- NBR - The National Bureau of Asian Research

Japanese-Taiwanese Relations and the Role of China and the U.S.

Philip Yang

The People’s Republic of China (PRC) is poised to become the next great military and economic power rivaling the United States, and Japan must decide how it will deal with this shift in the balance of power. On the one hand, given that Japanese companies find it lucrative to move their factories to China in order to take advantage of the cheap labor there, Japan would like to keep the Chinese investment market open. On the other hand, with the rapid development of China’s military, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), and the growing independence of Japan’s own military, old and new political tensions may hinder the further development of a friendly market. On February 19, 2005, Japan and the United States released a revised mutual strategic understanding that for the first time stated that security in the area around Taiwan was a "common strategic objective." The statement consequently drew relentless censure and warning from China, and the episode again reminded the world of the sensitivity of relations among the four major players—China, Japan, Taiwan, and the United States—in the Taiwan Strait, arguably one of the most dangerous flashpoints in East Asia.

Japan, like the United States, has been consistently ambiguous in its policy toward Taiwan. Should the United States intervene in a conflict in the Taiwan Strait, however, Japan would inevitably find itself involved. Moreover, there is fear in China that Japan’s military is once again expanding. Unresolved territorial disputes, along with old sores from World War II further aggravate the situation. Because of the above factors, Tokyo would undoubtedly prefer to pursue a regional security strategy with Washington. To what extent any such strategy would actively engage Taiwan will set the tone for Sino– Japanese political interaction in the years to come.

This paper addresses how Sino–Japanese relations affect Japanese–Taiwanese relations, the role of the United States in this relationship, and Japan’s position via China and Taiwan. After the March 1996 Taiwan Strait crisis and the September 11 incidents, the Japanese government is seeking to allay its growing concerns for cross–Strait and regional stability by playing a more active role in cross–Strait and U.S.–Taiwan security relations.

The paper is divided into five main sections. The first section reviews historical and recent tensions between China and Japan that directly contribute to the current low point in bilateral political relations. The second section overviews Japan’s Taiwan policy and...

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Policy Implications

  • As a result of Japan’s eagerness to become more assertive in regional political and security affairs, U.S. policymakers can have more confidence in the U.S.-Japan alliance in the face of a rising China, including possible contingencies in the Taiwan Strait.
  • However, in addition to making sure that the security alliance between Tokyo and Washington works smoothly in times of both peace and crisis, the United States must ensure that an assertive Japan becomes a positive security partner that is willing to share in the burdens of an active alliance, rather than simply dragging Washington into a devastating power struggle with Beijing.