Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts A Sea Change Brewing over the Taiwan Strait?
A Sea Change Brewing over the Taiwan Strait?

A Sea Change Brewing over the Taiwan Strait?

One of the most impressive developments over the course of President Joseph Biden’s recent summits with foreign leaders has been the consistent attention on the Taiwan Strait. The first joint statement to include such language occurred during the April 16 summit with Japanese Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide. Its inclusion appears to be the beginning of a new U.S. emphasis on Taiwan, cross-Strait relations, and the Taiwan Strait in dealings with foreign leaders.

The U.S.-Japan summit—the first formal, in-person visit by a foreign leader under Biden’s leadership—broke through a dam bottling up nations’ fears or reticence about mentioning the issue, one that is critical to regional and global security and economics. The U.S.-Japan joint statement was the first of many such statements in only a few months. The statement released after Biden’s summit with South Korean President Moon Jae-in emphasized the “importance of preserving peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait.” To date, Biden is two-for-two when serving as host at the White House.

A similar pattern has emerged in multilateral summits. The communique and statement released after the Group of Seven and European Union summits also included language about the Taiwan Strait. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization did not, but called out how China’s “assertive behaviour present[s] systemic challenges to the rules-based international order.”

Most of these statements’ inclusion of language on the Taiwan Strait is either the first time that it has appeared or is the first time that it has appeared in decades. Why is the inclusion of such language important? What is the point of including the language in the first place? Where can the inclusion of such language be expected to appear in the future? How likely is the inclusion of such language to be followed up by substantive actions should peace be disrupted?

The more frequently that Taiwan-related language appears in these summits, the easier it will be for the Biden administration to encourage countries to include it in joint statements. The more countries that express explicit support for “peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait,” the harder will it be for Beijing to focus its ire on just one. There is strength in unity of this language inclusion, and, depending on the country and its relevance to Taiwan security issues, including such a sentence in the joint statement could be the cost of admission for an invitation to the White House.

Bilateral Breakthroughs

The first two foreign leaders to visit Biden at the White House were Suga (April) and Moon (May). The symbolism of having these two leaders be the firsts to conduct in-person summits with Biden sends a signal of how the administration will emphasize the Indo-Pacific over the next four years. It may not be completely surprising that language on the Taiwan Strait appeared in the U.S.-South Korea statement one month after the U.S.-Japan one considering the turbulent relationship between Tokyo and Seoul and their unspoken competition over their relationships with Washington.

The language in the two respective joint statements is nearly identical. The U.S.-Japan statement said, “We underscore the importance of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait and encourage the peaceful resolution of cross-Strait issues.” And the U.S.-South Korea statement said, “President Biden and President Moon emphasize the importance of preserving peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait.” The Japanese statement went further than the Korean one with the inclusion of “peaceful resolution of cross-Strait issue.” Since Japan deals with some of the same issues that Taiwan is faced with when it comes to China—namely, air and sea incursions by Chinese military vessels and aircraft—the extra phrase shows the connection between Taiwan and Japan’s respective security. On particularly clear days, one can see Taiwan from the westernmost reaches of Japan. As Suga was visiting Washington, Japanese Defense Minister Kishi Nobuo posed for a photo looking out towards Taiwan on a cloudy day. While cross-Strait escalation certainly would influence South Korea, the issues are perhaps more pressing for Japan. Kishi is a noted proponent of better Japan-Taiwan relations, so the timing of the photo cannot be a coincidence.

Since Suga’s visit to the White House, Japanese government officials have been quite vocal about the future of the Japan-Taiwan relationship and the importance of Taiwan to Japanese security. In late June, Kishi directly connected Taiwan’s security to Japan’s, “The peace and stability of Taiwan is directly connected to Japan and we are closely monitoring ties between China and Taiwan, as well as Chinese military activity.” Around the same time, State Minister of Defense Nakayama Yasuhide openly questioned Tokyo’s decision to adopt its “one China” policy when it recognized Beijing over Taipei. If an American official were to be this vocal about this issue in public, it would cause shockwaves in the foreign policy community. Shortly after those comments, Japanese Deputy Prime Minister Aso Taro claimed that Washington and Tokyo would come to Taiwan’s defense in the event of Chinese aggression. Aso said, “If a major problem took place in Taiwan, it would not be too much to say that it could relate to a survival-threatening situation (for Japan).” There is clear movement in Tokyo about the importance of keeping Taiwan out of Beijing’s hands. The fact that such a succession of statements has occurred since April is a notable development. It will be important to see what official steps Tokyo takes in the coming months to complement those statements.

