Published daily by the Lowy Institute

Why strengthening the Taiwan-Japan alliance makes perfect sense

The spectre of American retrenchment creates incentives for potentially exposed weaker states to increase their collaboration on regional security.

Taiwanese Coast Guard (Photo: AshleyPon/Getty)
Taiwanese Coast Guard (Photo: AshleyPon/Getty)
Published 23 Mar 2017 

Amid uncertainty surrounding President Donald Trump’s plans for US engagement in the Asia-Pacific, it makes sense for states with a longstanding dependence on American security guarantees to consider alternative measures to ensure they retain the ability to defend themselves against regional challengers and revisionist powers. 

Like other states situated on the peripheries of the global US security architecture that has prevailed since the end of World War II, Taiwan has greatly benefited from American support, particularly in countering the territorial aspirations of rising powers.

Absent continued US political and military support for vulnerable 'peripheral' states, the logic goes, revisionist powers like China, Russia and Iran may be tempted to resolve a longstanding dispute through use of force. The latest iteration of such behavior was Russia’s annexation of Crimea, which many believe occurred in large part due to Moscow’s conviction that the American leadership, along with European states and NATO, did not have the appetite for a fight over Ukraine’s territorial integrity.

On Taiwan specifically, decades of American 'strategic ambiguity' have ensured a modicum of stability in the Taiwan Strait by keeping Beijing guessing as to whether Washington would come to Taipei’s assistance during hostilities. It did during the Taiwan Strait Missile Crisis in 1995-96, when the Clinton administration dispatched carrier battle groups near Taiwan to deter the People’s Liberation Army amid escalating tensions. After that humiliating lesson, the PLA embarked on a years-long program to bolster its forces, with particular attention paid to developing anti-access/area (A2/AD) capabilities to prevent US military forces from getting involved in a Taiwan contingency.

Many questions remain as to whether the PLA has accumulated the wherewithal to deter - or. failing that, to counter - US involvement in a Taiwan military scenario. Nevertheless, signaling by the Trump administration that peripheral states may no longer depend on the American military for their protection, along with a belief by revisionist states like China that the new administration would not risk American lives and capital for the sake of partners on the peripheries, could convince regional powers with territorial ambitions that an opportunity to resolve a particular conflict may now be at hand. In other words, current conditions risk undermining the deterrent value of strategic ambiguity and expose vulnerable peripheral states to military adventurism by the stronger opponent.

Aware of the possibility the US could withdraw some of the prevalent security guarantees they had come to count on, peripheral states therefore have every incentive to strengthen their self-defense capabilities. Besides greater investment in their military capabilities, the spectre of American retrenchment creates incentives for potentially exposed weaker states to increase their collaboration on regional security so as to increase bilateral or multilateral deterrence against the emerging regional hegemon. 

Given both Taiwan’s peculiar situation - a polity that is not officially recognised by a large segment of the international community - and Beijing’s substantial coercive influence on countries within the region, Taiwan’s ability to enter in formal security agreements in the Asia Pacific is somewhat limited, although continued Chinese belligerence could create incentives for greater cooperation.

One country in particular has every reason to explore greater security ties with Taiwan; Japan. Due to its own territorial dispute with China over a series of islets in the East China Sea, added to a competitive relationship for influence within the region, Japan represents a natural ally for weaker states that stand to be negatively affected by Chinese resurgence. Meanwhile, Taiwan’s value as a link in the 'first island chain', and as a buffer between Japan and an expansionist China, cannot be discounted. This value could also increase significantly should Tokyo also find it must do more to defend itself due to US disengagement. Therefore, the continued existence of Taiwan as an ideologically allied and independent sovereignty in Japan’s immediate neighborhood should alone be sufficient to encourage cooperation on security.

Additionally, there are indications that no matter what US policy in the Asia Pacific turns out to be, Washington will expect Japan to assume a greater leadership role as a regional guarantor of security. Among other things, this will likely translate into greater permissiveness for regional operations by the Japan Self-Defense Forces (JSDF) which, since the conclusion of World War II, have been seriously constrained by Japan’s own constitution. In other words, expecting Japan to do more of the lifting, Washington could 'green light' the expansion of the JDSF’s role in the Asia Pacific, as exemplified by the more frequent patrols it has conducted in recent months. This would also conceivably result in encouragement for Japan to act as the centre of gravity for a regional security mechanism, in which Taiwan, due to its geographical location and shared ideology as both a competitor and potential target of China, would logically play a role.

