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Getting Taiwan just right: Inside Japan and US's historic statement

Washington suggested a Taiwan Relations Act to Tokyo, but settled for less

Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and U.S. President Joe Biden at the White House on April 16.   © Reuters

TOKYO -- Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga felt a tinge of trepidation when he and a small group his closest aides gathered in the Oval Office to discuss heighten tensions in East Asia with U.S. President Joe Biden and his top advisers.

There was a lot on the line at the April 16 summit. Kurt Campbell, the U.S. Indo-Pacific coordinator on the National Security Council, had flown to Japan in the days leading up to the White House visit. One of the multiple proposals he brought with him included urging Japan to adopt its own version of the Taiwan Relations Act, which allows the U.S. to provide arms to the island for its defense despite a lack of formal diplomatic ties. 

But such legislation would deal a heavy blow to Japan's ties with China, which considers Taiwan one of its "core" interests. The Japanese side worried that Biden himself would push for such aggressive measures.

The U.S. and Japan had already touched on the issue of Taiwan in the two-plus-two joint statement issued after the meeting of the foreign and defense ministers last month. 

Some within Japan's Foreign Ministry had thought that was enough, and that there was no need to repeat it in the leader's statement. Suga himself was ready to repeat the wording in the leaders' statement.

But Campbell wanted more.

When the Japanese side conveyed its reluctance toward any legislation concerning Taiwan, reports began emerging in American media that Japan did not want to upset its relationship with China. 

Before leaving for Washington, Suga was told by a former Japanese prime minister that the American side was worried that Suga may be close to China. "Really?" Suga asked back, surprised by the perception.

From that point on, it became important for Suga and his team to alter that narrative. In the small-group meeting at the Oval Office, it was Suga who brought up the issue of China.

He mentioned the activities of the Chinese Coast Guard near the Senkaku Islands and said  "Japan needs to bolster its defensive capabilities." That kicked off a greater discussion about the current security landscape in East Asia -- including Taiwan.

The Japan-administered chain, which China claims as the Diaoyu, is located 170 km from Taiwan. 

While the U.S. has repeatedly affirmed that its obligation to defend Japan under their security treaty extends to the Senkakus, Japan fears that China could attempt to take control of the islands during a potential invasion of Taiwan.

"We need to engage in frank dialogue with China and tell them what we need to tell them," Suga told Biden.

When the two sides emerged from the Oval Office to face the public, the delicate negotiations led to a historic moment: Suga and Biden issued the countries' first leaders' statement mentioning Taiwan in 52 years -- the result of careful preparations to ensure they struck exactly the right tone on the hot-button issue.

"Prime Minister Suga and I affirmed our ironclad support for the U.S.-Japanese alliance and for our shared security," Biden said, standing next to Suga at the news conference.

In the end, Biden himself did not press Suga to commit to a Japanese Taiwan Relations Act. "Perhaps the U.S. side was satisfied when they heard the prime minister speak sternly about China," a Japanese foreign ministry official said later. 

Suga appeared to be extremely pleased with the final outcome of their summit. "I think things went well," he told his aides afterward. 

"The Senkakus and Taiwan are linked," he added.

Japan and the U.S. now face the task of building on their leaders' statement. They are expected to start weighing detailed plans to strengthen their alliance ahead of the next round of two-plus-two talks scheduled by the end of the year.

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