While South Korea has not had such a variety of Taiwan-related statements coming from government officials, it is no stranger to Chinese pressure and meddling. After the United States installed its Terminal High Altitude Air Defense (THAAD) system in the country, China lashed out by implementing harsh economic penalties and boycotts. Relations between South Korea and China only recently recovered from that years-long incident, so it is somewhat surprising that Moon would risk additional Chinese ire by including the Taiwan sentence in the joint statement. It is likely that the quiet diplomacy of the Biden administration, coupled with the investment deals and COVID vaccination promises, won out over concerns that China would unduly target South Korea for allowing the sentence to remain in the statement.

Interestingly, the U.S.-UK joint statement released in June during Biden’s visit to the United Kingdom did not mention the Taiwan Strait. In fact, it only mentioned China once when referencing investigations into the origins of COVID-19. The UK has expressed interest in taking a greater role in the Indo-Pacific, but during the HMS Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier’s trip through Asia, the carrier group avoided the Taiwan Strait. It did sail through the disputed waters of the South China Sea. The UK appears to be trying to get it both ways by not completely angering China, but also taking some actions against China and its policies. Having such a joint statement devoid of the full China threat is a stark contrast to the Japan and South Korea statements. Perhaps, with Johnson hosting Biden, there was less of a push on the American side to include more complete language as had occurred when Biden acted as host for Suga and Moon. Another possibility is that Johnson hedged on the language since those issues would receive ample attention days later during the G-7 summit.

Internationalizing Attention

Going into his first major foreign trip, Biden had already secured Taiwan-relevant language in his two domestic summits. Cajoling the G-7 into include similar language would be a major diplomatic win. The 2021 G-7 Carbis Bay Communique expressed concern about Taiwan for the first time in the grouping’s history. Mirroring the language of the U.S.-Japan statement, the G-7 Communique dedicated an entire section to Indo-Pacific security issues:

We reiterate the importance of maintaining a free and open Indo Pacific, which is inclusive and based on the rule of law. We underscore the importance of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait, and encourage the peaceful resolution of cross-Strait issues. We remain seriously concerned about the situation in the East and South China Seas and strongly oppose any unilateral attempts to change the status quo and increase tensions. [emphasis added]

As host, Boris Johnson invited Moon Jae-in, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, and South African President Cyril Ramaphosa. India Prime Minister Narendra Modi also attended virtually. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen attended in person as well. The G7, plus South Korea, Australia, and India, comprise another international grouping known as the D-10. Having all of the world’s leading democracies sign on to the communique featuring language supporting the security of Taiwan is an important breakthrough, especially considering each country’s unique relationship with China.

Any of the G-7 leaders could have rejected the language out of fear that signing on would agitate China. Italy, which is China’s first official European partner to the Belt and Road Initiative, could have played the role of spoiler, but instead, when asked about Italy’s participation in the BRI, Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi said that his country “will assess it carefully.” Infamously, former President Donald Trump rejected the 2018 G-7 communique in a fit of anger over comments made by Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. The 2018 G-7 was the first time in the G-7’s history that a leader refused to sign on. So, for a contentious issue like Taiwan, there was precedent—set by an American leader—for a leader to refuse to endorse the communique. No one did, and the 2021 Communique is the largest-ever grouping of nations to jointly express concern about the Taiwan Strait and cross-Strait relations.

Just days after the G-7 Summit, the Chinese military responded, with Taiwan as the predictable target. On June 15, the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) sent 28 aircraft into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone (ADIZ), including 24 offensive aircraft, some of which flew well beyond their normal paths near Taiwan’s southeastern coast. This massive incursion fits into how the Chinese military responds to major Taiwan-related events. In the past, whenever the United States has done something in favor of Taiwan, such as a high-level visit by an American official, the PLAAF increased the number of aircraft it would into Taiwan’s ADIZ. The pattern demonstrates how China can counter moves by the United States with escalatory action. China’s near-daily incursions forced Taiwan’s military to change its response due to significant fuel costs. Instead of intercepting each aircraft, Taiwan would track the aircraft with its missile systems. The immediate Chinese response to the G-7 communique is Beijing’s way of daring the West to do more to stop its actions against Taiwan.

