The Impacts of US-China Tensions on the International Order of Asia

Dawn of a New Era in Taiwan Policy: Restructuring the “1972 Arrangement”


This past spring the leaders of Japan and the United States referred to Taiwan in an official joint statement for the first time in a half century, signaling a historic shift in their stance toward Taipei and Beijing. The author warns that a timid posture taken out of fear of offending China actually raises the risk of cross-strait military conflict.

On April 16, 2021, Japanese Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide and US President Joe Biden released a joint statement in conjunction with their bilateral summit. Among other items, the statement included language affirming “the importance of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait.” This is the same phrasing the Japanese government has used on many occasions, causing some commentators to dismiss its significance. In fact, taken together with the March 16 meeting of the Japan-US Security Consultative Committee Meeting (2+2) and the March 18–19 US-China meeting in Anchorage, it constitutes a groundbreaking expression of joint opposition to the threat of armed action by China against Taiwan.

Historical Context

The April 16 document, as others have noted, was the first Japan-US joint statement in more than a half century to include any explicit reference to Taiwan or cross-strait relations. It is also worth noting that the previous reference, occurring in 1969, took place under vastly different circumstances. At that time, both Washington and Tokyo maintained formal diplomatic relations with the Taiwan-based Republic of China, which they viewed as the legitimate government of China. Taiwan was then a one-party state under the authoritarian rule of Chiang Kai-shek and his Kuomintang (Nationalist Party), but it had long been treated by Washington as a key ally in the Cold War in East Asia. The American military’s freedom to make use of Japanese bases in the event of a conflict in the area was a key issue under discussion in 1969, as Washington and Tokyo negotiated the upcoming reversion of Okinawa to Japanese sovereignty.

The context changed dramatically in 1972, with the February signing of the Shanghai Communiqué, laying the groundwork for the normalization of relations between the United States and the People’s Republic of China, and the establishment of diplomatic ties between Japan and the PRC the following September. With these agreements, international society in essence acceded to Beijing’s demand that governments accept the “one China” principle and sever formal ties with the ROC as the price of rapprochement with the mainland. Thus was born an international framework, known in Japan as the “1972 arrangement,” that pushed Taiwan to the periphery of international affairs. But it did not alter its de facto independence from the mainland.

Over the next few decades, Taiwan, confined to its narrow space, built up a robust economy and, in the 1990s, successfully transitioned to a fully democratic multiparty system. In the wake of that transition, a “Taiwan identity” rapidly spread. Increasingly, the people of Taiwan viewed themselves as Taiwanese, not Chinese, and Taiwan as a separate place from mainland China.

Beijing’s position has been consistent throughout: Taiwan is a breakaway province whose destiny is to be reunited with the rest of China. But for many years, it lacked the hard power to act on that conviction. China’s emergence as a leading power changed that. Moves geared to altering the status quo accelerated from the 2010s on. Under President Xi Jinping’s nationalist agenda, Beijing has pursued an aggressive policy designed to hold Taiwan down while pulling it in. In 2016, after the people of Taiwan elected Tsai Ing-wen president, Beijing suspended semiofficial dialogue with Taipei on the grounds that Tsai refused to embrace the “one China” formula.

In a key policy speech in January 2019, Xi Jinping strongly urged Taiwan to accept reunification under a “one country, two systems” approach, suggesting that he would not leave resolution of the problem to future generations. When the Tsai administration refused to budge, it began stepping up its intimidation by means of entering the ADIZ—the air defense identification zone—and engaging in other military maneuvers near Taiwan.

Changing Posture in the US and Japan

In Washington, Xi’s policy raised alarm that China, if left to its own devices, would force Taiwan into reunification. Moreover, as tensions between Washington and Beijing grew, so did moves to rethink the “1972 arrangement” and strengthen ties with Taiwan as a check against Chinese power. The course change became apparent in 2020, the final year of Donald Trump’s presidency. President Biden has, if anything, amplified that pro-Taiwan stance, while taking care to mollify Beijing by calling his outreach to Taiwan “unofficial” and affirming America’s continued support for the “one China” policy. For Washington, however, the phrase “one China” has become little more than a rote incantation uttered to ward off a backlash from Beijing. Given the strong bipartisan consensus in Congress on the importance of Taiwan in the context of strategic competition with China, this basic approach to relations with Taiwan and China may well replace the old orthodoxy, coming to be known as the “2021 arrangement.”

