In early August, U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan triggered high tensions in China-U.S. relations. Japan’s moves also raised serious concerns. Japan and other members of the G7 and the European Union issued a joint statement blaming China, and the Sino-Japanese foreign ministers’ talks were canceled.
The Japanese prime minister met with Pelosi and mentioned that Japan and the U.S. should work together to maintain security in the Taiwan Strait. The U.S. and Japan began military exercises in waters off Okinawa on Aug. 9.
After the normalization of diplomatic relations between China and Japan in 1972, Japan has been trying to avoid mentioning Taiwan in joint statements or related communications with the U.S. However, in April 2021 Taiwan was included for the first time in a joint statement at a U.S.-Japan summit meeting, and in the year or so since, the Taiwan question has become a regular part of high-level interactions between the U.S. and Japan. The U.S.-Japan alliance seems to have shifted from “strategic ambiguity” to “strategic clarity” in its stance on Taiwan.
Some analyses suggest that this is the result of Japan following the U.S. policy of using Taiwan to control China, while others suggest it’s the result of Japan’s conservative political forces taking the initiative to contain China by playing the Taiwan card. All of these analyses have merit, but I believe we cannot ignore the fact that the U.S. and Japan are increasingly using Taiwan as an indicator of the credibility and reliability of the alliance in light of the increased tendency of the U.S. and Japan to intervene in the Taiwan Strait.
First, what the U.S. is really worried about is not Taiwan’s security but the stability of the alliance system. It needs to reassure its allies by demonstrating its resolve on the Taiwan question. Because of the Trump administration’s contempt for allies, the Biden administration has made revitalizing the alliance system a diplomatic priority.
Last year, the hasty withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan cast further doubt on U.S. leadership among allies, and the perception of an unreliable United States has taken shape among them. Historically, the U.S. has often needed to make a commitment to some other place to maintain a balance sheet of credibility when it is bogged down in its military involvement in a region and needs to withdraw. That’s because, for the U.S., once an ally’s tendency to break with it emerges, a domino effect may follow: When one ally begins to separate, others may do the same. This means the U.S. strategic architecture in East Asia will be damaged. Therefore, reversing thr perception of the U.S. as unreliable requires not only that the U.S. show strength on Taiwan but also requires Japan, the most important U.S. ally in Asia, to show strong determination as well.
Second, Japan's real concern is also not about Taiwan’s security but about the credibility and reliability of the U.S.-Japan alliance. Japan’s concerns about the credibility of the alliance have been long-standing. Richard Nixon did not communicate with Japan before making the decision to open the door to China-U.S. relations in 1972. Over the past decade or so, in the Diaoyu Islands dispute between China and Japan, the U.S. has not supported Japan’s sovereignty claims over the islands, even though Washington has said the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty will apply in their defense.
Japan appears to have come to see Taiwan as the final criterion testing the U.S. hegemonic position in the Western Pacific, and U.S. words and actions on Taiwan are seen as indicators of its willingness and ability to lead in the region. In its own view, Japan is more strategically active, and the combined U.S.-Japanese efforts will be able to compensate for the relative decline of the United States. Demonstrating the U.S.-Japan alliance’s tendency to intervene in Taiwan is seen as helping to strategically bind the two sides and enhance the credibility of the alliance.
This logic is essentially based on the idea that the Taiwan question is a battleground between China and the United States in the Western Pacific and that if China wins, there will be fear that a domino effect will follow — countries in the region joining with China after the U.S. alliance system falls apart. To alleviate this domino fear, a clearer involvement of the U.S.-Japan alliance on the Taiwan question is thought to enhance the deterrence of China.
However, these perceptions are not only extremely misleading, but also dangerous. They are misleading, first of all, because the U.S. and Japan tacitly agree that China has the same logic. But in the U.S. view, Taiwan is first and foremost a matter of credibility for the U.S. hegemonic alliance system, whereas, for China, Taiwan is a matter of identity, national reunification and domestic reconciliation. The two perceptions are not at all on the same level.
The reason such perceptions are dangerous is that they will strain the regional situation and make cross-Strait reconciliation increasingly difficult. With the logic of the Taiwan question concerning hegemony and its preservation, the U.S. and Japan will come to the conclusion that they need to intervene in the Taiwan Strait for sake of deterrence, but whether deterrence works or not does not depend on the perception of the deterrent issuer but mainly on the perception of the party to be deterred.
Words and actions unilaterally presupposing the other side’s strategic logic and reinforcing deterrence will only make it increasingly difficult to build strategic mutual trust between the U.S. and China, and between Japan and China. The U.S. and Japan will have an urge to escalate their stance on Taiwan as a way of testing each other’s loyalty. In addition, the U.S.-Japan alliance’s intervention in the Taiwan Strait would leave the island with little incentive to seek cross-Strait reconciliation and throw Taiwan itself into a state of stagnant strategic thinking.
Therefore, any U.S.-Japan intervention on the Taiwan question will cause unnecessary regional turmoil.