U.S. and Japanese leaders are busily making murky, often contradictory, policy statements about Taiwan. In the process, they have infuriated the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and increased the risks of a miscalculation that could culminate in a catastrophic war. Greater clarity – and far greater prudence – is urgently needed.
Japan’s latest contribution to the growing turmoil began with comments from Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso on July 5. Kyodo news agency reported that Aso, speaking at a Liberal Democratic Party fundraiser, stated: “If a major problem took place in Taiwan, it would not be too much to say that it could relate to a survival-threatening situation (for Japan).” He emphasized that "If that is the case, then Japan and the US must defend Taiwan together."
A “survival-threatening situation” is one of the conditions that would need to be met under Japan’s constitution for the country to exercise its right of collective self-defense or come to the aid of an ally under attack. “We need to think hard that Okinawa could be next,” Aso warned, implying that the PRC might follow up the seizure of Taiwan with an attack on Japanese territory.
When asked if Aso’s statements were in line with the government’s stance, Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato initially declined to comment, adding to the uncertainty and tension. The following day, though, he emphasized that the deputy prime minister was merely expressing his personal views. Aso himself tried to soften his comments, affirming his belief that any clashes involving Taiwan must be resolved through diplomacy.
However, differences on Taiwan policy appear to permeate Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s government. Just days before Aso made his initial statement, Japan’s deputy defense minister, Yasuhide Nakayama, warned during a speech to the right-wing Hudson Institute that it was necessary to "wake up" to Beijing’s pressure on Taiwan and protect the island "as a democratic country."
Suga himself has sent mixed messages. A joint statement following his April 17 summit meeting in Washington with President Biden affirmed that the two countries "emphasize the importance of peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait and encourage the peaceful resolution of cross-strait issues.” It was the first time in 52 years that a bilateral summit communiqué explicitly mentioned the Taiwan issue. Moreover, after the meeting Suga told reporters that the two leaders agreed "to oppose any attempts to change the status quo by force or coercion."
However, Suga quickly walked back his bold affirmation by "clarifying" that there was no possibility of Japanese forces being committed to any military contingency involving Taiwan. In response to a question from an opposition member in the Diet on April 20 about the details of Japan’s commitment to Taiwan, the prime minister replied that the summit statement "does not presuppose military involvement at all."
One can readily understand if there is now considerable confusion in Beijing about the nature of Japan’s policy on Taiwan. In any case, PRC officials are not reacting placidly to the prospect of Tokyo’s military intervention if a fight broke out between China and the United States over Taiwan. One indicator was the willingness of regime leaders to tolerate the continued circulation of a viral video that appeared to endorse nuclear strikes on the Japanese homeland if Tokyo interfered militarily in Taiwan.
The Biden administration has contributed to both Beijing’s growing suspicions and to the overall policy incoherence regarding Taiwan. From the outset, Biden indicated that President Donald Trump’s emphatic US support for Taiwan would continue. Indeed, early signs indicated that it might even accelerate. An especially stunning gesture took place when Biden extended an invitation to Taiwan’s Economic and Cultural Representative in the United States (Taipei’s de facto ambassador) to attend the presidential inauguration. It was a dramatic break with precedent since the United States established official diplomatic relations with the PRC in 1979. Even Trump, who significantly increased Washington’s backing for Taiwan in multiple ways, did not display such disdain for Beijing’s position. In subsequent months, administration officials issued several statements emphasizing Washington’s "rock‐solid" commitment to Taiwan.
In response to the PRC’s escalating protests and mounting military displays in the Taiwan Strait, though, the administration has shown recent signs of trying to sooth the waters it riled. Officials have stressed on several occasions in the past few weeks that Washington remains committed to the "one-China" policy and understands Beijing’s "sensitivities" about the Taiwan issue. The diplomatic pacification effort culminated in early July when Deputy Assistant to the President and Coordinator for Indo-Pacific Affairs on the National Security Council Kurt M. Campbell (the administration’s point man on Asia policy), stated flatly that "we do not support Taiwan independence." Yet US arms sales to Taipei, as well as high-profile visits from military and other national security officials show no signs of abating.
Given such mixed signals, it is likely that Chinese leaders are as uncertain about actual US policy regarding Taiwan as they have reason to be about Japan’s policy. The Biden administration’s statements and actions have taken the traditional US policy of "strategic ambiguity" with respect to Taiwan to a new extreme. However, greater strategic coherence might make the situation even worse, if it moved policy in the wrong direction.
Just as there is in Japan, a growing chorus in the United States is pushing policymakers to abandon strategic ambiguity in favor of "strategic clarity." The change such advocates seek is to make Washington’s commitment to defend Taiwan official and emphatic. Pro-Taiwan hawks in Congress are actively pushing such legislation.
However, that change would cross a bright red line as far as Beijing is concerned. The current strategic incoherence risks dangerous miscalculations, but a reckless version of strategic clarity would make a catastrophic war not only possible, but probable. Officials in both Tokyo and Washington urgently need to correct the existing policy incoherence, but they must do it the right way.
Ted Galen Carpenter, a senior fellow in defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute, is the author of 12 books and more than 900 articles on international affairs.