Why Taiwan is more important than ever to the Japan-U.S. relationship by INOUE Masaya

“API Geoeconomic Briefing” is a weekly analysis of significant geopolitical and geoeconomic developments that precede the post-pandemic world. The briefing is written by experts at Asia Pacific Initiative (API) and includes an assessment of burgeoning trends in international politics and economics and the possible impact on Japan’s national interests and strategic response. (Editor-in-chief: Dr. HOSOYA Yuichi, Research Director, API & Professor, Faculty of Law, Keio University)

This article was posted to the Japan Times on June 29, 2021:


API Geoeconomic Briefing

June 29, 2021

Why Taiwan is more important than ever to the Japan-U.S. relationship

INOUE Masaya,
Professor, Faculty of Law, Department of Political Science, Seikei University




When Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and U.S. President Joe Biden issued a joint statement in April, it included a reference to Taiwan — the first time in 52 years that leaders of the two countries touched on the territory in a joint statement.

“We underscore the importance of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait and encourage the peaceful resolution of cross-Strait issues,” the statement said.

The last time a Japan-U.S. joint statement included Taiwan was the one issued by Prime Minister Eisaku Sato and U.S. President Richard Nixon in November 1969: “The Prime Minister said that the maintenance of peace and security in the Taiwan area was also a most important factor for the security of Japan.”

Some took the latest statement to be epoch-making, as the two nations clearly expressed their opposition to China’s use of force against Taiwan amid the rise of China’s military threat. But the phrases used do not go beyond what the Japanese government has been saying for years.

We should be asking why Japan and the U.S. avoided mentioning Taiwan for over half a century despite continued warnings over an increasing military threat from China. The reason is that whether Taiwan is covered by the Japan-U.S. security treaty has been a sensitive political issue for the past five decades.

In February 1960, the Japanese government said the security treaty covers the “Far East,” defined as an area including the Philippines and northward, Japan and its surrounding areas, and regions under the control of South Korea and Taiwan.

However, the security treaty, after it was revised in 1960, specified that prior consultation with the Japanese government would be necessary if the U.S. wanted to use its military facilities in Japan as bases for combat operations.

Therefore, the U.S. was unsure if the Japanese government, in prior consultations, would allow U.S. forces in Japan to carry out attacks in the event of a contingency in Taiwan.

The Taiwan clause in the November 1969 joint statement implied that even after the return of Okinawa from the U.S. to Japan, the Japanese government would politically guarantee attacks by U.S. forces from Okinawa in case of a contingency in Taiwan.

While the Japanese government had been concerned about a possible backlash from China, it eventually made the guarantee in exchange for the return of Okinawa.

Yet, the timing of Japan’s decision to get involved in the security of Taiwan coincided with China’s return to the international community.

Following the U.S.’ surprising rapprochement with Beijing in 1971, China assumed Taiwan’s place as one of the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council.

Around that time, other Western countries began establishing diplomatic relations with China one after another.

In setting up diplomatic ties with Western nations, China demanded that they abide by its “One China” principle by cutting off diplomatic ties with Taiwan and seeing the region as part of China’s territory.

As Japan moved to normalize ties with China, how to interpret the “Taiwan clause” in the Japan-U.S. security treaty became a big issue.

The Japanese government, torn between the U.S. and China, took the stance of solving the Taiwan issue politically with China while maintaining the legal efficacy of the Taiwan clause.

Immediately before Japan launched negotiations with China to establish diplomatic relations, the Japanese government secretly told Washington that even if Beijing asked Japan to refuse to allow U.S. attacks from its military bases in Japan in case of a contingency in Taiwan, it would reject the request.

On the other hand, in a joint communique released by Japan and China when they restored ties in September 1972, Japan made a political concession to China by saying it “fully understands and respects” China’s claim that “Taiwan is an inalienable part of the territory of the People’s Republic of China.”

Japan also stated in the communique that it “firmly maintains its stand under Article 8 of the Potsdam Proclamation,” under the terms of which Japan returned Taiwan to China.


Balancing act

The Japanese government’s position of aiming for a peaceful resolution to the China-Taiwan conflict while reserving the possibility of applying the Japan-U.S. security treaty in the event of a contingency in Taiwan became the foundation of Japan’s policy up until today.

However, the Japanese government did not adopt that strategic stance from the beginning, as opinions were divided within the Foreign Ministry around the time Japan was negotiating with China to establish diplomatic relations.

While some in the ministry feared that changing the Taiwan clause could weaken the Japan-U.S. security framework, others said Japan should ask the U.S. to delete or revise the clause to get rid of the inconsistency regarding the framework and Japan-China relations.

It was difficult for Japan to come up with a clear policy at a time when the U.S. was approaching China and its commitment to protecting Taiwan became uncertain.

Domestic politics also affected Japan’s stance over the issue of Taiwan.

Just as the Constitution has been one of the major issues disputed between conservatives and liberals, China and Taiwan policies were often linked with power struggles within the Liberal Democratic Party.

