In the two years since President Donald Trump declared his vision for a free and open Indo-Pacific, the United States government has released numerous documents outlining U.S. strategy to realize that vision.
These strategy documents — such as the National Security Strategy, National Defense Strategy, and the Indo-Pacific Strategy report — are clear and comprehensive. They underscore the nature of the challenges that the U.S. and its allies and partners face — and, more importantly, provide a pathway forward.
In the era of strategic competition with revisionist authoritarian powers, a consistent thread found in all these documents is how the United States cannot and should not have to be at all places all the time, and, more importantly, do it alone. Indeed, for this vision to be realized and for the strategy to work, American allies and partners must work closer together more than ever before.
The free and open Indo-Pacific strategy necessitates reliable allies and partners with shared vision, strategies, and policies to work closer together to preserve the rules-based order and the norms and institutions of that order. Nowhere is this more necessary than in Asia.
Anchoring the Regional Security Alliances
As often stated by senior U.S. officials, the U.S.-Japan alliance is the cornerstone for peace and stability in Asia. And the U.S.-Japan security alliance remains the anchor of the U.S. posture in the Indo-Pacific.
Yet, there are limits to the security alliance as it is presently construed. More specifically, there are limits to American standing on its own to respond to the immediate and fundamental changes in the regional security environment.
Indeed, this is why the United States has tried to encourage South Korea and Japan to work closer together.
In an area fraught with intra-regional conflicts and profound strategic changes with the rise of revisionist authoritarian powers, countries like Japan and Taiwan — because of their shared values, strategic interests, and geographical location — are natural allies.
The two countries have the advantage of already enjoying a very close partnership built on close people-to-people ties and similar threat perceptions toward immediate and fundamental changes in the regional security environment.
In some sense, their visions are already aligned. But now it is important for the two countries’ defense and security establishments to align those strategies with concrete policies.
Why Policy Alignment is Critical Now
The importance of policy alignments among American allies and partners was suggested in a recent speech given by a senior defense official in the U.S. In remarks delivered at the Global Taiwan Institute’s annual conference on “U.S.-Taiwan Relations: A Shared Vision in the Indo-Pacific” on September 11, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense David Helvey stated:
In fact our National Defense Strategy identifies alliances and partnerships as a crucial and durable asymmetric advantage that no other country can match. As the Department implements the NDS in the Indo-Pacific, we are strengthening these relationships by helping others modernize their military forces and strengthen our deterrent capability. For it is only by, with, and through our allies and partners that we can safeguard the rules, norms, and standards that have conferred enormous benefits to the region.
In a follow-on speech delivered at the U.S.-Taiwan Business Council’s 19th annual U.S.-Taiwan Defense Industry Conference, Helvey elaborated: “Taiwan is a critical partner in the Indo-Pacific” and “[i]t is in this strategic environment that the Administration continues to faithfully implement the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) as part of a broader commitment to the security and stability of the Indo-Pacific.” (RELATED ARTICLE: Like the U.S., Japan Should Have Its Taiwan Relations Act)
While not explicitly mentioned, his comments clearly implied that closer ties between Japan and Taiwan are integral to the realization of a free and open Indo-Pacific. (RELATED ARTICLE: EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW | Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen Seeks Security Talks with Japanese Government)
Earlier in 2019, former officials from the United States, Japan, and Taiwan gathered in Tokyo and issued a joint declaration calling for an enhancement of U.S.-Japan-Taiwan ties. The joint statement called for the enactment of six specific measures to help enhance the security of Taiwan and address regional security concerns. These measures were:
- Approve the participation of Taiwan in U.S.-Japan co-hosted humanitarian regional maritime security exercises;
- Commence official security dialogue between Japan and Taiwan;
- Initiate official security dialogue between Japan, the United States, and Taiwan;
- For Japan to enact a “Basic Act on Exchange between Japan and Taiwan”
- For Japan to enact legislation of agreements and memorandums of understanding with Japan and the United States in Taiwan;
- Establish policies, mechanisms, and resources to commonly counter malign influence operations initiated by the PRC designed to undermine the Japan-U.S. security alliance and the democracy and freedom of Taiwan.
Highlighting the challenges ahead, the stated purpose of the symposium was to have a discussion that “included improving the regional security environment for Taiwan and ascertaining the direction of Japan-U.S.-Taiwan security cooperation against the background of China’s growing and explicit ambition to annex Taiwan, which is raising tensions in Taiwan and neighboring area.”
A member of the group, retired Lieutenant General Wallace Gregson, who most recently served as Assistant Secretary of Defense for Asian and Pacific Security Affairs and also as commander of U.S. Marine Corps Forces Pacific, issued a clear warning. He stated that the “most severe gray zone threat” in the region is the Chinese Communist Party’s subversion of the legitimate government on Taiwan. Specifically, he said the undermining of democracy in Asia is inextricably linked to U.S. security and called on democracies to respond to these threats.
The joint statement also called for an official security dialogue between Taiwan and Japan, which follows the steady deepening of U.S.-Taiwan security ties in recent years. Indeed, the secretary-general of Taiwan’s National Security Council made an unprecedented visit to Washington, DC, in May to meet with his counterparts in the U.S. government. This is the first official and publicly-acknowledged visit made by an NSC secretary general to Washington, DC, since the switch in diplomatic relations in 1979 and a first since the passage of the Taiwan Travel Act in February 2018.
Likewise, senior policymakers in Taiwan are calling for dialogue with their Japanese counterparts. In late February, Taiwan’s president, Tsai Ing-wen, called for a direct security dialogue between Taiwan and Japan. In an interview with The Sankei Shimbun, President Tsai stated that:
Taiwan and Japan are confronted with the same threats in the East Asian region…. It is vital that talks be raised to the level of security cooperation…. Prime Minister [Shinzo] Abe has been extremely friendly with Taiwan, and, after his inauguration, has made dramatic decisions [for Japan-Taiwan relations]. For the next step, it is necessary to strengthen our security discussions.
For the free and open Indo-Pacific strategy to work, American allies and partners — with shared vision, strategies, and policies — must work closer than ever before.
Strengthening security cooperation through dialogue between Taiwan and Japan, and trilaterally between the United States, Japan, and Taiwan, will help to further the vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific.
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Author: Russell Hsiao