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In a provocatively titled article published earlier this month, Nikkei reported that “Japan lawmakers want ‘Taiwan Relations Act’ of their own.” The article, which was published in English and attracted attention from U.S.-based Asia policy experts, further suggested that a “2-plus-2 dialogue among the foreign and defense ministers of Japan and Taiwan” is being discussed in Tokyo.

Were Japan’s National Diet to actually pass legislation analogous to the landmark U.S.’ 1979 Taiwan Relations Act or to set up a Cabinet-level government-to-government “2-plus-2 dialogue,” it would be a groundbreaking and historic development in Japan-Taiwan relations. It is therefore no surprise the article attracted so much attention in Washington, D.C.

But neither seems likely to happen…at least not anytime soon or in the manner many may assume.

The significance of the U.S. Taiwan Relations Act: a primer

By framing the supposed February 5th call from Japanese legislators for a “‘Taiwan Relations Act’ of [Japan’s] own,” the Nikkei article was directly referencing the landmark 1979 U.S. Congressional legislation that has served as the foundational domestic legal pillar of U.S. policy toward Taiwan since official diplomatic ties (and the mutual defense pact) were severed that year.1

Since then, successive U.S. governments (including the Biden administration during its first week in office) have repeatedly cited the Taiwan Relations Act (USTRA), alongside the (recently declassified) Six Assurances, as a basis for the U.S.’ “longstanding commitments” to Taiwan. Most famously, the 1979 legislation stipulates that “It is the policy of the United States […] 4. to consider any effort to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means, including by boycotts or embargoes, a threat to the peace and security of the Western Pacific area and of grave concern to the United States; 5. to provide Taiwan with arms of a defensive character; and 6. to maintain the capacity of the United States to resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion that would jeopardize the security, or the social or economic system, of the people on Taiwan.”

Toward a Japanese “Taiwan Relations Act”? Not so fast

Given the immense practical and symbolic significance of the USTRA, the prospect of Japan’s National Diet passing its own “Taiwan Relations Act” is understandably of tremendous interest—in Tokyo, Taipei, Washington, Beijing, and beyond. There are many reasons, including: (1) Japan is a major U.S. treaty ally whose territory lies less than 100 miles from Taiwan; (2) Japan is, after the United States, Taiwan’s most important international partner; (3) though Japan has maintained extensive, albeit “unofficial,” links with Taiwan since switching official diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing in 1972, its legislature has never passed domestic legislation analogous to the USTRA.   

Yet a “Japan Taiwan Relations Act” (“JTRA”; 日本版・台湾関係法)—especially one as forward-leaning as what comes to mind when many U.S.-based observers hear the words “Taiwan Relations Act”—hardly seems imminent, if it ever happens at all. Reporting on occasional calls for a JTRA often lacks significant context that should be factored in when assessing their practical significance. For example:

  1. Talk of a JTRA is not new. In fact, the idea of a JTRA has attracted interest across several decades—not only from scholars but also lawmakers in Japan’s (conservative) Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and Taiwan’s (liberal) Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). Past high-profile proponents reportedly include then (DPP) Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian, in 2006; then DPP legislator Hsiao Bi-khim (now Taiwan’s Representative to the United States), in 2014; and a group of especially Taiwan-friendly Japanese Diet members previously headed by (LDP) Diet member Kishi Nobuo (now Japan’s minister of defense), also in 2014. A few non-governmental groups have even issued concrete draft proposals.
     
  2. The significance of the Nikkei article’s vague assertion in its opening sentence that “Legislators from Japan’s ruling party called for a new law” is easily misunderstood. Importantly, there does not seem to have been any concrete proposal for a JTRA issued by the LDP, much less by the LDP-Komeito ruling coalition or Japan’s actual government—which would carry immensely greater significance. Recent years are rife with examples of why distinguishing between intra-LDP discussions and actual draft legislation or policy tabled in the Diet or by the ruling coalition itself matters. A vast array of ambitious proposals from within the LDP often make newspaper headlines (e.g., a 2012 LDP proposal to revise Article 9; or a LDP defense committee’s call in 2018 to double defense spending) only to wither on the vine—without ever being formally tabled, voted on, or passed in actual Diet legislation.
     
