Written by Misato Matsuoka & Michal Thim.

There is a lot of buzz about U.S. rebalancing policy, but at the end of the day it is not a massive policy change from the U.S. perspective and neither is it one from the perspective of U.S. allies and partners, old and emerging ones, in the region. The increase of a U.S. military presence has been rather symbolic so far (e.g. deployment of U.S. Marines in Australia or new radar and reconnaissance drones in Japan). The U.S. interest in developing closer economic ties and removing existing barriers is not that new either. Negotiations (at times quite controversial) between the U.S. on the one side and Japan, Korea, or Taiwan on the other, regarding removal of trade barriers have been going for years and all these economies plus China are already major trade partners to the U.S. The relatively new element of the U.S. economic engagement is the intent to use the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), formerly an organization consisting of rather small economies from both sides of Asia-Pacific, as a vehicle for moving towards a massive free trade zone.

What is new in this respect is the changed dynamic that came along with China’s rise as economic and military power holder. U.S. rebalancing is to a large extent a reaction to this development as well as the acknowledgment of the increasing prominence of the whole region. However, in terms of capabilities it stands on long-present U.S. security and economic commitments in the region. Thus, rebalancing is about strengthening existing and developing emerging alliances and partnerships and as such it is to a large degree a reaction to demands of regional stakeholders who are worried about recent Beijing’s posturing in South and East China Seas.

The case of the complex web of relations among the U.S., Japan and Taiwan is a good example of the flexible approach of the U.S. rebalancing policy, combining official defence ties with Japan, unofficial partnership with Taiwan, and the convergence of interests in Taiwan-Japan relations. If we were looking for arguments as to why the U.S.-Japan-Taiwan triangle is a relationship to follow closely, the 3rd Taiwan-U.S.-Japan Trilateral Security Dialogue forum (hereafter trilateral forum or forum), held in Taipei on 15 October, provided more than a handful of ideas. The event was organised by the Chinese Council of Advanced Policy Studies, the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, the Tokyo Foundation and Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

At this forum, the Taiwan side, as organizer, expressed interest in furthering the relationship between Taiwan, the U.S. and Japan. One of the broader issues discussed during forum was the TPP, and the U.S. and Japan’s interest in Taiwan’s participation. Kurt Campbell, an architect of US President Barack Obama’s rebalancing policy and strong supporter of enduring U.S. commitment to Taiwan, stressed that Taiwan should have political ambition in diversifying its economy and join the TPP, bringing up Vietnam as a country that took the steps to liberalise its economy in just a year and a half. Campbell’s comment is in line with the stance of Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe who expressed his support for Taiwan’s entry into the TPP during his meeting with Taiwan’s former Vice President Vincent Siew on the sidelines of the APEC economic leaders’ summit in the early October.

Naturally, controversial issues were not absent when Taiwan’s representative Timothy Yang reiterated that the Diaoyutai/Senkaku islands are (ROC) Chinese territory during the forum, claiming that the disputed islands are an “inherent part of the sovereign territory of the Republic of China”. However, this statement should not be taken at face value. While both sides of Taiwan’s political arena insist that the islands belong to Taiwan (for different reasons), the real issue is not about actual sovereignty as much as it is about the exercise of fishing rights. In this respect, Tokyo and Taipei reached a fisheries agreement last April in in an extraordinary exercise of pragmatism on both sides. Current Japanese PM Shinzo Abe’s role in reaching out to Taiwan and concluding long-stalled talks was instrumental. Yang’s statement is thus mere lip service to Taipei’s claim and does not represent major problem in developing bilateral cooperation. After all, Yang was pretty clear when he expressed that the Taiwan-Japan fisheries agreement “serves as a good example of the spirit of the initiative, with Taipei and Tokyo entertaining the possibility of expanding the pact to other areas of mutual concern”. According to Yoshiyuki Ogasawara, an expert on Taiwanese politics at Tokyo University of Foreign Studies, the fishing agreement is not merely a fishing pact but a first step towards stabilizing the East China Sea. In this sense, the agreement is fully in line with U.S. efforts and Taipei and Tokyo demonstrated that both sides can make a direct contribution to regional stability. This has not been unnoticed by the U.S. participants at the trilateral forum. Dan Burton, a former member of the US House of Representatives, praised Taiwan for trying to resolve the fishing rights issues with Japan “in a very responsible way” despite the ongoing territorial tensions over the islands.

