A few months after the leaders of the United States and Japan made an unprecedented joint statement to “underscore the importance of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait and encourage the peaceful resolution of cross-Strait issues,” senior figures in both countries are signaling even greater clarity about their possible responses in the event of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan. Concerns over the possibility of a looming Chinese invasion have been increasing in recent years as saber-rattling by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has conspicuously ramped up. Taiwanese Foreign Minister Joseph Wu (吳釗燮) underscored Taipei’s concern when he recently stated in an interview with CNN that Taiwan needed to “prepare ourselves for a possible conflict.” In response to the increasing prospect of a potential crisis in the Taiwan Strait, senior leaders in the United States and Japan are making clearer statements, ostensibly to signal increasing clarity about their potential military responses to a Taiwan contingency.
Earlier this year, Admiral Phil Davidson, who retired as the commander of US Indo-Pacific Command in April 2021, warned: “Taiwan is clearly one of their [CCP’s] ambitions before then . And I think the threat is manifest during this decade, in fact in the next six years.” While there is no consensus in the broader policy community on if and when China will invade Taiwan, the Biden Administration has broadly maintained the policies of the previous administration of continuing to strengthen its security engagements with Taiwan—and, to its credit, resumed the dormant US-Taiwan Trade and Investment Framework (TIFA) talks. As a clear indication of the priority for the current administration, Kurt Campbell, who serves as the Indo-Pacific coordinator in the National Security Council (NSC), recently stated:
Our goal right now […] is to enhance deterrence. We do that through a number of integrated efforts: clear statements of purpose, private warnings and assurances, encouragement of Taiwan to take the appropriate defense reform acts, making sure that our own capability is strong and vibrant, and to bring other countries into the effort.
This emphasis on the need to enhance deterrence from the Biden Administration’s Asia czar was strongly echoed by senior leaders in Japan. Japan’s State Minister of Defense Yasuhide Nakayama (中山 泰秀), in reference to Japan and Taiwan, proclaimed: “We are brother[s]. We are family of Taiwan, more closer. So if something happens in Taiwan, it’s directly related to the Okinawa Prefecture.” The minister also questioned the efficacy of Tokyo’s and Washington’s decision in the 1970s to switch recognition from Taipei to Beijing. “Was it right […]? I don’t know,” Nakayama asked.
The state minister of defense’s personal sentiment was not delivered seat-of-the-pants. Japanese Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi (岸 信夫)—a cabinet-level minister—stated just a few days earlier, “The peace and stability of Taiwan is directly connected to Japan and we are closely monitoring ties between China and Taiwan, as well as Chinese military activity.” It’s worth noting that these statements by senior officials both in the United States and Japan are coming out as some observers have sought to downplay the implications for Japan of a conflict in the Taiwan Strait. Indeed, this is an argument made by some US analysts calling for the United States to scale back its commitments to Taiwan and other allies in the region in order to accommodate Beijing.
To clear any doubt about the direction of Japanese strategic thinking, Japan’s No. 2, Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso (麻生 太郎), also weighed in on July 6: “If a major problem took place in Taiwan, it would not be too much to say that it could relate to a survival-threatening situation (for Japan). […] Japan and the US must defend Taiwan together.”
Why might Japan be so concerned? While not explicitly related, Rear Admiral Mike Studeman, the top intelligence officer in the US Indo-Pacific Command, provided some context for these concerns when explaining his views of the threats emanating in the region: “What are we warning about: It’s danger on all fronts. […] This idea that it’s only a Taiwan scenario vs. many other areas where the Chinese are being highly assertive, coercive, is a failure in understanding complexity, because it’s not that simple.” Admiral Studeman also made a secret visit to Taiwan in November 2020.
Strategic planners in the United States and Japan are not sitting idly aside; they have reportedly been taking steps to plan for such a contingency as well. According to the Financial Times, “US and Japanese military officials began serious planning for a possible conflict in the final year of the Trump administration. […] The activity includes top-secret tabletop war games and joint exercises in the South China and East China seas.” The revelation of these exercises at this time may be intended to signal deterrence to Beijing as the PLA ratchets up tensions in the Taiwan Strait.
Shifting Towards Clarity in the Taiwan Strait
These statements, taken together, appear to indicate a significant if modestly incremental step from what had been previously an ambiguous stance—on whether the United States, and for that matter Japan, would come to Taiwan’s defense—to greater clarity over Washington’s and Tokyo’s military responses to a Taiwan contingency.
Contrary to the notion that a move towards clarity would necessitate a change in the US position on Taiwan’s legal status, Campbell clarified: “We support a strong unofficial relationship with Taiwan. We do not support Taiwan independence. We fully recognize and understand the sensitivities involved here.” In regards to calls for clarifying the Biden administration’s position on the need for clarity, and its distinction from the US longstanding position on Taiwan’s legal status, Campbell explained: “We do very much support Taiwan’s dignity, its remarkable achievements […] and we try to send a very clear message of deterrence across the Taiwan Strait.” Weaving in the urgency of such an approach, Campbell concluded:
One of the reasons why the international community and the United States are so clear about our dissatisfactions about what China has undertaken in Hong Kong is a clear sense that quietly behind the scenes Chinese interlocutors have studied and tried to make an assessment “if we can do this what’s the international response and what does tell us about the response with respect to Taiwan?” I just want to underscore that such an effort would be catastrophic. [emp. added]
While these statements are inherently political in nature, contingent on specific circumstances, and more likely than not represent the personal opinions of these senior leaders absent an official declaratory policy, they nevertheless serve as important political signaling. They should at the very least inject a degree of uncertainty in the minds of Chinese leaders that Beijing would not only have to possibly face the US Armed Forces, but also the Japanese Self Defense Forces if they decided to invade Taiwan.
Yet, ultimately, China has to be deterred by actions, not just words. According to retired Admiral Lee Hsi-min (李喜明), who previously served as Taiwan’s chief of general staff:
Deterring this potential conflict requires the United States and Taiwan to create uncertainty in the minds of Chinese government elites, while credibly demonstrating the ability to impose unacceptable costs if Beijing should choose conflict. This means Taiwan must rapidly strengthen near-term combat capabilities and defense readiness based on asymmetric warfare.
Notably, the Financial Times reported that “The three nations had taken a small but important step in 2017 by agreeing to share military aircraft codes to help identify friendly aircraft.” More is probably being done. Indeed, as noted by Taiwan’s foreign minister: “This is not just Taiwan’s problem. We certainly hope that the international community will continue to look at peace and stability in this region with attention and continue to support Taiwan.”
The main point: In response to the increasing prospect of a potential crisis in the Taiwan Strait, senior leaders in the United States and Japan are making clearer statements—ostensibly to signal increasing clarity about their potential military responses to a Taiwan contingency.
(The author thanks GTI Intern Zoe Weaver for her research assistance.)