On March 16, 2021, U.S. Secretaries of Defense Lloyd Austin and Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with their Japanese counterparts, Defense Minister Kishi Nobuo and Foreign Minister Motegi Toshimitsu, for the Security Consultative Committee (SCC) meeting. Better known as the “2+2,” SCC meetings have historically provided the opportunities for alliance managers on both sides to breathe new life into the alliance relationship between Washington and Tokyo, and thus tend to become a subject of intense scrutiny.
The March 16 meeting was no different. The joint statement issued after the meeting attracted considerable attention, particularly in the Indo-Pacific region. In addition to reaffirming the significance of the Japan-U.S. alliance as “the cornerstone” of peace and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific region, the U.S. and Japan notably called out China for behavior that contradicts the values and principles that anchor the existing international order. Furthermore, breaking from past 2+2 statements, the March 2021 joint statement made a clear reference that peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait are critical interests for both the U.S. and Japan. The joint statement issued following the Japan-U.S. summit meeting between President Joe Biden and Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide on April 16 also reiterated the two countries’ shared interest in the peace and stability of Taiwan Strait.
Indeed, China is deploying increasingly aggressive rhetoric toward Taiwan, leading Admiral Phil Davidson to warn in his last Congressional testimony as the commander of Indo-Pacific Command (INDOPACOM) of the rising risk of Beijing’s adventurism vis-à-vis Taipei. Alongside that trend, Tokyo has finally begun to openly recognize that the peace and security of the Taiwan Strait directly impacts that of Japan.
In fact, there is a growing movement among policy elites in Tokyo to advocate for Japan to legislate a law that is similar to the United States’ Taiwan Relations Act, thereby establishing a clearer linkage between peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait and Japan’s own national security. For example, Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party’s Foreign Affairs Subcommittee held the first meeting of the “Taiwan Project Team” on February 10, 2021. The project team seeks to strengthen relations between Japan and Taiwan amid growing pressure from China on Taiwan. Furthermore, even in the area of security cooperation, which is considered the most sensitive, Tokyo and Taipei have enjoyed a long history of exchanges between retired senior military leaders of both countries, which has sustained a venue for them to discuss their shared security concerns. In other words, Japan already has a good starting point to deepen security cooperation with Taiwan.
Of course, there are challenges. One is the reality that Japan and Taiwan do not have a formal diplomatic relationship. For instance, on September 18, 2020, Kishi said during his press conference that, while Japan acknowledges Taiwan as an essential partner, Japan will continue to abide by the 1972 Japan-China Joint Communique as the primary position in its relationship with Taiwan. China insists that Taiwan’s independence would be grounds for war. Therefore, any move by Tokyo to deepen its ties with Taipei, especially in security issues, will most certainly trigger a strong reaction from Beijing. Attempts to promote Japan-Taiwan security cooperation will have to walk the fine line between trying to deepen security relations between the two on the one hand, but doing so in a way that will not provoke an aggressive reaction from Beijing.
However, given China’s increasing aggressiveness vis-à-vis Taiwan including the acceleration of its military activities near and against Taiwan, the time is ripe for Japan to explore creative ways in which it can deepen security cooperation with Taipei. For example, given the role the Japan Self-Defense Forces (JSDF) have played in helping Japan respond to large-scale disasters as well as pandemics, the JSDF can share their experiences as well as “lessons learned” with Taiwanese armed forces through the existing channel with retired JSDF senior leaders. In a similar context, there may be room for the Japan Coast Guard to engage their Taiwanese counterparts on issues relating to maritime safety.
In addition, Japan may consider sending observers to U.S. efforts to help Taiwan’s armed forces enhance their capability. For instance, the United States has sent military observers to Taiwan’s annual Han Kuang exercise. In November 2020, the U.S. Marine Corps was reported to have conducted joint training with the Taiwanese navy for amphibious warfare, though the U.S. Department of Defense denied the media reports. These U.S. efforts obviously have been kept largely quiet. Japan could consider joining the ongoing U.S. efforts, possibly sending recently retired JSDF senior leaders to observe Taiwan’s military exercises.
Finally, there is growing potential for Japan to cooperate with Taiwan on issues related to economic security, especially with the Biden administration’s renewed focus on supply chain resiliency for the United States and its allies and partners. Japan and Taiwan can play an important role in areas related to economic security, from supply chain resiliency to safeguarding advanced technologies that could be utilized for national security end-uses. Japan can cooperate with Taiwan on these issues in the context of a robust business-to-business relationship that already exists.
However informal it may have been, Japan and Taiwan have enjoyed a long history of friendship and cooperation. Their relationship has also enjoyed political and public support. Given the growing Chinese assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific region in general and increasing aggressiveness toward Taiwan in particular, it may be a high time for Japan to intensify its effort to explore ways to pursue greater security cooperation with Taiwan.
The author would like to thank Stimson Center non-resident fellow Akihiro Furusho for providing background research that culminated in this article.