The proverbial elephant in the room is Taiwan’s extensive economic interdependence with China. Beijing is Taiwan’s largest trading partner and its bilateral trade has expanded more than tenfold since 2000 and intensified further after the enactment of the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA), a quasi-FTA. During his meeting with participants from the trilateral forum, President Ma admitted that maintaining good relations with the U.S., Japan and China at the same time “has been the biggest challenge”. Randy Schriver, Former Deputy Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs under the Bush Administration, also acknowledged that Taiwan may be in a difficult position with “its most important economic partner, China, and its most important security partner, the U.S.–Japan alliance” at times when support for eventual independence in Taiwan is increasing. Praise for the improvement of cross-Strait relations is the standard mantra for addressing efforts of Ma’s policy towards the PRC and it was not different during the forum when the “Cross-strait rapprochement” was applauded by Kurt Campbell. However, the current state of affairs between Taiwan and China should not be taken for granted. Ma Ying-jeou could not proceed with elevating economic dialogue with Beijing to political level because of the extreme sensitivity of the issue and massive preference among Taiwan’s population for the status quo. As Xi Jinping’s recent remarks indicate, China’s patience with Taiwan’s stalling on the political talks issue may be over rather sooner than later. Since no leader in Taipei will have a mandate to pursue political talks (which equal talks about re-unification in the PRC’s thinking), Taiwan would be better off to reach out to the U.S. and Japan. The trilateral forum that is co-organized by Taiwan’s foreign ministry is a demonstration of the increasing awareness thereof.

In the case of U.S.-Japan-Taiwan ties, it is converging interests, apart from official ties demonstrated by the U.S.-Japan defence treaty of 1960, which represent strong foundations for the development of trilateral partnership. Irrespective of Japan’s policy on ‘One China’, Taiwan under the control of the PRC would be a security nightmare for Tokyo, particularly when tensions between Japan and China are high due to Beijing’s pressure over the sovereignty of the Diaoyutai/Senkakus and the East China Sea in general. In a stark contrast to relations between China and Japan (and Korea and Japan), relations between Japan and Taiwan are generally in very good shape, enabled by extraordinary people-to-people relations. Taiwan’s citizens’ individual donations made Taiwan the top donor to Japan after the 3/11 earthquake and tsunami in 2011. This has been returned on many occasions by Japanese citizens’ expressions of sympathy through donations or support during sports events.

The development and strengthening of Japan-Taiwan relations is beneficial to the U.S.’ rebalancing efforts as one element is increasing capabilities of the regional partners, so they would not have to rely solely on the presence of U.S. forces. The U.S.-Japan link in the trilateral partnership is easier to examine because of the existence of formal diplomatic relations and a bilateral defence treaty. Japan-Taiwan and U.S.-Taiwan relations benefit and at the same time suffer from the intentional (strategic) ambiguity that is a necessary component due to the peculiar political status of Taiwan. It benefits because it enables a certain degree of creativity in the absence of formal agreements, it suffers because of the lack of demonstration of the partnership to third parties, namely the PRC. Thus, one shall not expect much clarity in the trilateral dialogue but that does not mean there is not great room for cooperation and convergence of strategic interests.

Misato Matsuoka is a PhD candidate at the Department of Politics and International Studies at the University of Warwick. Research interests cover the U.S.-Japan alliance, neo-Gramscianism and regionalism in Asia-Pacific. Michal Thim is a PhD candidate in the Taiwan Studies Program at the China Policy Institute, School of Contemporary Chinese Studies, University of Nottingham. Michal blogs at Taiwan in Perspective and tweets @michalthim.

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