A joint statement by U.S. President Joe Biden and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga from their recent meeting at the White House has left officials and analysts in Taiwan wondering how far Japan might be willing to go to help defend the island against an attack from China.
The White House said April 16 on its website that Suga and Biden “underscore the importance of peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait.”
Some analysts say the joint statement signals Tokyo’s willingness to help defend Taiwan against China if needed, but only in support of a U.S.-led campaign.
Taiwan quickly welcomed the joint statement.
“Our government is happy to see that the United States and Japan are concerned about the current situation of regional security,” the Foreign Affairs Ministry in Taipei said in a statement April 17.
“We will build on existing solid foundations and work closely with the United States, Japan and other countries with similar ideas to defend the democratic system, shared values and a rule-based international order and work together to maintain peace, stability and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific region,” the ministry’s statement said.
China claims sovereignty over self-ruled Taiwan, a leftover issue from the Chinese civil war of the 1940s, and it has threatened to take the island by force if needed.
Regular Chinese military flights in a corner of Taiwan’s air defense identification zone over the past eight months have sparked worries about a possible attack by China, which maintains the world’s third strongest armed forces, after the United States and Russia. A 1979 congressional act allows the United States to help defend Taiwan militarily.
Backup for U.S. forces
As Suga faced questions at home after the Biden visit about his designs for Taiwan, officials in Tokyo reportedly clarified on Wednesday that Japan would not send troops but could offer logistical support to the United States in the event of a conflict.
In response to a question Tuesday from a member of the Japanese Diet about Japan’s commitment to Taiwan, Suga said the joint statement with Biden “does not presuppose military involvement at all,” the Jiji Press news service reported.
Japan and the United States still honor a 70-year-old treaty that commits both countries to act against common dangers. Both see Taiwan as a friendly Asia Pacific buffer against Chinese naval expansion.
“Taiwanese leaders would be thankful for Japan Prime Minister Suga’s goodwill and friendliness,” said Chen Yi-fan, assistant diplomacy and international relations professor at Tamkang University in Taiwan. “However, based on [the] U.S. Japan security treaty, Japan will only offer logistical support to the U.S. military forces.”
Japan spars with China over sovereignty in parts of the sea between them and bicker about leftover World War II issues. However, Japanese officials hope to avoid irritating China now as they pursue post-pandemic economic recovery, Chen said. China is Japan's largest trading partner.
Japan might wait for the United States to request military aid, said Yun Sun, East Asia Program senior associate at the Stimson Center in Washington.
“As for whether Japan will aid Taiwan in the event of a contingency, the United States has not provided such strategic clarity yet and it will be far off to speculate if Japan will,” Sun said. “To a large extent, Japan's involvement in a Taiwan contingency depends on what the U.S. will do and also ask Japan to do.”
Jeffrey Kingston, a history instructor at the Japan campus of Temple University, called the U.S.-Japan statement on Taiwan “much ado about nothing.”
After Suga agreed to the Taiwan Strait statement in Washington last week, Kingston said, “I think Japan was like just laughing up its sleeve thinking, ‘Wow, the Americans, they’re satisfied with that?’”
U.S. allies marshaling near China
The Biden-Suga consensus is unlikely to stop at just the United States and Japan, or at Taiwan, some scholars say. They note that four U.S.-allied Western European countries have sent vessels or planned voyages this year to date to the South China Sea, a disputed waterway near Taiwan where China has alarmed much of Asia by building up tiny islets for military use.
A U.S. aircraft carrier group joined an amphibious-ready group for drills in the sea earlier this month. Japan’s Maritime Self-defense Force held anti-submarine drills in the sea last year.
Taiwan contests sovereignty over the sea, as do four Southeast Asian governments.
“We’re going to see more of that occurring in the South China Sea,” said Carl Thayer, an emeritus professor from the University of New South Wales in Australia. “It’s the beginning of a full-court press.”