The leaders of the United States and Japan—treaty allies with one another, and Taiwan’s two most important security partners—issued an unprecedented statement on April 16 expressing the two nations’ shared concern about Taiwan’s security. At the summit, which was also US President Joe Biden’s first in-person meeting with a foreign leader and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s (菅 義偉) first trip abroad, the two leaders issued a document entitled “US–Japan Global Partnership for a New Era,” which included a significant declaration of shared concern over the increasingly aggressive actions taken by China against Taiwan.
As a whole, the document represents a bold and ambitious statement mapping out the two countries’ shared vision and concerns on global affairs. In particular, it emphasizes the importance of shared values in addressing global challenges, including COVID-19, climate change, and the threat of authoritarianism to the rules-based liberal world order. The paragraph focused on China—which is the only other country besides North Korea mentioned by name—included the following declaration: “We underscore the importance of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait and encourage the peaceful resolution of cross-Strait issues.”
To be sure, a potential reference to Taiwan was widely floated in the lead up to the summit, especially following the 2+2 meeting in late March 2021, wherein senior officials responsible for the two countries’ defense and foreign affairs affirmed their commitments and underscored the “importance of peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait.” However, the leaders’ statement is unprecedented, as it represents the first high-level mention of Taiwan since the beginning of unofficial relations between both countries and the island in the 1970s.
In response to the leaders’ joint statement, Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) tweeted: “Pleased to see US & Japan affirm the importance of peace & stability in the Taiwan Strait. Guided by our shared belief in democracy & human rights, Taiwan will continue to work alongside our partners to build a more peaceful & prosperous Indo-Pacific.” In addition, the Republic of China (Taiwan) Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated that “The Taiwan government would like to express our most sincere welcome and gratitude. […] We will continue to work closely with Japan, the United States and other like-minded countries to safeguard democracy, universal values and a rules-based international order to ensure peace, prosperity and stability in the region.” According to Kyodo News, Presidential Office Spokesman Xavier Chang (張惇涵) stated: “We look forward to seeing Beijing authorities act responsibly and make a positive contribution to peace and well-being across the Taiwan Strait and the region.”
Indeed, the joint statement represents the first time since 1969 that the leaders of the United States and Japan included a mention of Taiwan in a joint leaders’ statement—and the first time after the switch in diplomatic ties for Japan and the United States in 1972 and 1979, respectively. While quiet discussions between senior working level officials over such concerns have been ongoing for some time and picked up steam in recent years, the inclusion of Taiwan in the leaders’ statement appears intended to send a strong political signal to Beijing in response to its increasingly aggressive actions against Taiwan and in the region.
The first time that there was an implied reference to Taiwan in a joint document signed between the United States and Japan was in the 1997 US-Japan Guidelines for Defense Cooperation, which underscored the “peace and stability in the Far East,” a phrase that was widely interpreted to include the Taiwan Strait. Notably, the defense guidelines were issued in the aftermath of the Third Taiwan Strait Crisis in 1995-1996. The next time Taiwan was referenced in a joint US-Japan statement was in a 2005 declaration, which stated that “encouraging the peaceful resolution of issues concerning the Taiwan Strait” was one of the “common strategic objectives” of the US-Japan alliance, particularly as cross-Strait relations entered rocky territories during the first Democratic Progressive Party (DPP, 民主進步黨) administration. Most recently, during the March US-Japan 2+2 summit, the two nations clearly acknowledged the threat presented by China, reaffirmed their commitments, and underscored the “importance of peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait.”
In this context, the leaders’ statement of shared concerns reflects a gradual but significant change in the Japanese approach to Taiwan, which had generally been more constrained than that of the US. Tokyo now appears to be more forward leaning on Taiwan. This change has been as much about the agency of individual leaders as it is about the response to fundamental changes in the geopolitical order. In recent years, the pace, quality, and strategic direction of China’s military modernization have been on clear display, a significant factor in shaping Tokyo’s decision making. In addition, changes in agency were reflected clearly in the appointments of senior officials in Prime Minister Suga’s administration. In September 2020, Nobuo Kishi (岸信夫), a former member of the House of Representatives in the Diet and the brother of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, was announced as the defense minister in Suga’s Cabinet. Kishi, who had previously served as a senior vice foreign minister, is well-known for his support of stronger Japan-Taiwan ties. As a Diet member, he visited Taiwan numerous times as the unofficial but de facto envoy of the Abe Administration.