Closer ties could take many forms

Greater collaboration between Taiwan and Japan could occur at various levels and involve joint exercises and patrols by the countries’ respective Coast Guards, as well as more formal exchanges of intelligence and cooperation between the JDSF and Taiwan’s military. Given the threat both countries face from ballistic missiles - Chinese and North Korean - collaboration on air defense (tracking and intercept) would logically be an area worth exploring. While civilian (e.g., Coast Guards) cooperation would be less controversial and therefore least likely to provoke Beijing, there might come a time when the Japanese and Taiwanese navies hold joint exercises and patrols in the East China Sea and/or the West Pacific, something that is more likely to occur amid heightened tensions between Tokyo and Beijing. To this end, Taipei and Tokyo have endeavored to iron out their differences over the Senkaku/Diaoyutai islets and fishing rights in the area, though more work needs to be done and, according to Japanese officials, the competing territorial claims continue to poison relations between the Coast Guards. Closer contact between the two forces, especially if those became routine, would ensure better connectivity and responsiveness should joint efforts be required in an emergency, whether that is disaster relief, search and rescue, or a military contingency.

Another area ripe for greater collaboration between Taiwan and Japan is the defense industry, especially as the Tsai Ing-wen administration in Taipei emphasises greater reliance on domestic development. Barring a sudden and substantial improvement in Sino-Japanese relations, conditions could be suitable for some quiet assistance by Japan toward Taiwan’s ongoing efforts to develop an indigenous defense submarine.  

The Tsai administration should also seek to institutionalise closer intelligence and military ties with Japan to ensure continuity following a change of government in either capital. In other words, collaboration should not be contingent on President Tsai’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which historically has been closer to Japan, being in power. The same logic applies to the Japanese side: while Abe Shinzo looks upon Taiwan favorably, the ability to develop and maintain a security relationship in a bilateral or multilateral context should transcend his office and instead stem from the logical of such overdue cooperation in the first place.

Beyond security and military cooperation, Taiwan should seek to reinforce the political aspects of the relationship. The two sides can already count on cultural affinities - resulting in large part from 50 years of Japanese colonial rule in Taiwan (1895-1945) - to build a stronger partnership. The two sides recently renamed their respective representative offices (embassies in all but name due to the unofficial diplomatic ties) to better represent the full extent of their operations. Vibrant people-to-people contacts should make it easier for the Japanese government to explain why it needs to work more closely with Taiwan on the political and security aspects of the relationship. Given the stakes for Japan and the dislocating effects of the 'loss of Taiwan' to China on Japan’s own sense of security, the Japanese public would conceivably be much more receptive to the extension of some security guarantees to Taiwan than is currently the case for the American people, who can rightly ask why American lives and resources should be spent defending a foreign land for some abstract geopolitical or moral commitments.

All of this should therefore lead to the signaling by Tokyo that an unprovoked attack upon Taiwan would constitute a threat to Japan’s national security and spark an immediate response. Put differently, Japan should draw its own red lines and abandon its own strategic ambiguity with regards to Taiwan. As a PLA occupation of Taiwan would likely create incentives for Japan to embark on a nuclear weapons program, Washington therefore has every advantage in ensuring that Japan adds its own muscle to Taiwan’s deterrent, the operating principle being that everybody benefits when China feels the challenge is such that using force against Taiwan remains an option that should never be acted upon. Conversely, US retrenchment, and the belief that Japan would countenance an attack on Taiwan serves as an invitation for military adventurism in Beijing and the more radical voices within the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

The options for rapprochement between Taiwan and Japan make sense both in the context of high uncertainty and the possibility of a more limited role for the US in the region. It would also make sense if the United States continued its role as the principal security guarantor in the region, which despite the current uncertainty isn’t completely impossible. Should this be the case, closer ties between Taiwan and Japan would compound the already potent deterrent effects of US guarantees to Taiwan; under such a scenario, Taiwan should seek to play a greater role as part of a security triad - or quadriad, if we include South Korea - in Northeast Asia.   

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