When Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga came to Washington last week to meet with President Joe Biden, there were great expectations that some sort of agreement was to be announced on Taiwan. The Joint Statement issued after their meeting did include mention of the island nation, but instead of a new and more combative reference, Suga and Biden chose to reuse language that had long been part of the U.S.-Japan vernacular. “We underscore the importance of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait and encourage the peaceful resolution of cross-Strait issues.” It was a low key expression of shared interest, but what does it mean?
First, some historical context might help frame the import. To be sure, this was the first reference to Taiwan in a leaders’ meeting since the now well-known 1969 joint communique issued by then Prime Minister Eisaku Sato and President Richard Nixon.
The President and the Prime Minister shared the hope that Communist China would adopt a more cooperative and constructive attitude in its external relations. The President referred to the treaty obligations of his country to the Republic of China which the United States would uphold. 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.
The communique came when the Nixon Administration was trying to end the Vietnam War, a war that prompted candidate Nixon to claim that the United States would fight no more ground wars in Asia. But it was also a crucial statement by Japan’s prime minister about the utility of American bases in Japan. Sato was hoping to conclude the Okinawa reversion agreement, and wanted to reassure the United States, and especially its military, that the Japanese government understood the importance of American bases in Japan for missions in the region. Returning Okinawa to Japanese sovereignty, in other words, would not compromise America’s ability to act if necessary in Korea or Taiwan. Prime Minister Sato noted that the security of the Republic of Korea “was essential to Japan’s own security…..[and] that the maintenance of peace and security in the Taiwan area was also a most important factor for the security of Japan.” This was the first time a Japanese leader had explicitly linked these two Cold War flashpoints to Japan’s own security.
Second, the choice of language in the Biden-Suga Joint Statement is also important. Rather than identify a new aim, the two leaders’ emphasis on the “peaceful resolution of issues across the Taiwan Strait” echoed decades-old language used by the United States and Japan independently to reference their interest in cross Straits relations. In 1996, Beijing’s saber rattling over Taiwan’s elections after a new political party flirted with a declaration of independence provoked the Clinton Administration into demonstrating continued United States interests in peace across the Straits. Two carrier battle groups were dispatched. As Northeast Asia remained unsettled in subsequent years, the United States and Japan announced in 2005 their Common Strategic Objectives, a first for Tokyo and Washington. High on that list was their concern over the growing North Korea threat, but also included was this: “In the region, common strategic objectives include… encourag[ing] the peaceful resolution of issues concerning the Taiwan Strait through dialogue.”
Third, mention of Taiwan inevitably draws a reaction from Beijing. There were no diplomatic ties between either the United States or Japan with the PRC in 1969, so there is little public commentary on the Sato-Nixon communique to be found. Beijing did speak out, however, in 2005. The Chinese embassy in the United States expressed “grave concern” about the U.S.-Japan statement. But this year, Beijing responded to the U.S.-Japan summit meeting last week far more harshly. Xinhua cautioned: “stop interfering in China's internal affairs and stop forming ‘small cliques’ targeting China,” and the more obstreperous Global Times went further: “The joint statement demonstrates the hypocrisy of the US and Japan… Japan has to rethink any consequences that may result from its actions.”
So what does this mean for the U.S.-Japan alliance? It means two things. First, the growing activities of the Chinese military in and around Taiwan worry Washington and Tokyo. The intrusions of PLAAF into Taiwan’s Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) since last fall have been increasing in number and in size, with twenty-five Chinese military aircraft flying through on April 12. The United States has already identified China as its primary concern in its National Defense Strategy, as has Japan in its 2018 National Defense Program Guidelines. American military leaders have been blunt about how American capabilities are being challenged by China’s increasingly large and more capable forces. As such, Chinese behavior towards Taiwan coupled with its increased military advantage have some commanders believing that military action against Taiwan might be on the horizon. Indo-Pacific Commander Admiral Philip Davidson’s testimony that the Chinese could possibly use force against Taiwan within the next six years thus drew headlines across the globe, unnerving many in Japan. If China has no intention of using military force against Taiwan, then its activities should demonstrate that intention.
