Has Japan’s policy toward the Taiwan Strait changed?

United States Vice President Kamala Harris greets Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga of Japan, before holding a meeting at The White House.Featuring: Yoshihide Suga, Kamala HarrisWhere: Washington, District of Columbia, United StatesWhen: 16 Apr 2021Credit: Chris Kleponis/POOL via CNP/InStar/Cover Images
Editor's note:

Though Japanese leaders in 2021 have made high-profile statements concerning Taiwan and the Taiwan Strait, recent developments do not indicate a major change in Japan’s official posture, explains Adam Liff. This piece originally appeared in the Washington Post.

Japanese leaders in 2021 have made an unusual series of high-profile statements and comments concerning Taiwan and the Taiwan Strait. These appeared to crescendo last month, when global headlines asserted that July 5 remarks by Japan’s deputy prime minister meant “Japan pledges to defend Taiwan if China attacks” or marked a fundamental change in Japanese policy.

Given increasing U.S.-China frictions and tensions across the Taiwan Strait, the unusually blunt remarks regarding Taiwan from a cabinet minister of Japan — a key U.S. treaty ally, close neighbor of Taiwan, and host to about 50,000 U.S. military personnel — attracted significant global attention.

But the meaning and implications of the deputy prime minister’s remarks — which were delivered at a private political fundraiser — for Japan’s official policy are easily misconstrued. Japan’s government has never made an explicit commitment to defend Taiwan or to necessarily assist a possible U.S. military response if a cross-strait conflict occurs. My ongoing research on Japan-Taiwan relations and the U.S.-Japan alliance suggests that recent developments do not indicate a major change in Japan’s official posture toward the Taiwan Strait.

So what is Japan’s official policy?

Japan’s policies carry immense significance for both Taiwan and the United States. The U.S. government maintains a “robust unofficial relationship” with Taipei and under the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act considers “any effort to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means a threat to the peace and security of the Western Pacific area and of grave concern.” In recent months, U.S. officials and scholars alike have voiced growing concern that Beijing may use its military to force unification with democratic Taiwan.

The United States also has a robust security alliance with Japan and maintains a large military presence on Japanese soil. Furthermore, if the U.S. government ever decided to defend Taiwan, analysts believe it would seek support from Japan and would rely heavily on U.S. forces stationed there.

Japan’s official position on Taiwan has been ambiguous for decades. So, too, is its likely response in the event of a cross-strait conflict.

In 1972, Tokyo formally recognized the communist government in Beijing “as the sole legal Government of China.” This heralded the end of Japan’s diplomatic relations with the then-Nationalist government in Taipei. Significantly, however, Japan never recognized Beijing’s claim of sovereignty over Taiwan. Tokyo takes no explicit position on Taiwan’s status, stating only that it “fully understands and respects” Beijing’s stance.

Though Japan’s officially ambiguous position on Taiwan’s status resembles the U.S. approach, Tokyo has traditionally been far more reluctant than Washington to openly criticize Beijing’s attempted coercion of Taipei. The Japanese government has prioritized emphasizing its “hope” for the two sides to resolve the issues between them peacefully.

Today, while various U.S. officials regularly criticize China’s “aggressive actions” toward Taiwan, in official settings, Japan’s top government leaders generally avoid publicly blaming Beijing for the post-2016 deterioration of cross-strait relations.

Japan also eschews military cooperation with Taiwan. And whereas Washington sells Taipei defensive arms to bolster deterrence, Japan does not. Furthermore, Japan also has no domestic law similar to the U.S. Taiwan Relations Act, which commits the U.S. government to providing various support for Taiwan.

Numerous formal Japanese government statements on cross-strait dynamics reflect this cautious official posture. Most prominently, in April, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga joined President Biden in “underscor[ing] the importance of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait” and “peaceful resolution of cross-strait issues.”

Though this single sentence in the 2,100-word statement is historically significant — it’s the first reference to the Taiwan Strait in a U.S.-Japan summit statement since 1969 — it is also relatively anodyne. Unlike numerous U.S. unilateral statements or last year’s U.S.-Australia ministerial statement, it contains no explicit reference to Taiwan itself.

Japan hasn’t changed its official policy

Recent rhetoric out of Tokyo clearly indicates deepening concerns about cross-strait frictions and a desire to enhance subtle deterrence signals to Beijing, including with the U.S. and other democratic partners. Japan’s westernmost island is less than 100 miles from Taiwan’s east coast. And Japan has long enjoyed close, if unofficial, relations with Taipei — ties that continue to deepen today.

But Tokyo hasn’t modified its official position on Taiwan. The Japanese government also continues to leave deliberately ambiguous Japan’s likely response to a cross-strait contingency.

Moreover, while Japan and the United States are close allies, whether and how Japan would support U.S. forces in a cross-strait conflict in which the United States got involved but Japan itself had not been attacked will inevitably trigger complex constitutional and domestic legal questions. Tokyo’s answer would ultimately depend on top-level political judgments about the conflict’s cause, specific nature, and implications for Japan’s peace and security.

On a related note, if the U.S. government sought to deploy U.S. forces in Japan for combat operations regionally, according to a 1960 agreement, Washington pledges to engage in “prior consultation” with Tokyo.

In short, though Tokyo clearly values its extensive unofficial ties with Taipei and seeks peace and stability across the strait, its response to a hypothetical cross-strait conflict remains a big unknown. Nor should an unconditional commitment be expected. Even the U.S. posture is also intentionally ambiguous. In both cases, this ambiguity is by design, judged to have deterrent value, and seems unlikely to change.

What’s next?

Recent remarks from Japanese leaders do not mean Tokyo has pledged to defend Taiwan if China attacks, or that it necessarily commits to supporting the United States militarily if Washington chooses to get involved. Nor is Japan on the verge of passing a “Japanese Taiwan Relations Act.”

Yet this shifting rhetoric also is not occurring in a strategic, diplomatic, or political vacuum. We’ve seen sharply heightened concerns in Tokyo about China’s growing power and coercive policies, including toward democratic Taiwan, along with significant efforts to bolster security ties with Washington and other U.S. allies. Furthermore, U.S. and Japanese practical cooperation with Taipei is deepening. Closely coordinated shipments of coronavirus vaccines to Taiwan — Japan’s third shipment arrived last month — are one example.

The recent statements, coupled with Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi’s June statement that “the peace and stability of Taiwan are directly connected to Japan” and the unprecedently detailed coverage of Taiwan and cross-Strait dynamics in Japan’s newly released defense white paper, make clear this will be an important space to watch.