Discussion of Taiwan at weekend talks involving Japan, South Korea and the United States, analysts say, could be seen as a signal U.S. President Joe Biden aims to broaden the network of Asia-Pacific countries that could resist China’s expansion.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Japanese Foreign Minister Hayashi Yoshimasa Hayashi and Korean Foreign Minister Chung Eui-yong emphasized in a joint statement “the importance” of peace and stability in the strait that divides Taiwan from China.
The joint statement from the weekend meeting in Hawaii also condemned North Korea’s recent ballistic missile launches and expressed “shared concern about activities that undermine the rules-based international order.”
The U.S. side brought up Taiwan to rally more forces behind its defense for the self-ruled island that China claims as its own and insists eventually on ruling, said Leif-Eric Easley, associate professor of international studies at Ewha Womans University in Seoul.
“Such multilateral efforts aim to reassure Taipei and deter further coercion by Beijing,” Easley said. “In order to prevent conflict escalation in Asia, U.S. allies actually need to prepare for contingencies of Chinese aggression.”
China has claimed self-ruled Taiwan as part of its territory since the Chinese civil war of the 1940s, when Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists lost to Mao Zedong’s Communists and rebased their government in Taipei. China has never renounced the use of military force, if needed, to unite with Taiwan. Since mid-2020 it has routinely flown military planes into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone.
Washington sells arms to Taiwan, maintains aircraft carriers nearby and has in place the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, which says the United States maintains 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.” Analysts have told VOA that Washington would see any cession of Taiwan to China as a rupture in its chain of Cold War-era Asia Pacific allies.
Wider Asia Pacific alliance
The three-way statement follows Biden’s recently updated Indo-Pacific strategy that pledges to work with partners for Taiwan’s self-defense and ensure that Taiwanese people determine their own future through a peaceful process. Some partners have already been notified.
U.S. officials had approached Tokyo last year about the potential defense of Taiwan, which lies just southwest of the outermost Japanese islands.
The defense head in U.S. ally Australia said in a November interview with The Australian it was “inconceivable” that his country would not aid Taiwan in conjunction with the United States.
Biden’s Indo Pacific policy update calls for strengthening relations with “leading regional partners” including India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Vietnam. Some partners have scuffled with China over its maritime or territorial expansion and see the U.S. government as a deterrent against Beijing.
“Perhaps America’s greatest strategic asset, aside from its own military hardware and personnel, is our vast alliance network of democracies that can act as force multipliers in any crisis,” said Sean King, vice president of the Park Strategies political consultancy in New York. “In this case, we’d want South Korea and Japan on board with the idea that we might activate some of our troops in each country during any Taiwan contingency.”
Rep. Elaine Luria, vice chair of the U.S. House Armed Services Committee, urged in an interview with VOA’s Press Conference USA radio program that Washington rethink “the policy of strategic ambiguity that we’ve held for decades” toward Taiwan and make it “very clear that the United States will react in order to maintain the status quo.”
Japan, a U.S. treaty ally, has indicated it would help in any Taiwanese defense against China if called on by the United Sates or if the conflict affected outlying islands under Japanese control. Japan would react “quickly” since it has been “primed” to help the United States, said Carl Thayer, emeritus professor of politics at the University of New South Wales in Australia.
South Korea, however, is more focused on North Korea as an immediate neighbor and doesn’t always share the U.S.-Japan position toward Taiwan, said Alexander Vuving, professor at the Daniel K. Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies, in Hawaii.
“In the hypothetical conflict over Taiwan, you’ll have China on one side and U.S.A. and Japan on the other side to come to [the] rescue of Taiwan,” Vuving said.
South Korea’s trade with China would be disrupted if it backed Taiwan in a conflict, Thayer said. In 2016, China sanctioned South Korea after its deployment of the Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense anti-missile system, sparking a $15.7 billion loss to tourism alone.
Without a push from Washington, Seoul might “largely stay out” of any Taiwan scuffle while Japan could be a logistics hub for U.S. forces in Taiwan, King said.
Blinken’s meetings with counterparts in Japan and South Korea, among other Asian countries last week “implies that the focal point of U.S strategy targeting China remain unchanged,” the state-controlled Global Times news website in China said on February 6. The report cites the view of a deputy director of the Center for American Studies at Fudan University.
VOA English to Africa’s Carol Castiel contributed to the report.