A US-Japan joint statement on Friday conveyed the countries’ commitment to Indo-Pacific stability, but it also highlighted potential areas of conflict that might threaten the region.
The statement, issued by the White House after US President Joe Biden met with Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, underscores their attempt to deepen partnerships in defense, critical technologies, health, combating climate change and on cooperation with South Korea.
Their objections to “any unilateral attempts to change the status quo in the East China Sea,” “China’s unlawful maritime claims and activities in the South China Sea” and North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs accentuate Biden’s plan to maintain the US’ influence in the region.
While Taipei welcomed the statement underscoring “the importance of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait,” it was reticent about the statement’s description of the Diaoyutai Islands (釣魚台), known as the Senkakus in Japan.
In the statement, the US “restated its unwavering support for Japan’s defense under the US-Japan Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security, using its full range of capabilities, including nuclear,” and “reaffirmed” that the treaty also “applies to the Senkaku Islands.”
“Together, we oppose any unilateral action that seeks to undermine Japan’s administration of the Senkaku Islands,” it added.
This passage is thought-provoking, as it shows Washington’s approval of the use of nuclear weapons to defend Japan, while neither country, nor China, has joined the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. It also endorses Japan’s jurisdiction over the islands, despite the sovereignty claims of Taiwan and China.
Waters around the islands have been a hot spot for potential conflict between China and Japan, as well as Taiwan and Japan. Over the past few months, Japan has been unnerved by the increased activities of Chinese coast guard ships near the islands and its new coast guard law, effective from February, which allows its coast guard to fire on foreign vessels.
It is also a sensitive area for Taiwan-Japan relations. Although the two nations in 2013 signed an agreement to set up operational rules for fishing boats, clashes still occur under Japan’s high — if not over-sensitive — alert against any foreign vessels operating close to 12 nautical miles (22.2km) of the islands.
A memorandum of understanding signed last month by Taiwan and the US to establish a joint coast guard working group formalized coast guard cooperation, but it also deters Taiwan from making too much noise in its claim over the Diaoyutais, even though the government has been saying that its sovereignty over the islands is “indisputable.”
Meanwhile, the integrity of the US-Japan partnership is challenged by Japan’s plan to discharge more than 1 million tonnes of treated water from the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant into the ocean in the next few years. Although the plan has been endorsed by the International Atomic Energy Agency and the US Department of State, the Japanese government has not convinced its neighbors of the plan’s safety.
Japan says that tritium in the wastewater poses little threat to human health, but a report in the journal Science said that “more dangerous isotopes with longer radioactive lifetimes, such as ruthenium, cobalt, strontium and plutonium, sometimes slip through the ALPS [advanced liquid processing system] process.”
It also quoted US marine radiochemist Ken Buesseler as saying that “these radioactive isotopes behave differently than tritium” and “are more readily incorporated into marine biota or seafloor sediments.”
While the US and Japan are Taiwan’s two main informal allies, the government should more strongly protest a plan that might profoundly affect marine life, instead of only feebly saying it would monitor Tokyo’s actions.
The People’s Republic of China (PRC) has over the past few months continued to escalate its hegemonic rhetoric and increase its incursions into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone. The US, in turn, has finally realized how its “strategic ambiguity” is increasingly wearing thin. Similarly, any hopes the US had that the PRC would be a responsible stakeholder and economic player have diminished, if not been abandoned. Taiwan, of course, remains as the same de facto independent, democratic nation that the PRC covets. As a result, the US needs to reconsider not only the amount, but also the type of arms
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