The Stimson Center conducted a Track 1.5 trilateral dialogue with experts from Japan, Taiwan, and the United States on September 29, 2021 to discuss the recent developments in Japan-Taiwan relations and the possibilities for further cooperation on maritime safety. The dialogue was conducted virtually and under the Chatham House rule. The experts participated in their personal capacities.
The session opened with reference to three topics to spark a discussion on maritime safety: how the three sides could reinforce maritime safety and communication in the East China Sea; the prospects or challenges for Japan-Taiwan coast guard cooperation and the United States’ role in facilitating cooperation; and how the three sides might cooperate to deescalate tensions in the event of unintended encounters at sea.
The participants observed that Japan, Taiwan, and the United States share similar views of the importance of stability in the East China Sea and surrounding region. Therefore, maintaining the status quo in the East China Sea is a priority for each of the three sides. Taiwan, however, faces an immediate threat from China that is increasing in intensity, including maritime threats, requiring Taiwan to improve its military capabilities. In this respect, the participants discussed the importance of expanding maritime safety cooperation with Taiwan to help Taiwan improve its capabilities as well as share in Taiwan’s unique expertise on Chinese capabilities.
It was also noted that finding methods to deescalate unintended encounters at sea is a shared priority. The participants discussed how maritime peacekeeping initiatives with global partners, at the direction of the United Nations, may offer a way to prevent accidents that supplements the role of coast guards.
Several participants noted that there has been significant progress in Japan-Taiwan relations in the past year and more democracies around the world have shown support for Taiwan in various ways. Other participants cautioned that there is still a limited understanding about Taiwan among the Japanese public and that historically the Japanese government has hesitated to form closer cooperation with Taiwan. This adds to the imperative for Japanese experts to expand their knowledge of Taiwan’s security concerns through direct communication. More broadly, it was observed that there is a growing awareness of and attention to China’s activities in the East and South China Seas, including regular sea and air incursions around Taiwan and Japan, which has contributed to more democratic nations speaking out against China’s aggressive actions. Several participants also pointed out steps taken by democracies recently to reinforce regional stability, such as the AUKUS agreement.
The participants agreed that efforts to expand bilateral and trilateral cooperation among Japan, Taiwan, and the United States can build upon existing foundations. The participants discussed several examples of cooperation that could be deepened or expanded. In particular, the U.S.-Taiwan Coast Guard Working Group, established in 2021, could be a model for similar Japan-Taiwan maritime cooperation or may offer opportunities to invite Japan’s participation. Participants also mentioned the 2013 Japan-Taiwan Fishery Agreement, which provides a council as a mechanism for communication on maritime issues. This council could be expanded to include coast guard representatives as another communication channel. In addition, the 2+2 meetings between ruling party officials from Japan and Taiwan that took place in August 2021 could be continued as a form of high-level engagement. As another model, the annual Monterey Talks between the United States and Taiwan, which focus on security issues, may be expanded to include Japanese participation as an observer.
Participants called for greater information sharing between Japan and Taiwan as a particular priority for maritime safety. The discussion focused on existing channels of communication between Japan and Taiwan that could be expanded and potential new channels. Participants noted that Japan and Taiwan coast guard liaisons are a convenient way to share information quickly, which is an important channel. Some participants also raised the possibility of a new coast guard hotline that could facilitate communication about immediate issues at sea.
The participants discussed how Japan remains concerned with China’s reactions to deepening cooperation with Taiwan. Some participants noted that China is expected to have a negative reaction to most or all forms of cooperation with Taiwan, which makes more public forms of cooperation challenging or undesirable. Several participants observed, however, that the United States has adjusted the threshold of what actions China will react to by engaging in a variety of activities with Taiwan that remain within the unofficial framework of the relationship. It was also noted that if Japan does not challenge China’s reactions, communication and cooperation between Japan and Taiwan might remain at a low level. Participants agreed that there are numerous methods of low-profile cooperation that may draw less attention from Beijing, such as continuing educational exchanges for military and coast guard officers and researchers. Some participants also urged the three sides to not become overly concerned with China’s reactions and to maintain shared democratic values.
Participants agreed that challenges remain for furthering maritime cooperation between Taiwan and Japan. The sensitive domestic political environments of Japan and Taiwan complicate the political will to engage in some types of cooperation. Some participants from Japan noted that Japan has been historically unwilling to engage closely with Taiwan and lacks a set of guidelines like the U.S. Taiwan Relations Act to provide a legal framework for unofficial interactions. Participants added that Taiwan has a highly polarized society with differing views on how to engage with Japan. While Taiwan’s coast guard has a level of interoperability with Taiwan’s navy akin to a “second navy,” Japan’s coast guard is restricted from conducting any military operations. Several participants called for multilateral forms of cooperation that could encompass and foster Japan-Taiwan cooperation within a broader coalition, which could give the bilateral and trilateral cooperation a greater chance of success. The session closed with the participants agreeing that the topic of maritime safety cooperation among Japan, Taiwan, and the United States deserves more discussion, particularly on coast guard cooperation. Overall, the three sides agreed that existing efforts and mechanisms for cooperation provide a solid foundation for further expansion and that deepening cooperation is necessary for maintaining peace and stability in the East China Sea. While challenges remain from internal and external factors, the recent progress in bilateral and trilateral talks suggests that ideas abound among the partners for pursuing closer cooperation.