After the G-7 summit, President Biden held another one with the European Union. The U.S.-EU summit resulted in a joint statement with a sentence on Taiwan, which is no surprise since the EU attended the G-7 summit only days before. This statement is a word-for-word copy of the G-7 sentence on Taiwan: “We underscore the importance of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait, and encourage the peaceful resolution of cross-Strait issues.” Given the wide breadth of EU member-states’ individual foreign policies and relations with Beijing, it is unclear how much weight can be applied to this statement. Foreign policy issues within the EU are often a murky and contradictory affair. Furthermore, it is no surprise that Taiwan did not make the cut in the 2021 NATO summit communique. China receives some attention in the document for its behavior and challenges to NATO values and for its rampant disinformation. NATO moving its focus into Indo-Pacific issues would have expanded the organization’s mission and goals well beyond its traditional borders.

Where Is This All Going?

The inclusion of Taiwan-related sentences into various statements and communiques is an important development to watch as Biden begins to host more foreign leaders at the White House. The language and focus on Taiwan fits with other Taiwan policy developments during the Biden administration’s first year, including most recently tripling its COVID vaccine donation to 2.5 million doses and the re-launch of the U.S.-Taiwan Trade and Investment Framework Agreement (TIFA). It is likely that the Biden team is trying to get as many countries as possible to “sign on” to expressing concern about China’s treatment of Taiwan. A next step would be to provide assistance to countries considering writing their version of the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act. Right now, Canada is considering its own version, and there have been discussions in Japan. Helping countries debating this important issue and legalizing their unofficial ties to Taiwan should be part of the administration’s Indo-Pacific priorities.

If the Biden administration was able to get Japan and South Korea to include a Taiwan-related sentence in their respective joint statements, then there is added pressure for a leader visiting the White House to follow suit. And considering so many other countries have already done so, there is less of a target on future countries. However, since most of those who expressed concern came in the form of a multilateral communique, the Biden administration will undoubtedly work to get the same countries to issue similar language bilaterally.

Other, non-G-7 members will face pressure, namely Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi since he attended the G-7 as a guest virtually. India—like Japan and South Korea—has experienced Chinese aggression on its northern borders. As a member of the Quad, India should be paying attention more closely to Chinese military activities against Taiwan. The same can be said for Scott Morrison, who has befuddled the world with his confusing statements on Australia’s policy towards Taiwan. Both of these Quad members should be expected to follow Japan’s leadership in this regard. Quad leaders failing to express concern about security in the Taiwan Strait would defang the main purpose of the grouping.

A dark horse to look out for would be Vietnam. It has been the most forceful and outspoken critic of China in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Would Vietnamese President Nguyen Xuan Phuc be willing to include some sort of Taiwan-related sentence in a joint statement in the event that he receives an invitation to the White House? Where exactly Manila would fall on this issue is unknown. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has attempted to cozy up to China, but Beijing continues to push the Philippines over disputed claims in the South China Sea. The Philippines should pay close attention to Taiwan-related security issues due to their geographic proximity: A PRC-controlled Taiwan would threaten the Philippines’ northern claims and territories. There are signs of pushback within the Duterte government. In May, Secretary of Foreign Affairs Teodoro Locsin launched an expletive-filled tirade on Twitter against Chinese actions in the South China Sea. But would such concern move from disputed claims to another country’s security?

The Biden administration is now mulling a meeting with Chinese General Secretary Xi Jinping. There is a laundry list of issues that the two leaders will need to discuss, but Taiwan should be near the top of the list. The United States has received the backing of a number of the world’s leading nations about Taiwan and cross-Strait relations; Washington is not fighting this issue alone. A private, stern warning about the administration’s Taiwan stance and potential responses to Chinese military aggression is in order. Without overstepping American commitments to Taiwan about negotiating with Beijing on cross-Strait issues, the Biden administration needs to make it clear to Xi that the writing is on the wall when it comes to Taiwan’s defense. There may not be an official policy change away from the decades-long “strategic ambiguity,” but the administration could warn that the ongoing near-daily aerial incursions into Taiwan’s ADIZ could result in more firm cooperation between the American and Taiwanese militaries. Without moving towards a policy of “strategic clarity,” Biden could privately remind Xi of the global economic consequences that an invasion of Taiwan would cause.

Washington should not back down on this issue with Beijing but continue to remind China of the potential costs of military or economic escalation against Taipei. With all of these recent joint statements, the Biden administration has demonstrated that the world is watching—and more importantly, cares—about Taiwan’s security.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.