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Taiwan Relations Act at 45: Where's Japan's Version?

America's Taiwan Relations Act has flaws, but Japan's lack of comparable legislation leaves its people and territory vulnerable in a Taiwan contingency.



Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen meets with a former PM Taro Aso in the Taiwan President's Office. August 8, 2023 (Courtesy of the Office of the President of Taiwan)

April 10 marks the 45th anniversary of the enactment of the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) in the United States. As many readers know, the law was passed in response to President Jimmy Carter's unilateral termination of relations with Taiwan. (He also terminated the mutual defense treaty.) Instead, in 1979 he established diplomatic relations with the People's Republic of China.

According to the wording of the TRA, it "seeks to help maintain peace, security, and stability in the Western Pacific." It also "authorizes the continuation of commercial, cultural, and other relations." Furthermore, it declares that "peace and stability in the area are in the political, security, and economic interests of the United States, and are matters of international concern."

More specifically, the law states that the United States would "consider any effort to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means, including by boycotts or embargoes, a threat to the peace and security of the Western Pacific area and of grave concern to the United States." 

To maintain peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait, the TRA permits the provision to Taiwan of "arms of a defensive character." Therefore, it calls upon the US government to "maintain the capacity of the United States 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."

President Tsai Ing-wen meets with a bipartisan group of US Congressmen on March 28, 2024. She is shaking hands with Congressman Mike Gallagher, chair of the House Select Committee on the CCP. (Courtesy of the Office of the President of Taiwan)

What the TRA States

While it is hoped and expected that the United States would help defend Taiwan in the event of an attack by China, the TRA does not actually obligate this. The relevant part of the act is "Section 3. Implementation of United States Policy with Regard to Taiwan." Its language states: 

(1) In furtherance of the policy set forth in section 2 of this Act, the United States will make available to Taiwan such defense articles and defense services in such quantity as may be necessary to enable Taiwan to maintain a sufficient self-defense capability. 


(2) The President and the Congress shall determine the nature and quantity of such defense articles and services based solely upon their judgment of the needs of Taiwan, in accordance with procedures established by law. Such determination of Taiwan's defense needs shall include review by United States military authorities in connection with recommendations to the President and the Congress. 

(3) The President is directed to inform the Congress promptly of any threat to the security or the social or economic system of the people on Taiwan and any danger to the interests of the United States arising therefrom. The President and the Congress shall determine, in accordance with constitutional processes, appropriate action by the United States in response to any such danger.

'Strategic Ambiguity'

In other words, the President may decide to defend Taiwan with the consent of Congress but there is no guarantee that such a decision would be made. 

This "strategic ambiguity" may benefit the United States, but it is unsettling to Taiwan and others, including Japan. When China was weak, it had a deterrent effect. But now that China is stronger, as the late Prime Minister Shinzo Abe pointed out in an op-ed he published in April 2021 a few months before his assassination, it has less of an effect.

There are other flaws in the act and its implementation. Some of these have been improved over the years, However, the law's existence has certainly helped over the past four decades. 

In addition, additional acts have been introduced by the US Congress to further strengthen ties with Taiwan. 


These acts include the Taiwan Relations Act Affirmation and Naval Vessel Transfer Act (2014), The Taiwan Travel Act (2018), and the Taiwan Allies International Protection and Enhancement Initiative (TAIPEI) Act (2019). Additional legislation is being considered now as well.

Japan's Silence

What about Japan's relations with Taiwan? It unilaterally broke diplomatic relations with Taiwan in 1972 and established them with China. Since then, has Japan passed any similar legislation? 

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida holds a press conference on March 28, at the Prime Minister's Office. (© Sankei by Ataru Haruna)

There were efforts and discussions in the past, but a Japanese version of the Taiwan Relations Act has yet to pass. As such, Japan has no real legal basis to interact with Taiwan or to support it in a contingency. However, Taiwan's loss means Japan's national security would be irrevocably harmed.

In the summer of 2018, I strongly recommended Japan pass its own Taiwan Relations Act. I pitched it in the Japanese media and during numerous TV shows and lectures. My argument urged the Diet to pass the legislation that autumn and enact it in April 2019. That would have matched the 40th anniversary of the US TRA. Unfortunately, the Diet did not take action.

More than five years have passed since then. Much time has been lost despite the crisis almost upon us.

During those five years, Japan and Taiwan could have developed closer relations. Moreover, they could have coordinated how to respond to a contingency that would inevitably affect both nations. 

It is a shame Japan's legislature did not take up the issue then. It should redouble efforts now to pass the legislation before it’s too late.


Review by: Robert D Eldridge, PhD
Dr Eldridge is a former political advisor to the US Marine Corps in Japan, and author and a 2024 Taiwan Ministry of Foreign Affairs Fellow at Tamkang University.