Second, Japan’s proximity to Taiwan amplifies Tokyo’s defense concerns. Taiwan sits 111 kilometers from Japan’s southernmost island of Yonaguni, and 509 kilometers* from the main Okinawa island where the bulk of the Self Defense Forces are deployed in southwestern Japan. Any military activities in and around Taiwan therefore are immediately noted by the SDF. Of course, Chinese military presence has grown considerably over the past two decades in the East China Sea and the South China Sea. China’s challenge to Japan’s sovereignty over the Senkaku Islands has upped Japan-China tensions. Both countries’ Coast Guards now patrol around these uninhabited islands, and their navies are not far away. Moreover, China has more than once teamed up with Russian forces to demonstrate their maritime prowess in the East China Sea, as well as transiting through Japan’s straits between its southwestern islands. On April 3, China’s Liaoning aircraft carrier went through the Miyako Strait accompanied by five ships, a repeat demonstration of Chinese power in close proximity to Japan’s territory.
The Biden-Suga summit, meanwhile, has drawn considerable attention in Japan. The Japanese media was particularly focused on their prime minister’s visit to Washington and specifically on the Taiwan issue. The conservative Sankei criticized Suga for being the "only country in the G7 to not impose sanctions on China," while the left-leaning Asahi thought Japan’s prime minister should not be so easily swayed by the United States, arguing that Japan should draw up “its own proactive strategy.” Both the Yomiuri and the Nikkei were more muted, emphasizing the importance of strengthening the U.S.-Japan alliance when dealing with China. The Prime Minister was subjected to considerable questioning in the Diet, and tried to reassure his colleagues that in the joint statement he had simply expressed Japan’s desire for peaceful relations between Taiwan and China.
Like in the United States, Japanese defense policymakers are increasingly voicing concern about how to understand and possibly respond to the Chinese military behavior in and around Taiwan. Defense Minister Kishi Nobuo, former prime minister Abe Shinzo’s younger brother, chairs the LDP’s Japan-Taiwan Parliamentarian’s League and has long been interested in Japan’s policy towards Taiwan. While Prime Minister Suga was in Washington, DC, Kishi took the opportunity to visit Yonaguni Island. He pointed out on his Twitter page that on a clear day you could see Taiwan, but during his visit it was shrouded in clouds. Similarly, his parliamentary vice minister, Yasuhide Nakayama, was widely quoted in the press for calling on the United States to declare a red-line on Taiwan and to clarify its plans should a conflict erupt so that Japan would know what to do. Anxiety is growing in Japan, to be sure, and for some politicians, emotions seem to be running high.
But the United States and Japanese governments got it right in the Joint Statement. Encouraging peaceful relations across the Taiwan Straits should be our highest priority. Our militaries exercise regularly in and around Japanese waters and increasingly beyond, and will undoubtedly discuss in detail what is happening in the region and how to respond. Our governments need to consult and coordinate closely to sustain Japanese defenses and to deter aggression – against Japan and against others in the region. In this sense, the Biden-Suga statement on Taiwan simply reminds us of what Nixon and Sato made plain: Japan’s security is tied to peace in the region, as is ours.
On the eve of the U.S.-Japan Summit, an American delegation visited Taiwan at President Biden’s request. Led by former Senator Chris Dodd, the delegation included two former deputy secretaries of state, Richard Armitage and James Steinberg. In their meeting with President Tsai Ing-Wen, Taiwan’s president stated that “We are very willing to work with like-minded countries, including the United States, to jointly safeguard the peace and stability of the Indo-Pacific and deter adventurous manoeuvres and provocations.”
Clearly, Chinese behavior towards Taiwan will require a concerted and collective response. Japan and the United States along with other Indo-Pacific partners will undoubtedly have more to say should militarily tensions in and around Taiwan continue.
*In the original version of this blog, the distances between Taiwan and Yonaguni Island, and between Taiwan and the main Okinawa Island were incorrectly reported. This has now been corrected in the main body of the text.