Japan and the US are still sorting out their China-Taiwan policies

After Japanese officials finish practicing their foreign policy irony, hopefully they will settle on a serious and sustained national security approach to the growing China threat.

Leading up to and during Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s visit to Washington, the Biden administration pressed for a more forthcoming statement on the regional dangers presented by China’s aggressive behavior.

The U.S. effort failed to eke out more than a tepid expression of hope for “peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait.” Mild as that aspirational expression was, it was touted by the administration and the global news media as some kind of diplomatic breakthrough because it last appeared in a joint statement in 1969.  

Beijing was quick to take offense at even that innocuous phrase, calling it Japanese interference in China’s “internal” affairs, while simultaneously making the opposite point that Washington had failed to gain Tokyo’s explicit pledge of anti-China “collusion” on Taiwan.

The Tokyo government ensured that no one would construe the statement as a Japanese commitment to help America militarily in defending Taiwan — like Washington’s inclusion of the Senkaku Islands in the U.S.-Japan Mutual Defense Treaty. Suga quickly made a post-summit “clarification” that it “does not presuppose military involvement at all.”

Suga’s reticent performance seemed ungracious and shortsighted, considering a) the long history of Japan-Taiwan relations during and after 50 years of Imperial Japanese occupation of Taiwan; b) the shared values between the two emergent democracies; c) Taiwan’s leading role in the humanitarian assistance effort after the Fukushima nuclear disaster; and d) Taiwan’s critical geostrategic location for the security of Japan. 

But even Shinzo Abe, Suga’s more hawkish predecessor, felt the need to observe a delicate balance between friendship with Taiwan and maintaining workable relations with China.

In the past week, however, a more assertive voice from the Japanese government was heard. Taro Aso, deputy prime minister, made refreshingly direct remarks about the existential connection between Taiwan’s security and Japan’s: “If a major incident happened [over Taiwan], it’s safe to say it would be related to a situation threatening the survival [of Japan]. If that is the case, Japan and the U.S. must defend Taiwan together. … We need to think hard that Okinawa could be next.”

What is remarkable about Aso’s public declaration is that it was so late in coming. Tokyo hardly could be unaware of the intimate security nexus between Japan and Taiwan given that the Imperial Japanese regime used Formosa to launch its attack on the Philippines on Dec. 7, 1941.  Beijing has made clear that it would use Taiwan’s geostrategic location as a fulcrum for expansion into both Southeast and Northeast Asia. 

It is also obvious that the nation seeking to reincarnate the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere today is not peaceful, democratic Japan but expansionist Communist China — even as it deflects attention from its aggression by constantly bringing up memories of the earlier historic period.

The starkly contrasting Suga-Aso views of the Taiwan issue reflect Japan’s conflicting anxieties over its security relations with the United States: the fear of either being “dragged into” a China-U.S. conflict over Taiwan or the South China Sea, or being abandoned by Washington when Japan’s direct security is at stake. 

The irony now is that while Suga worries the U.S. would entangle Japan in a Taiwan conflict, his deputy is concerned that Washington will abandon Taiwan whose security is intimately linked to Japan’s.  

Aso’s anxieties hardly have been alleviated by the recent comments of Joint Chiefs Chairman Mark Milley and Kurt Campbell, China policy coordinator for national security adviser Jake Sullivan.

Milley focused on China’s capabilities, telling Congress: “[I]n order to seize an island that big, with that many people and the defensive capabilities the Taiwanese have, would be extraordinarily complicated and costly. At this point in time — next 12 to 24 months — I’m not seeing any indicator warnings.” He made no mention of the myriad lesser military actions against Taiwan the People’s Liberation Army is well prepared to carry out. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, also present at the hearing, affirmed Milley’s statements.

Campbell commented on the question of Chinese and American intentions. First, he rejected any need to do away with America’s public ambiguity on defending Taiwan. “I believe that there are some significant downsides to the kind of what is called strategic clarity,” he told a discussion hosted by the Financial Times. A few days later, he dredged up a warning to Taiwan favored by the Clinton administration, saying, “The United States does not favor independence for Taiwan.” (Zhu Fenglian, spokesperson for China’s Taiwan Affairs Office, welcomed Campbell’s remarks but urged Washington to go further and explicitly “oppose ‘Taiwan independence.’”) In the same Asia Society interview, Campbell was asked to comment on the diplomatic and public relations impact on China if it attacked Taiwan; he said they would be “catastrophic.”

It is not clear whether Campbell’s sudden lurch to a discredited China policy was a deliberate administration decision to quell the mounting perception that the combined Trump and Biden policies represent a permanent shift in U.S. policy, or whether it was a reflexive return by Campbell to his own personal predilections on China and Taiwan.

At a Center for Strategic and International Studies conference in 2016, Campbell was asked about Korean unification. He endorsed it, equating it with One China: “I have to say that the greatest foreign policy success of the last sixty years in Asia is the general acceptance of the notion that there is one China-and the fact that that is such an undergirding policy part of everything that we do with Beijing. I think that is something that South Korean friends should continue to pick up. It’s my view.”

Campbell’s skittishness about doing or saying anything about Taiwan that could offend “our Chinese friends” — a phrase he invariably used when he served in the Obama administration — may reflect the trauma he says he felt during the 1995-96 Taiwan Strait missile crisis. He described it to a Washington audience as “our own Cuban missile crisis. We had stared into the abyss.”

Those who have worked with Campbell and believe they know his personal views describe him as a “friend” of Taiwan. Yet, Beijing can be expected to pocket what is on the public record. Washington’s coyness about defending Taiwan and the recent Milley-Campbell remarks encourage China to continue preparing for a military showdown that it expects the Biden administration to avoid or sidestep — and they explain Beijing’s expectation that its relentless pressure on Taipei, Washington and Tokyo ultimately will succeed.

Joseph Bosco served as China country director for the secretary of Defense from 2005 to 2006 and as Asia-Pacific director of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief from 2009 to 2010. He is a nonresident fellow at the Institute for Corean-American Studies and a member of the advisory board of the Global Taiwan Institute. Follow him on Twitter @BoscoJosephA.

Tags Cross-Strait relations Jake Sullivan Japan–Taiwan relations Kurt Campbell Lloyd Austin Mark Milley One-China policy Political status of Taiwan

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