  3. No consensus exists in Japan regarding what the actual substance of a—at this point still purely hypothetical—JTRA would, or should, be. It is extremely unlikely that the content of a “Japan Taiwan Relations Act”—if it were to even be called that—would be identical to the lengthy (3700-word) 1979 U.S. legislation that inspires its name. Unless and until concrete details—or an actual draft—is put forward in the Diet, vague calls for a “Japan Taiwan Relations Act” are best understood primarily as testaments to the importance many Japanese politicians place on Japan’s extensive ties with Taiwan and a desire for a more robust, and explicitly legally stipulated, “unofficial” relationship with it.To be sure, passing any domestic legislation which provides a concrete legal foundation for Japan’s Taiwan policy would, at a minimum, carry symbolic significance. But the extent and nature of its practical import for policy would inevitably hinge on its actual—and, as yet, unknowable—content. Existing debates on what a JTRA would entail run the gamut from calls for legislation based directly on the USTRA itself to proposals that avoid using the (loaded) “TRA” terminology and/or explicitly avoid sensitive security issues. (The original USTRA, after all, covered much more than security across its 16 sections). Also important: the historical record since 1972 shows that Japan has already developed significant cooperation with Taiwan, including establishing Japan’s analogue to the American Institute in Taiwan 49 years ago, without the need for a “JTRA.”
     
  4. The presumed aspects of a hypothetical JTRA that seem to attract the most interest outside Japan (inspired by the security-related clauses of the USTRA) may be least feasible politically—one of several reasons why the framing of the idea as a “Japanese TRA” may often create more noise than signal. For example, as of this writing, without a major disruption of the status quo in Japan-PRC relations, it is difficult to imagine Japan in the 2020s—fifty years after normalization—passing new legislation that stipulates—as the 1979 U.S. legislation’s famous Section 2 does—an explicit link between its 1972 recognition of the PRC and the future of Taiwan being “determined by peaceful means;” declares that “any effort to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means, including by boycotts or embargoes, a threat to the peace and security of the Western Pacific area and of grave concern”; and/or commits to “provide Taiwan with arms of a defensive character; and to maintain the capacity[…] to resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion that would jeopardize the security, or the social or economic system, of the people on Taiwan.”
     
  5. The China factor: It is of course impossible to divine what Beijing’s reaction to a (vaguely defined and still purely hypothetical) JTRA would be, but concerns in Tokyo about a major backlash from Japan’s number one trading partner are undoubtedly a major factor as Japanese leaders seek to balance a desire to bolster cooperation with democratic Taiwan while walking a fine line in their China strategy—simultaneously deepening and diversifying economic and security ties with the U.S. and other major partners while also trying to avoid open confrontation or a major disruption of relations with Beijing. It is perhaps worth recalling that the U.S. Congress, by contrast, passed the USTRA in 1979 under unique geopolitical and geoeconomic circumstances unlikely to manifest again: the Carter administration had just made the historic decision to recognize the PRC as the “sole legal Government of China,” to sever diplomatic relations and its mutual defense treaty with Taipei, and to cooperate with Beijing in containing the Soviet Union. Needless to say, circumstances in Japan-PRC relations today differ greatly.

But…Watch this space: prospects for deeper Japan-Taiwan-U.S. cooperation

Though Japan’s Diet formally introducing or passing legislation similar to the U.S. “Taiwan Relations Act” anytime soon seems unlikely, policymakers in Washington would still be well-advised to watch this general space. Recent years have witnessed a groundswell of interest in Tokyo in, and calls from political leaders to more actively engage, democratic Taiwan—both positively, as a constructive partner in regional strategy, and out of concern for regional stability owing to worsening frictions across the Taiwan Strait.

Indeed, as I detail in my forthcoming paper for the Wilson Center, Japan and Taiwan already enjoy close and extensive, if nominally unofficial, ties, and in recent years have quietly but significantly expanded practical cooperation and exchanges—despite the fact that no JTRA exists. For manifold reasons—including geographical proximity, shared democratic values, and an alignment of interests on many regional and global challenges—Japan’s leaders clearly place great (and growing) importance on Japan-Taiwan relations.

Though there are numerous political and other constraints on expanding Japan-Taiwan cooperation—especially when it comes to traditional security—there is also evidence of growing interest in both capitals.