Moreover, Kishi’s deputy, Yasuhide Nakayama (中山 泰秀), is also known to be Taiwan-friendly. Nakayama accompanied former Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori (森 喜朗) during his visits to Taiwan to pay respects following the passing of former President Lee Teng-hui (李登輝). Nakayama previously served as state minister for foreign affairs in the Japanese cabinet and was appointed to be the chairman of the foreign affairs committee after the snap elections in October 2017. As state minister of defense, Nakayama gave an interview to Reuters in December 2020, in which the official made an unusually bold comment underscoring the Suga Administration’s concerns about the security of Taiwan: “We are concerned China will expand its aggressive stance into areas other than Hong Kong. I think one of the next targets, or what everyone is worried about, is Taiwan.” Continuing this line of discussion, he stated that “There’s a red line in Asia—China and Taiwan. […] How will Joe Biden in the White House react in any case if China crosses this red line?” Nakayama emphatically concluded by declaring that “The United States is the leader of the democratic countries. I have a strong feeling to say: America, be strong!”
Only hours after the issuance of the US-Japan joint statement, Japanese Defense Minister Kishi tweeted an image of himself visiting Yonaguni Island (與那國島)—which is only 58 nautical miles from Taiwan—and commented how he was unable to see Taiwan due to the clouds. The tweet elicited a quick response from Taiwan’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Joseph Wu (吳釗燮), who tweeted: “Thank you for looking out for #Taiwan, my dear friend @KishiNobuo. Cloud nor #COVID19 can get in the way of our friendship with #Japan. JW.”
The Biden-Suga summit and its mention of Taiwan has also gained added significance due to its timing, following the announcement by the White House of the dispatch of a high-powered, albeit “unofficial,” US delegation to Taiwan—comprised of former Senator Chris Dodd, and former Deputy Secretaries of State Richard Armitage and Jim Steinberg—as a “personal signal” of President Biden’s assurances to Taiwan, at the same time that US climate envoy and former Secretary of State John Kerry visited Shanghai. The US delegation to Taiwan was dispatched to celebrate the 42nd anniversary of the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA), the domestic law that governs unofficial relations between the United States and Taiwan. In his meeting with President Tsai, Senator Dodd made the following statement: “The significance of the TRA becomes even more evident with each passing year and I can say with confidence that the United States partnership with Taiwan is stronger than ever (emphasis added). We share deep economic ties, a mutual commitment to democratic values, and a critically important security partnership.”
While some observers may have hoped for a more explicit and strongly worded statement from the leaders’ summit, it is worth keeping in mind that not everyone in the Japanese bureaucracy—which is atypically influential on policy matters—agrees with this approach. Indeed, some Japanese officials were reportedly divided over whether Prime Minister Suga should even comment on Taiwan. Even in 1969, the communiqué issued after the meeting between President Richard Nixon and Prime Minister Eisaku Sato (佐藤 榮作), which stated that “the maintenance of peace and security in the Taiwan area was also important for peace and security of Japan,” was not without difficulties. Nevertheless, this statement was generally interpreted as a pledge that US bases in Japan and Okinawa could be used for the defense of Taiwan. In this context, Tokyo’s willingness to issue another leaders’ statement reflects a gradual but significant change in Japan’s approach that—perhaps like in the United States—may represent a more fundamental change in its policy toward China. Indeed, as Japan-specialist Michael Green, who formerly served on the staff of the National Security Council (NSC), noted: “[O]n the basic strategy towards China the US and Japan are quite well-aligned.”
The main point: The US-Japan leaders’ statement of shared concerns over the Taiwan Strait reflects a gradual but a significant change in the Japanese approach and greater alignment between Washington and Tokyo over China and Taiwan policy.
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated the distance between Yonaguni and Taiwan.