Several days ago, Japanese State Minister of Defense Yasuhide Nakayama called on US president-elect Joe Biden to support Taiwan in order to deal with an aggressive China, saying that Taiwan’s security was a “red line” for Japan.
The Wall Street Journal’s editorial board wrote in an editorial that “if Mr Biden wants to reassure US allies in Asia, Taiwan is his first big test.”
It is unlikely that there was anything spontaneous about Nakayama’s comments.
In the middle of last month, during an online conference between Japanese Minister of Defense Nobuo Kishi and German Minister of Defense Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, Kishi expressed the hope that a German vessel would participate in joint military exercises with Japan’s Self-Defense Forces this year.
Saying outright that Taiwan’s security was a red line for Japan speaks volumes about the concerns Tokyo has about the unfolding situation.
In the wake of the US election, it seems that Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga is feeling unsettled, and has little of the trust in Washington’s stance on China that his predecessor, Shinzo Abe, developed for US President Donald Trump.
The comment is also revealing, in that it shows how much Japan views its situation closely intertwined with that of Taiwan.
If at some point Taiwan is threatened, this would have serious implications for the US-Japan security alliance, and Japan might have to look elsewhere for a way through.
One certainly cannot blame Japan for this. Trump’s stance on China was very clear, and US allies in Asia were not left in the dark: many of them, including Taiwan, signed up to the free and open Indo-Pacific strategy.
However, now that Biden is to take the reins of power on Jan. 20, his reticence on showing his hand concerning his plans for the West Pacific region, in addition to questions surrounding the Biden family’s ties to China in the past, has meant that US allies in the region are feeling decidedly unsettled.
After Beijing slapped high tariffs on Australian coal and wine imports, Australia, which led calls to investigate the origins of COVID-19, has been left standing on its own.
Meanwhile, India and Vietnam, two old foes of China, agreed during a virtual summit last month to expand bilateral ties, giving them a greater sense of security.
A similar situation is unfolding in Taiwan. Prior to the US presidential election, the main political parties, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT), had their stances on China and the US. While both were friendly to the US, albeit to varying degrees, the DPP was demonstrably opposed to Beijing and the KMT was pro-China.
Things have changed since the election: the pro-China and pro-US paths have diverged, as if the election had been a fork in the road.
When American Institute in Taiwan (AIT) Director Brent Christensen visited Taichung Mayor Lu Shiow-yen (盧秀燕) and Lu turned the meeting into a media circus, ripping into Christensen about the issue of importing US pork with traces of ractopamine, the pan-blue camp applauded.
KMT Chairman Johnny Chiang (江啟臣) has steered clear of the AIT since he took over the party leadership, and Kao Yu-jen (高育仁), father-in-law of former New Taipei City mayor Eric Chu (朱立倫), lambasted the DPP during a cross-strait think tank forum on Dec. 13 for increasing tensions between Taipei and Beijing through its pro-US and anti-China stances.
Meanwhile, former president Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) and his China-friendly minions have been playing up China and chipping away at Taiwan’s morale since Biden’s victory.
Despite assurances from the Democratic and Republican parties that there would not be any major changes in US foreign policy or geopolitical strategy as a result of the election, there is a palpable sense of unease within Taiwan.
Previously, when the US passed Taiwan-friendly legislation and major arms sales, President Tsai Ing-wen’s (蔡英文) administration expressed its gratitude to the US, but following the drive to change the name of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office in Washington to the “Taiwan Representative Office,” the government has suddenly become much more reserved and low key.
Clearly, when it comes to Biden’s incoming administration, Taiwan prefers to wait and see how the situation evolves before it offers any reaction.
The hesitation of the US’ traditional allies in the region is not without good reason. There is soon to be a transition of power and a new set of personnel filling official positions in Washington.
With the exception of reports of Biden confirming to Suga that the Diaoyutai Islands (釣魚台) — known as the Senkaku Islands to Japan — are covered by the US-Japan Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security, he has yet to make clear his position on Hong Kong, Xinjiang, Taiwan or the South China Sea, nor has he stated his position on the tensions between China and India, and China and Australia.
Biden says he favors bringing together like-minded allies to safeguard mutual interests and jointly held values, and that this will put the US in a stronger position.
He also says that addressing the most difficult threats at this time requires US participation and leadership, but that the US will not be able to solve any problems if left to do it alone.
Despite this, the EU clearly has its own ideas, and has just unveiled an investment treaty with Beijing, the EU-China Comprehensive Agreement on Investment.
Uncertainty over what exactly Biden is thinking, especially with the shadow of the ongoing investigation into his son, Hunter, has many of the US’ allies watching intently, hoping that they do not get caught unprepared.
While Taiwan, which is faced with China’s threat of unification by military force, might not be the most awkward ally, it is one of the more awkward ones.
Trump’s presidency has been marked by strategic clashes with China, which has also had a positive impact on democratic Taiwan, as the US has passed several Taiwan-friendly bills, sold Taipei military equipment, sent high-level officials to visit, conducted freedom of navigation operations in the Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea, promoted Taiwan’s participation in the WHO and publicly stated that Taiwan is not part of China.
In this situation, Biden’s silence on these issues have turned him into an unknown entity, and the Taiwanese public and the Tsai administration can but wait and see what will happen.
Everyone would be happy to see the name of Taiwan’s head office in the US changed to the “Taiwan Representative Office,” but at this crucial moment, no one knows if the situation will change.
In contrast to this uncertainty, China’s threats are a certainty. It would be unfortunate if a misjudgement leads to an unforeseen situation, and perhaps causes China to take reckless action while Biden and his team are still making up their minds.
The strategic ambiguity of the past has given way to strategic clarity under Trump, and that has been beneficial to stability in the Strait and improved regional security.
If Biden returns to the strategic ambiguity policy while the Chinese threat keeps growing clearer, that would result in increased risk. Handling this situation will be the touchstone of Biden’s administration.
While there is a huge difference in land area and population between China and Taiwan, the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted a new reality: In addition to being a model of democracy and home of a reliable supply chain, Taiwan is also determined to defend itself.
In the past, when the international community has preferred China over Taiwan, it has been because of a direct size comparison. In practice, the world has seen Taiwan’s innovation and resilience.
A Bloomberg opinion piece even said, with reference to the past year, that: “To put it bluntly, life in Taiwan this year has been ridiculously normal,” despite the pandemic.
Life in Taiwan has not only been normal despite the onslaught of COVID-19, the nation has also insisted on maintaining the normal operation of its democracy, expert pandemic prevention, economic stability, high-tech production capacity and other activities, and it has also expressed solidarity with Hong Kong in the face of China’s intimidation.
Surely Taiwan is the kind of positive force of which the international community is in such need, and surely this is something that the US and Taiwan should work together to expand.
Hopefully, this is something the Biden administration will think deeply about.
Translated by Paul Cooper and Perry Svensson
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