Is Taiwan Alone? Taiwanese Security Relations with the Indo-Pacific
By: Kyle Lim
Leaders from Japan attend a video conference with their Taiwanese and American counterparts in 2021 to discuss their shared concerns about China. (Japan Times)
Much has been written about Taiwan’s relationship with the United States. However, what are Taiwan’s relations with its neighbors in the Indo-Pacific? Most countries in the region have refrained from speaking on relations between Beijing and Taipei, lest they fall out of favor with the former power. Despite this, a few states seem more willing to stand up in support of Taiwan — in particular, Australia and Japan. This piece will outline past cases of statements regarding cross-strait conflict as well as investigate Australia and Japan’s chances of aiding Taiwan in the event of conflict with China.
Will Indo-Pacific Nations Respond in the Event of Chinese Action against Taiwan?
So how does Taiwan’s international recognition fit into Indo-Pacific regional politics? Does the island nation have Indo-Pacific allies it can depend on if China were to take military action against it, such as a blockade or invasion? Will countries risk offending Beijing by speaking out in support of Taipei? According to the track record, most countries would not, with a handful even supporting China.
In terms of Indo-Pacific states, only Australia and Japan seem to be willing to declare any support for Taiwan. In August 2022, the two nations, in a joint statement with the U.S., condemned Chinese military actions around Taiwan that occured in the wake of U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s visit to the island. Together, they expressed “concern about [China's] recent actions that gravely affect international peace and stability” and urged Beijing “to immediately cease the military exercises.” However, the joint statement does not state outright any support for Taiwan, saying that “there is no change in the respective [O]ne China policies.” Furthermore, the two countries have also increased their security networks through the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, colloquially called the Quad, alongside the U.S. and India. The group was formed to coordinate security and diplomatic strategy and posture with the goal of maintaining a free and open Indo-Pacific.
During the Chinese military exercises in the wake of Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, ASEAN(Association of Southeast Asian Nations) states refrained from declaring support for Taiwan, instead making general statements promoting peace and stability. Indonesia’s foreign ministry’s called for all parties “to refrain from provocative actions,” and Vietnam’s government stated that it will persist “in implementing the 'One China' principle and hopes [that] relevant parties exercise restraint, refrain from escalating the situation in the Taiwan Strait, and actively contribute to the maintenance of peace and stability.” The only semi-positive response was from the Filipino president Ferdinand Marcos Jr., who said to U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken that Chinese military exercises around Taiwan proved the “importance of the relationship between the United States and the Philippines” and hoped to “evolve” the pair’s relationship in the face of growing Chinese aggression, indicating perhaps a desire to expand the nation’s security commitments in the Indo-Pacific.
India’s relationship with Taiwan is much more enigmatic. India’s unofficial relationship with Taiwan has grown in recent years, especially economically, but it has yet to make any statements regarding the August Chinese military drills around Taiwan. Instead, India’s government has stated that “India's relevant policies are well known and consistent. They do not require reiteration.” What is even more odd is that it also did not choose to sign the aforementioned Australia-Japan-U.S joint statement despite being a member of the Quad. In addition, South Korea, another major regional actor, has hedged by remaining neutral on the Taiwan issue despite being a major U.S ally.
Meanwhile, support for Beijing has been strong among other South Asian nations like Pakistan, aka China’s “iron brother,” steadfastly supporting China’s “sovereignty and territorial integrity,” in a statement. Pacific island nations have been much more silent on the Taiwan issue, even among nations that maintain full diplomatic relations with Taipei.
Japan — A Bastion of Hope for Taiwan?
Could Japan and Australia be a major ally for Taiwan in the future? Despite strengthening ties between the two countries and a realization of the threat China poses, there are many reasons to doubt Australia’s ability to come to Taiwan’s aid in the event of Chinese military action. Historically, Australian prime ministers have been extremely reluctant to act in the Indo-Pacific, even more so regarding Taiwan. In fact, the Quad temporarily ceased after Australia withdrew in 2009, citing positive Australian-Chinese relations. However, most commentators argued that the shift in Australian thinking regarding Taiwan is genuine. Many say that China’s increasingly aggressive moves in the military and economic sectors have caused a clear strategic break between China and Australia. Increasing Australian security commitments through its membership in the Quad, as well as an uptick in defense buildup, most notably AUKUS — an agreement with the UK and U.S. to assist them in building nuclear-powered submarines and other military technology — points to a change in Australian strategic thinking.
But regardless of Australia’s commitment to Taiwan, Japan has a far more clear vision for its own place in the Indo-Pacific. Under former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Japan assumed a leadership role in the region independent of the U.S. and played a vital part in the creation of the Quad in 2007 and its later revitalization. He also created the means for Japan to mobilize itself, developing a national security establishment similar to the U.S. that has allowed Japan to better manage foreign policy crises. This new system establishes a national security council and centralizes decision-making within the prime minister role. Importantly, under him, Japan also reinterpreted its Constitution to permit the Japanese Self-Defense Forces (JSDF) to engage in “collective self-defense” — engaging in military action if its allies were under attack. Abe’s policies and vision have continued under his successors, with the Japanese defense ministry requesting $40.4 billion for 2023, the largest ever budget request, a sign of rising Japanese commitment in the Indo-Pacific.
Most importantly, Japan has been relatively clear in its views on Taiwan. Current Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has said that “the front line of the clash between authoritarianism and democracy is Asia, and particularly Taiwan,” as well as warning that “today’s Ukraine may be tomorrow’s East Asia,” in reference to Taiwan. If Taiwan falls, the rest of the Indo-Pacific, and Japan, may be next. Japan has made it clear that Taiwan’s security is a vital component of its own security, with Minister of Defense Nobuo Kishi stating in 2021 that “the peace and stability of Taiwan is directly connected to Japan.” In addition, the 2021 Defense White paper emphasized that “stabilizing the situation surrounding Taiwan is important for Japan’s security and the stability of the international community. Therefore, it is necessary we pay close attention to the situation with a sense of crisis more than ever before.”
If China were to take military action against Taiwan, the most likely nations that would come to its aid would be the U.S., Japan, and Australia. While both Japan and Australia have made significant steps to increase their impact on the Indo-Pacific security situation, Japan is both geographically and capability-wise more positioned to offer aid to Taiwan if its sovereignty is threatened. However, as with all things, it remains to be seen whether these states will intervene when the dogs of war come running.
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