For instance, the normalization of diplomatic ties with China was a point at issue when Kakuei Tanaka and Takeo Fukuda clashed in the 1972 LDP presidential election.

Even after Tokyo and Beijing established diplomatic relations, the pro-Taiwan group in the party strongly battled against then-Foreign Minister Masayoshi Ohira who led negotiations to conclude an aviation agreement with China to set up flights between the two countries.

Conflicts between different camps over the Taiwan issue continued until Fukuda, who became prime minister in 1976 and who had many pro-Taiwan members in his faction, managed to gain a consensus within the party to sign a treaty of peace and friendship with China.

The government’s equivocal position on the Taiwan issue was largely attributable to such domestic political struggles rather than something based on strategic intentions.


Different interpretations

However, the Taiwan clause did not become an issue after that, mainly because of changes in the situation surrounding Asia.

The probability of a contingency in Taiwan declined in the 1970s because of a U.S.-China detente, and, contrary to Japan’s expectations, Beijing stopped bringing up issues related to the Japan-U.S. security treaty in negotiations with Tokyo.

Amid intensifying confrontations between China and the Soviet Union, Beijing’s attention shifted from the Japan-U.S. security arrangements to efforts to isolate the Soviet Union. How to agree on a strategy against the Soviet Union became the new key issue in the Japan-China relationship.

Therefore, the government prepared two explanations on the Taiwan clause. The official explanation for the public stated that Japan will not take action even if there is a Taiwan contingency in consideration of Sino-Japan ties. However, the government explained differently to lawmakers, saying Japan will indeed back the U.S. in case of a contingency.

The same was true for the Constitution. Political scientist Yonosuke Nagai wrote in his book published in 1967 that two different interpretations exist for Article 9 of the Constitution: an inner narrative for elites within the administration and an official narrative for the general public.

The Foreign Ministry’s Treaties Bureau created a detailed inner narrative on the Taiwan clause, while presenting an official narrative for the general public established under the premise that a Taiwan contingency wouldn’t happen.

Such a double standard had been maintained for a long time until it began to waver in the 1990s with Taiwan’s democratization and the 1995-96 Taiwan Strait crisis, as concerns rose again over the possibility of a contingency in the region.

Around that time, Japan was working to revise the guidelines for defense cooperation with the U.S. and establish a law on logistical support for the U.S. forces in contingencies in areas surrounding Japan. The issue of whether Taiwan would be included in the areas subject to the law became the focus of debate.

Opinions were divided even within the LDP, with Koichi Kato, during his visit to China in 1997 as LDP secretary-general, stressing that the guidelines were being reviewed “not with China in mind,” while then-Chief Cabinet Secretary Seiroku Kajiyama said the geographical scope of Japan-U.S. defense cooperation would naturally include emergencies in the Taiwan Strait.

The Foreign Ministry maintained that contingencies in areas surrounding Japan were not a geographic concept and remained vague on whether the Japan-U.S. security treaty would be applied to the Taiwan Strait.

The ministry’s stance represents the ambiguity of the Japanese government’s position over the Taiwan issue.

Looking at the Japan-U.S. joint statement in April, it should be noted that one reason behind its first reference to Taiwan since 1969 — aside from China’s increasing military threat and intensifying confrontations with the U.S. — is the LDP’s pro-China politicians losing the power to maintain Japan’s political stance regarding Taiwan.

In the 1980s and early 1990s, when a faction led by Kakuei Tanaka and later the Keiseikai faction had an overwhelming influence within the LDP, China, which was building its economy, and Japan, which was supporting it, had shared interests.

Close ties built between Japanese and Chinese politicians for the sake of economic cooperation have contributed to preventing the Japan-China relationship from deteriorating.

However, the political and administrative reforms conducted since the late 1990s led the LDP factions to weaken, and the initiative of Japan’s policymaking, including for China, shifted from unofficial routes to the Prime Minister’s Office.

The interpretation of the Taiwan clause which had been shared only among the government is now openly discussed, apparently because of such changes in the balance of power in domestic politics regarding China policies.


Peace and stability

But this does not mean the Japanese government’s position regarding the Taiwan issue has changed drastically.

Over the past half a century, Japan has consistently called for peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait. Now Japan should think about what actions it can take proactively for the peaceful resolution of the Taiwan issue.

It is vital for Japan and the U.S. to make their alliance more viable and bolster deterrence against China, but it is also important for Japan to rebuild a trustful relationship with China on a political level to avoid a contingency in Taiwan becoming a reality and leading to a contingency in Japan.

How Japan handled the Taiwan clause after World War II represents the history of the nation balancing between somewhat contradictory relationships, the alliance with the U.S. and cooperation with China.

And it was Japan’s political leaders who conducted diplomacy with China with broad perspectives despite various contradictions and conflicts.

A reference to Taiwan in the Japan-U.S. joint statement for the first time in half a century indicates that Japan is again facing pressure to play an active role in diplomacy.


The views expressed in this API Geoeconomic Briefing do not necessarily reflect those of the API, the API Institute of Geoeconomic Studies or any other organizations to which the author belongs.