President Tsai Ing-wen (right) receives former US Deputy Secretary of State James Steinbach, part of an unofficial delegation sent to Taipei by President Joe Biden during his first 100 days in office on April 15, 2021.( © AFP/Jiji)
President Tsai Ing-wen (right) receives former US Deputy Secretary of State James Steinbach, part of an unofficial delegation sent to Taipei by President Joe Biden during his first 100 days in office on April 15, 2021.( © AFP/Jiji)

Tokyo scrupulously distanced itself from Taipei for decades following the establishment of diplomatic ties with the PRC. Japan’s national universities were not even permitted to enter into academic exchange agreements with national universities in Taiwan until well into the 1990s. Japan softened its stance somewhat in the 1990s, as democratic reforms advanced under the leadership of President Lee Teng-hui. Still, the “1972 arrangement” persisted. Indeed, it was only in 2001, and after much internal deliberation, that Lee, having retired from public life, was given the green light to visit Japan as a private citizen. From then on, amid growing concern over China’s rise, the Japanese government began lifting some of its self-imposed restrictions on interaction with Taiwan, albeit gradually.

During the same time, private-sector exchange and interaction between Japan and Taiwan expanded quickly, far surpassing pre-1972 levels. Attitudes toward Taiwan among the Japanese public improved dramatically, aided by the strong moral and material support offered by the Taiwanese in the wake of the Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011. But the Japanese government remained extremely circumspect. Even under Prime Minister Abe Shinzō, known as a strong supporter of Taiwan, change was slow and cautious.

Taiwan in the Spotlight

For years Taiwan sounded the alarm about Beijing’s threatening behavior, but until recently its warnings have fallen on deaf ears; for the international community, the economic rewards of getting along with China generally outweighed any perceived threat to Taiwan’s de facto independence. However, through successive democratic elections, the people of Taiwan clearly demonstrated their determination to remain separate from mainland China, and bit by bit, the rest of the world began to take heed. In 2020, the people and government of Taiwan proved their mettle with their extraordinary success in containing the COVID-19 pandemic, leading to a surge in global interest and sympathy.

While it is undeniable that Taiwan has been the beneficiary of rising US-China tensions, its newfound international prestige can scarcely be dismissed as a matter of luck. Taiwan has earned the admiration of the international community as a result of years of hard work for democratic governance. Epitomizing the change in Taiwan’s global status was the August 2020 visit by Czech Senate President Milos Vystrcil.

Even more significant from Taiwan’s viewpoint was the April 16 Japan-US joint statement. The Foreign Ministry’s official reaction was suitably low key. (“The Taiwan government would like to express our most sincere welcome and gratitude.”) But the mass media greeted the statement with great excitement. For the Taiwanese, it is a long-sought token of recognition and support.

A key factor facilitating this change in stance was President Tsai’s own consistent emphasis on maintenance of the status quo in cross-strait relations. The openly pro-independence nationalism of President Chen Shui-bian (2000–2008) discomfited Washington and Tokyo alike. Tsai, by contrast, has adopted a more pragmatic, politically astute approach, quelling overt talk of Taiwanese independence (despite her party’s pro-independence platform) while at the same time encouraging the flowering of a moderate “Taiwan identity.” She has proved remarkably adept at defying Beijing without crossing any “red line” that could provoke open conflict. While Beijing is clearly frustrated with Tsai, it can only find fault with the “hidden independence” underlying her words. That is something quite distinct from an assertion of “de jure independence,” which Beijing could not tolerate.

As part of this tightrope act, Tsai has promised not to seek official diplomatic relations with Washington, even as she works to strengthen informal ties with the United States. Similarly, while scrambling Taiwan’s jet fighters in response to incursions by Chinese aircraft, she has insisted that no shots be fired. Taiwan’s patience and perseverance have paid off, reassuring Tokyo and Washington that Taipei will do nothing on its side to upset the status quo.

