With a Taiwan contingency increasingly more plausible, Taiwanese lobbies in Japan are calling for the government to pass a version of the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA), emulating the US precedent. Such a measure would surely enable Tokyo to make formal and regular contact with Taipei for dialogue, consultation, policy coordination and planning in military security. This would fill the missing link of the trilateral US-Japan-Taiwan security ties, rendering a US military defense of Taiwan more feasible through the support of the US-Japan alliance.
Yet, particular caution should be exercised, as Beijing would probably view the move as a serious challenge to its ambition to annex Taiwan. Tokyo’s security-seeking move might then provoke Beijing only to destabilize cross-strait relations and possibly give it a pretext for aggression, as China is more confident than ever in its military power and coercive diplomacy.
Is there any way to avoid such a dilemma?
Since Japan stopped recognizing the Republic of China (ROC) in 1972, Tokyo has strictly avoided direct state-to-state interaction with Taipei, adhering to the non-governmental framework. This policy line is a logical progression from the 1952 San Francisco Peace Treaty in which Japan abandoned its territorial sovereignty over Taiwan without assigning it to any country.
No wonder Tokyo’s official position is that the international legal status of Taiwan remains undetermined, despite Beijing’s and Taipei’s claims.
Given that military-to-military contact is a quintessential form of state-to-state relations, a Japanese TRA would constitute an about-face of the longtime policy.
In contrast, the US Congress legislated the TRA in 1979 amid the normalization of US-China relations, which involved ending recognition of the ROC on Taiwan. The act was designed to preserve the “status quo” over the Taiwan Strait, which was then acceptable for Beijing, given its priority of swiftly normalizing US relations.
The TRA does not directly authorize US-Taiwan military-to-military contact. It simply stipulates that the US shall provide Taiwan with defensive weapons and services, involving necessary related military-to-military contact.
This means that Japan’s defense policymakers and military leaders must not have official policy talks and exchanges with Taiwan’s counterparts, but only informal Japan-Taiwan defense interaction through low-profile, non-governmental, unofficial and informal contacts and channels.
Besides, US and Japanese legal circumstances are greatly different in that Washington has made its ambiguous, but de facto, commitment under the TRA to the defense of Taiwan, while Japan has no commitment at all. The contrast between the two cases makes it irrelevant for Japan to simply imitate the US precedent.
More specifically, soon after the Imperial Japanese government surrendered to the US-led Allies at the end of World War II, the then-commander-in-chief of the Japanese armed forces in Taiwan and the then-governor of Taiwan transferred its effective control over the territory to the dispatched US military officials.
US Army general Douglas MacArthur, who was supreme commander for the Allied powers, appointed the ROC armed forces under Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石) to implement disarmament of the Japanese forces on Taiwan and the subsequent military occupation.
Since then, the ROC government has exercised uninterrupted effective control over Taiwan without any formal international legal arrangements, despite the Chinese Civil War in which the ROC government lost effective control over mainland China. Given the client-agent relationship, the US might arguably remain vested with residual legal power to exercise for preservation of the undetermined territorial “status quo.”
Evidently, proponents of a Japanese TRA either do not know or disregard these critical details, instead placing priority on their ideological preferences and sympathy to Taiwan. They commit significant risks to prescribe a counterproductive policy recommendation against their own goal.
Japan can learn from the failed noncombatant evacuation operation in Afghanistan in August last year, when the Japan Air Self-Defense Force could not timely dispatch its transport aircraft to Kabul International Airport. The failure is largely ascribed to legal constraints under the Self-Defense Forces Law. More specifically, the established government interpretation of Article 84-3 of the law requires the consent of the country concerned to such an operation.
The Japanese government could not communicate effectively with the then-Afghan president Ashraf Ghani’s collapsing government nor with the Taliban authority that it did not yet recognize as the legal government of the country.
Greater difficulty is expected in the event of a full Taiwan contingency, given that about 25,000 Japanese reside in Taiwan, as well as the numerous Japanese travelers who visit the nation.
In addition, the US and other Western governments would probably request that Japan provide assistance in evacuating their nationals due to its proximity and large civil air transport capacity.
It is high time that the policy focus be placed on amending Article 84-3 to authorize the Japan Self-Defense Forces to have contact with a de facto foreign authority or entity for noncombatant evacuation operations. This approach does not have any explicit focus on Taiwan nor give Beijing any pretext for protestation and aggression.
Given the expected magnitude of operation, this would surely enable regular military-to-military contact between the Self-Defense Forces and the ROC armed forces for an extensive range and scope of information, coordination and planning.
Masahiro Matsumura is a professor of international politics at St Andrew’s University in Osaka, Japan.
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