- The US has a compelling interest in protecting Taiwan's autonomy.
- The world's third-largest economy and close ally of the US will not be bullied by its authoritarian neighbor.
- Taiwan's interests and political values clash with China as strongly as they align with Japan's.
This paper was prepared for Taiwan's Future in the Asian Century: Toward a Strong, Prosperous and Enduring Democracy Conference, American Enterprise Institute, Washington, DC, November 10, 2011.
Download PDF Japan and Taiwan are natural allies—a term not generally associated with Japan’s relations with an East Asian neighbor. As offshore trading powers, they share a strategic geography dependent on free access to the maritime commons. Japan is Taiwan’s second-largest trading partner, and both their economies are closely bound by two-way flows of technology and capital as well as goods and services. They share a common military ally in the United States, the lodestar of their security in a rapidly changing region. Both countries have national interests in an Asian balance of power that is not dominated by mainland China, but rather preserves pluralism among Asia-Pacific states, allowing each to choose its alignments freely.
Cultural and political values pull Taiwan and Japan together, laying a more enduring foundation for their shared strategic interests. Both are democracies in which political power has alternated between parties, and in which governments are held accountable through strong institutions, free media, and the rule of law. Culturally, Japan’s occupation of Taiwan (1895–1945) did not leave the scars of imperialism so evident elsewhere in Asia. To the contrary, Japanese administration helped modernize Taiwan, and Japan’s occupation of Taiwan is remembered by Taiwanese as a time of progress. Today, people-to-people ties between the two nations remain strong—polling consistently shows that majorities in both societies hold each other in high regard. Taiwanese popular esteem for Japan is exceptional when compared with popular opinion in most of Japan’s neighbors.
Many scholars and analysts predict a near future in which Taiwan is increasingly drawn into mainland China’s embrace—willingly or otherwise. Yet, as long as Japan and China remain security competitors, Taiwan’s reintegration with the mainland would put it on the wrong side of the divide, allying it with the country that most threatens Taiwan’s relationship with its natural East Asian partner, Japan. In the absence of political liberalization in China, Taiwan’s interests and political values clash with China as strongly as they coincide with Japan’s. This suggests a potentially closer convergence of Japanese-Taiwanese relations over the coming decade, rather than the divergence that would result from Taiwan’s reunification with a still-authoritarian regime in Beijing. For this reason, the future of Taiwan’s relations with Japan is becoming nearly as important as the future of cross-strait relations.
Moreover, Japan’s strategic future may hinge on Taiwan’s ability to retain autonomy from the mainland—and in ways that preclude China from projecting military power from Taiwan into the Western Pacific. Too often, analysis of Taiwan’s strategic evolution focuses on its implications for either China or the United States. In fact, the foundations of Japanese grand strategy since 1952 may well be unsustainable should Taiwan fall under the control of a hostile, assertive China that defines Japan as an adversary. As Japan’s primary security partner, the United States therefore has a compelling interest in protecting Taiwan’s autonomy—not only for intrinsic reasons related to Taiwan and US-China relations, but because Taiwan’s autonomy is foundational to Japan’s strategic future as America’s bedrock ally in East Asia.
Daniel Twining (DTwining@gmfus.org) is senior fellow for Asia at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, where he leads the US-based institute’s growing line of work on the rise of Asia and its implications for the West. He is also a consultant to the US government and an adjunct professor at Georgetown University. Daniel previously served as a member of the secretary of state’s Policy Planning Staff and as foreign policy adviser to US Senator John McCain (R-AZ).