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September 20, 2017

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Korea, Japan in the United States' calculations on Taiwan

Security concerns in East Asia do not exist in a vacuum, but it is difficult to know how closely issues interact. United States reliance on China in dealing with North Korea has allegedly caused Washington to take a more pro-Beijing stance in its relations with Taipei. Recent Japanese elections, leading to an opposition Democratic Party takeover of the Upper House, will allegedly decrease Tokyo's commitment to the U.S.-Japan alliance, and hence diminish the alliance's capacity to promote stability across the Taiwan Strait. Both these theories deserve further investigation.

The United States needs Chinese cooperation to effectively deal with the North Korean nuclear issue. Beijing's ability to pressure Pyongyang and mediate the Six-party Talks is key in the U.S. regional approach to North Korea. China may want to leverage its cooperation, but Washington knows that regardless of U.S. support of Taiwan, Beijing will pursue its own interests in its relations with Pyongyang. A "North Korea for Taiwan" quid pro quo is thus wishful thinking on the part of Chinese strategists. The U.S. is not so desperate for China's help, nor so bogged down in the Middle East to accept Beijing's attempts to link North Korea and Taiwan.

The U.S. would need Japan's logistical, if not active, support if it became necessary to defend Taiwan. After years of only whispering about such contingencies, the U.S.-Japan alliance explicitly recognized Taiwan security as a common strategic objective in 2005. However, the Japanese Upper House elections in July dealt a blow to the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and particularly to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who favors a greater international role for Japan's military. Observers thus predict an end to increasing U.S.-Japan coordination on Taiwan. Yet irrespective of the elections, the main limitations on Japan's involvement in cross-strait security -- the importance of Tokyo's relations with Beijing and constitutional restrictions on the Japanese military -- are not expected to change soon.

Japan's alliance commitment and China's productive role in dealing with North Korea are indispensable for East Asian security. Moreover, Washington does not want Taipei to take provocative actions while the U.S. foreign policy agenda is overbooked. Connections among these issues notwithstanding, U.S. policy toward Taiwan is primarily shaped by the situation across the Taiwan Strait.

Legally, the United States' Taiwan policy is a balancing act between the U.S.-China Communiques on the one hand, and the Taiwan Relations Act on the other. The U.S. has long balanced the two in the interest of avoiding violent or unilateral changes to the status quo. Of course, the "status quo" is a convenient fiction to maintain relative stability, as cross-strait relations continue to witness significant economic, military and political change.

Practically, there are three major factors in Washington's current Taiwan policy: (1) the importance of the "One-China" concept for positive Sino-U.S. relations; (2) the closeness of American and Taiwan democracies; and (3) the military balance across the Strait. The first factor is more or less a given constant. The second and third are variables that Taiwan actually has notable control over.

Taiwan can constructively improve ties with the U.S. (as well as with Japan and South Korea) by further strengthening its democracy. Taiwan's political development is impressive and demonstrates commonalities with other free societies, but Taiwan still lacks consolidated democratic institutions. Taipei can also make greater investments toward a credible national defense. Allies are less willing to defend friends who do not show serious efforts to defend themselves.

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