Will China Resort to Force?

Since the time of Deng Xiaoping, Beijing has embraced a policy of peaceful unification with Taiwan. But by now the Chinese surely realize that reunification cannot be achieved by peaceful means. This is doubtless why Beijing has been escalating its campaign of military intimidation. Under the current circumstances, the use of force in the context of gray-zone conflict is a possibility that cannot be ignored.

The key point to remember, however, is that China’s aim is not reunification at any cost. What China seeks is reunification at minimal cost, in a manner that proclaims to all the greatness and benevolence of the Chinese Communist Party and justifies its continued one-party rule.

In this sense, the hurdles to reunification by force are extremely high, despite China’s vast military superiority. Taiwan has built up its capacity for asymmetrical warfare, aiming to counterattack a Chinese landing force. The CCP has no desire to reduce Taiwan’s cities to ashes through missile strikes or to sacrifice countless soldiers of the People’s Liberation Army in the kind of protracted ground warfare needed to seize and hold those cities. Instigating a large-scale war involving the United States and Japan would make even less sense from this point of view.

However, unless Taiwan, the United States, and Japan continue to strengthen their deterrent capability, the day will doubtless come when China, leveraging its overwhelming military might, pronounces the “Chinese dream” of reunification a fait accompli. The use of force could very easily figure into this process, inasmuch as China views military action as an integral facet of foreign policy. Any assurances of nonintervention from the United States and Japan would immediately open the door to forcible unification.

What Should Japan Do?

At some point, China is bound to step up its pressure on Japan as regards Taiwan. When that happens, Japan must not falter. Japanese society needs to remember that the only way a cross-strait war can break out is if China launches a military attack on Taiwan. That means that the most important means of preventing a war is to deter any such action on China’s part. Even Japan’s liberals and pacifists should be able to agree on this point.

Deterrence will involve taking steps that China does not like. While continuing to stress “peace and stability,” Japan must also prepare quietly to support the US military in a manner consistent with security legislation passed in 2015. Even loose multilateral cooperation somewhat affects China’s calculations on its actions. Nor is it incompatible with dialogue and cooperation between Japan and China in areas of shared interest and concern.

To be sure, such preparations could provoke a backlash and various retaliatory measures from Beijing. A slump in bilateral economic relations would unquestionably impact Japan, but it would hurt China as well. And the preservation of peace in the region hinges on our ability to impress on Beijing the high cost of any armed aggression against Taiwan. A timid posture constrained by fear of offending China or of heightening tensions between Tokyo and Beijing actually raises the risk of cross-strait conflict.

The Future of Taiwan

The “Taiwan identity” has taken a firm hold among the island’s population. The prospects for any pro-unification politician winning the presidency in Taiwan henceforth are virtually nil. China will doubtless continue its policy of intimidation as it awaits an opportunity to advance reunification. The United States will probably continue strengthening its military presence and its behind-the-scenes support for Taiwan. And friction between the two superpowers will in all likelihood continue unabated. If the balance of power holds, China cannot move militarily against Taiwan, but if it collapses, the possibility of conflict will loom large on the horizon.

However, there is reason to anticipate that things will not come to such a pass. Notwithstanding Taiwan’s rising international profile, Washington and Tokyo seem determined to maintain the pretense of “one China.” While tension will doubtless continue on the security front, Japan, the United States, and Taiwan are all likely to maintain strong economic ties with China. This balance between economic interdependence and military tension (stopping short of war) may be the defining feature of the “2021 arrangement” that takes the place of the “1972 arrangement.” Such a framework, if it can be maintained over the next five or ten years, is certainly preferable to war, and it coincides with Japan’s national interests. Most important, it respects the wishes of the people of Taiwan.

Of course, there are limits to what Japan can do, particularly in the military sphere, but within those bounds we have an important contribution to make. The April 16 joint statement is a significant first step. Hopefully, this breakthrough will stimulate a broader debate on policies for the prevention of cross-strait conflict.

(Originally published in Japanese. Banner photo: Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide and President Joe Biden hold a joint press conference following their summit talks on April 16, 2021. © AFP/Jiji.)

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