Today, Japan is Taiwan's third-largest trading partner, while Taiwan is Japan's fourth-largest. Practically significant, if nominally unofficial, political and other exchanges have expanded significantly. Beyond extensive ties between business and political elites, popular affinity between the Japanese and Taiwanese people is extraordinarily high. Meanwhile, cross-border tourism set a new record in 2019 (before the pandemic struck). Recent years have also witnessed expanding functional cooperation between Japan and Taiwan in a variety of fields, including with the United States through the Global Cooperation and Training Framework, a trilateral endeavor since Japan formally joined it in 2019. Though there are numerous political and other constraints on expanding Japan-Taiwan cooperation—especially when it comes to traditional security—there is also evidence of growing interest in both capitals.

A case-in-point: the LDP’s New “Taiwan Project Team”

Earlier this month, for example, the LDP’s Foreign Affairs Division stood up both a new Taiwan Policy Project Team (台湾政策検討プロジェクトチーム) and a Human Rights Diplomacy Project Team (人権外交PT) as “two pillars” of efforts to strengthen Japan’s diplomacy. In public statements, LDP Foreign Affairs Division Director Sato Masahisa noted that the project teams’ establishment was a direct response to (1) the Biden administration’s call to work with allies to support Taiwan and promote human rights, and (2) China’s recent provocative military activities near Taiwan.

At the LDP Taiwan Project Team’s inaugural meeting last week, Sato expressed an interest in launching a “legislator-level 2+2” (議員レベルの2+2) between members of the LDP foreign and defense committees and their Taiwanese counterparts. Given extensive extant exchanges between Japanese and Taiwanese legislators, such a legislator-oriented venue seems more immediately practicable (and less controversial) than a formal government-to-government 2+2 dialogue of the sort implied in the Nikkei article referenced above. Indeed, in a lengthy blog post and YouTube video, Sato acknowledged the difficulty of government-led initiatives. But he also emphasized prospects for other areas in which Japan could deepen meaningful cooperation with Taiwan, such as trade. And, noting significantly heightened interest among Japanese Diet members in deepening cooperation between Japan’s U.S. ally and Taiwan, Sato also suggested a trilateral meeting of legislators.

The importance of Japan-Taiwan relations for U.S. policy

It is noteworthy that the evolving Japan-Taiwan relationship is finally getting some mainstream attention in Washington. As the Biden Administration carries out its reviews of both U.S. regional strategy and China policy, it should also take careful note of recent developments in Japan-Taiwan relations.

After all, though largely overlooked in the generally U.S.-centric Taiwan discourse in Washington, vicissitudes in Japan-Taiwan relations and trilateral U.S.-Japan-Taiwan cooperation (or lack thereof) will be crucial factors in the success (or failure) of U.S. policy objectives vis-à-vis both Taiwan and the wider region. Beyond the hugely important role both Tokyo and Washington have to play in supporting Taiwan amidst serious challenges from across the Strait, democratic Taiwan is also an invaluable partner in the U.S. and Japan’s efforts to realize their shared, positive vision for a “free and open Indo-Pacific region.”

With the Biden Administration likely to focus on “build[ing] a united front of U.S. allies and partners” to tackle the “special challenge” posed by China on the one hand, and multilateral approaches to tackling various other functional challenges on the other, it is a particularly opportune moment for policymakers to consider the prospects for enhanced Japan-Taiwan and U.S.-Japan-Taiwan cooperation.

Japan may or may not ever pass its own “Taiwan Relations Act.” Regardless, there is significant space for deeper practical cooperation between Japan and Taiwan, bilaterally and in concert with the U.S. and other like-minded partners.


1 In December 1978, the Carter Administration effectively agreed to sever the U.S.’ official diplomatic relations and its 25-year-old mutual defense treaty with Taipei (the Republic of China) in order to normalize diplomatic relations with Beijing (the People’s Republic of China). Congress passed the legislation in response.


Adam P. Liff is associate professor of East Asian international relations at Indiana University’s Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies, where he also directs the 21st Century Japan Politics and Society Initiative. Beyond IU, Dr. Liff is also a nonresident senior fellow with the Center for East Asia Policy Studies at the Brookings Institution. A member of the inaugural cohort of Wilson Center China Fellows, his forthcoming study on “Japan, Taiwan, the United States, and the Free and Open Indo-Pacific” will be available here circa March 2021. Dr. Liff’s personal research website is https://adampliff.com/

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The views expressed are the author's alone, and do not represent the views of the U.S. Government or the Wilson Center. Copyright 2020, Asia Program. All rights reserved.

About the Author

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Adam P. Liff

Wilson China Fellow;
Associate Professor of East Asian International Relations, Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies, Indiana University and Director of the “21st Century Japan Politics & Society Initiative” (21JPSI).
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