Back in February, Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) announced the formation of a “Taiwan project team” to explore how Japan could more deeply engage in contributing to security in the Taiwan Strait. Now, that team is transitioning from brainstorming to the action phase of this project. Last week, the Japan Times reported that the LDP and Taiwan’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) will hold security talks in the coming weeks. Sources told the Japan Times that those consultations “are being regarded as the ruling party version of ‘two-plus-two’ security dialogue between governments.” The news of these forthcoming talks follows closely on the heels of Japan’s annual defense white paper—which for the first time explicitly raised concerns about security developments surrounding Taiwan—and of the first US-Japan-Taiwan trilateral strategy forum, which was held amongst legislators in July. Internationalization of security in the Taiwan Strait, it seems, is proceeding apace.
Upgrading party-to-party talks in this way is a creative means to deepen bilateral engagement without running afoul of Tokyo’s “One-China Policy”—which is broadly similar to Washington’s own, but which has generally led to a Japanese approach that is more cautious than that of the United States. What is more, party talks have the potential to be particularly effective due to the nature of the parliamentary and pseudo-parliamentary systems in Japan and Taiwan, respectively. Party officials tasked with foreign and defense affairs in Japan and Taiwan are more likely to have experience working in relevant government ministries than is the case for party counterparts in the United States.
This intraparty dialogue will be important for three reasons: 1) practical outcomes, 2) providing a model for others, and 3) opening a path for future engagement.
There is much room for growth in Japan-Taiwan security relations, but the ruling parties need not shoot for the stars in this inaugural dialogue. Indeed, immediate outcomes may be limited by the lack of government participation. Assuming, however, that both parties have been offered guidance by their respective governments, there is some low-hanging fruit that they might seek to pick.
First, the delegations should agree to look into opening each country’s military academy to applicants or exchange students. This should be relatively non-controversial. Future Taiwanese officers have attended US service academies for the last two decades, without significant blowback from Beijing for either Taipei or Washington. Such exchanges may not have a near-term effect on security, but there are benefits over the long-term. Parochially, the Japanese and Taiwanese militaries benefit when officers have had diverse educational and training experiences. Such officers may turn out to be more effective leaders and better problem solvers, more readily able to handle a diverse array of challenges.
More pertinent to the question of Japan-Taiwan security cooperation, however, is the potential effect that mutual education exchanges could have on their respective militaries’ capacity to cooperate one day in the future. Exchange students will develop both personal relationships and an understanding of how their counterparts think and operate. Exchanges may also create constituencies within each military—and within security establishments more broadly, as some officers retire and take on civilian roles—for closer bilateral cooperation.
Second, the LDP and DPP should discuss cooperation on countering malign influence. Indeed, they might consider launching a new intra-party initiative, absent direct government involvement, that could nonetheless have broader positive effects within each society. As GTI Executive Director Russell Hsiao has noted, the US Defense Intelligence Agency’s 2019 report on Chinese military power noted China’s use of “political warfare” against Taiwan and Japan. In his survey of CCP influence operations in Japan, Hsiao identified a number of united front-related organizations operating in the country and highlighted political factions susceptible to “elite capture” both within and outside the LDP coalition. Taiwan, for its part, has ample experience with CCP influence operations, including during recent election cycles. Ongoing party-to-party exchanges regarding their experiences with influence operations—with a focus on sharing observed methods and effective counters—could better equip both the LDP and DPP as they face down political warfare going forward.
Third, and perhaps more controversially, the LDP and DPP should commit to urging their respective governments to pursue intelligence sharing—in particular with regard to monitoring the waters of, and skies above, the East China Sea and areas surrounding Taiwan. This may ultimately be tricky to accomplish, given Japan’s “One-China Policy” and concerns in both capitals over Chinese reprisals. The practice of Japanese-South Korean information sharing that preceded the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA), however, may provide a useful model. Before the GSOMIA was agreed, Seoul and Tokyo shared intelligence with each other using the United States as a middleman. A similar arrangement should be within the realm of the possible for Tokyo and Taipei as well. The forthcoming party dialogue offers an opportunity to begin that discussion.
A Model for Others
These talks should provide a paradigm for other countries seeking to invest more deeply in ties with Taiwan. If there are positive outcomes, if the United States openly supports the effort, and if PRC backlash is manageable, there is little reason others cannot follow suit. Australia and India, which both have parliamentary systems, should find this model of engagement attractive, as should a number of European countries looking to contribute to security in the Taiwan Strait.
Exchanges on countering political warfare may be good places to start, as they can proceed even without eventual government involvement. Moreover, because malign CCP influence is increasingly seen as something approaching a universal problem, there may be an opportunity to grow bilateral party-to-party dialogues into multilateral efforts. Thinking creatively over the long-term, the DPP, the KMT, and international parties engaged in dialogue with them might consider whether the creation of a non-governmental, party-funded political warfare intelligence “fusion center” is a feasible goal. Participating parties could share observed CCP tactics (details on politically sensitive cases could be omitted) and effective defensive approaches with such a center, creating a database for all to draw on and learn from.
The LDP-DPP talks are a creative way to build a foundation for better, more developed security ties. The dialogue will, with any luck, serve as a model for others and open the door to other creative solutions to lessen Taiwan’s diplomatic isolation.
Future Bilateral Engagement
Although party-to-party dialogues cannot replace government-to-government talks, they can be a valuable complement. Hopefully, Japanese and Taiwanese government and party officials view the upcoming meeting as something on which to build more robust bilateral engagement. Indeed, if the dialogue goes well and both sides view it as a sustainable model going forward, it should pave the way for official engagements that still maintain an unofficial veneer.
Beijing itself, of course, set a precedent for such contacts. In November 2015, Xi Jinping and Taiwan’s then-President Ma Ying-jeou met in Singapore, the first time that the political leaders of the People’s Republic of China and the Republic of China had met. They did not, however, meet as government leaders. Referring to each other as “mister,” neither recognized the other’s role as a head of state. It was Xi, then, who opened the door to all manner of possible foreign engagement for Taiwan. Taiwan’s foreign partners have yet to walk through that door, but perhaps they one day will. If Xi could meet with Ma without recognizing Taiwan’s statehood and if members of the LDP and DPP can meet to discuss security matters, there’s little reason that senior party leaders—say, Yoshihida Suga and Tsai Ing-wen—cannot engage directly with one another.
Even if that remains a bridge too far for now, there are other approaches Japan and Taiwan might consider. For example, once President Tsai again begins traveling for meetings with diplomatic allies, perhaps she could transit Japan as she makes her roundabout way to the South Pacific or to the Americas. Transits through the United States have long been a staple of overseas travel for Taiwanese presidents, providing opportunities for them to meet with legislators and administration officials, to advance economic relations, and to gather with overseas Taiwanese communities. Similar opportunities abound in Japan, if only Tokyo and Taipei can seize them.
The main point: The forthcoming LDP-DPP intraparty security dialogue will be important for three reasons: 1) practical outcomes, 2) providing a model for others, and 3) opening a path for future engagement.