its longstanding ambiguity.

Tokyo should plan, prepare and discuss how to respond to such a situation and then signal its position to the outside world, particularly Beijing, as part of its deterrence strategy.

When doing so, it is critical to note that a Taiwan contingency could take various forms and degrees, and the areas and the scope of Self-Defense Forces activities would also differ accordingly. Japan has to prepare to respond to each of these different scenarios, using a set of means, starting with diplomatic, military, and economic.

Japan does not have explicit legal grounds like the U.S.’ Taiwan Relations Act to engage in defense cooperation activities with Taiwan in peacetime. But if parts of Japan, such as U.S. bases in the country or the Nansei Islands, are attacked in the course of a contingency in Taiwan, Japan will exercise its right to self-defense and deploy its forces.

Therefore, Japan should cooperate with Taiwan even in peacetime, for example through intelligence-sharing, but should do so in the framework of operational-enhancement of the Japan-U.S. security treaty or the defense of the Nansei Islands.

Moreover, it goes without saying that public support will be critical in allowing the government to respond with the most optimal measures if and when a situation arises in Taiwan. The government should begin to nurture the public’s understanding of various scenarios during peacetime in order to gain support during a contingency.

In addition to cooperation in the area of defense, Japan should make efforts to strategically integrate Taiwan into the international community and thereby align its position with not only the U.S. but also other like-minded states. For instance, it could start by supporting Taiwan’s participation in multilateral trade deals such as the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership or CPTPP, which does not require sovereign-state status for membership.

We must not forget, however, that the main objective of Japan’s preparations and discussions over a contingency in Taiwan is deterrence towards China, and how China perceives and takes such moves ultimately determines the success of those efforts by Japan.

An attack on a U.S. base in Japan in the course of a contingency in Taiwan would likely lead Tokyo to exercise its right to self-defense. | KYODO
An attack on a U.S. base in Japan in the course of a contingency in Taiwan would likely lead Tokyo to exercise its right to self-defense. | KYODO

Because of Japan’s history of colonial rule over Taiwan, we should bear in mind the risk of the Chinese government and its people misperceiving Japan’s intentions or utilizing the issue for political purposes.

Japanese rule of Taiwan coincided with a period which China calls the century of humiliation, and Japan getting involved in Taiwan’s defense again has a significant implication for China both historically and politically. This also explains why the Chinese government has historically been extremely vigilant over Japan’s growing role in Taiwan’s defense and has expressed fierce opposition against such moves, even more than against similar moves by the U.S.

Risk of discord

Even if Japan and the U.S. work jointly to deepen cooperation with Taiwan, China could very well wage a campaign to criticize only Japan or go further to impose economic retaliation at Japanese firms, leading to geoeconomic confrontations.

If such a case occurs, it would likely create a stir and a divide among the Japanese public, especially the business circles, and as a result, could even cause discord, frustration or, if mishandled, distrust between Tokyo and Washington.

Moreover, if Japan fails to frame and present its preparations and cooperation for Taiwan contingencies wisely, it could also give the current Chinese leadership a political excuse to take aggressive steps against Taiwan.

The government must therefore repeatedly stress that peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait is key to protecting its people’s lives and properties, and that it strongly opposes all attempts to unilaterally change the status quo. Its stepped-up efforts on policies regarding Taiwan should all be explained based on these principles.

Ayumi Teraoka is a Ph.D. candidate with the School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University. Provided by independent think tank Asia Pacific Initiative, API Geoeconomic Briefing is a series that looks into geopolitical and economic trends in the post-COVID-19 world, with a particular focus on technology and innovation, global supply chains, international rule-making and climate change.

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