Supporting Taiwan: A US-Japan-Australia Trilateral Alliance

This article was co-authored by Kuan-Ting Chen and Huynh Tam Sang (黃心光), a lecturer at Ho Chi Minh City University of Social Sciences and Humanities’ Faculty of International Relations, a research fellow at the Taiwan NextGen Foundation, and a non-resident WSD-Handa Fellow at Pacific Forum.


*** In January, the foreign and defense ministers of the US and Japan met virtually to discuss closer defense ties. The virtual meeting was in the spotlight as Washington and Tokyo are at loggerheads with China over Beijing’s growing coercive actions in the Indo-Pacific. The ministers highlighted the importance of peace and security in the Taiwan Strait and underlined the resolve to work closely to “deter and, if necessary, respond to regional destabilizing activities”. The virtual meeting promised a five-year agreement to share the cost of Washington’s military presence in Japan, to be signed in the forthcoming time. It would enhance the bilateral relationship and provide more impetus for Japan to prepare for any contingencies near its surroundings, including the waters around Taiwan.

Japan, Australia, and the US Japan’s determination, as evidenced in the Reciprocal Access Agreement (RAA) signed recently between Tokyo and Canberra, showed the East Asian power’s willingness to share the burden with the US while being ready to play a more vital role in preserving peace and stability in the region. Without a doubt, this defense pact aims to strengthen the quasi-alliance between Tokyo and Canberra, the two closest allies of the US in the region. This pact is also a major step towards equipping the two middle powers with a framework to protect themselves from Beijing’s aggression. Pundits are watching the enhanced relationship with cautious optimism as Taipei has figured prominently in Tokyo’s recent political discourse. In December, former Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe called for the sharing of new defense technologies between Japan, the US and Taiwan. In Abe’s words, military adventurism pursued by China “could be suicidal to say the least”, and the sharing of knowledge and technology could deter China from provoking and bullying Taiwan.

For its part, Australia has been more vocal in supporting Taiwan as well. In November 2021, Australian Defense Minister Peter Dutton said that the price of Australian support for Taiwan in a military conflict would be lower than the cost of inaction. Dutton also voiced an alarming signal: “If Taiwan is taken, surely the Senkakus are next”. It has come at a critical moment when Australia has been more in line with the US and Japan on the security in the Taiwan Strait. The Biden administration has sought to flex its muscles to deter Chinese menace in the Taiwan Strait, and described Taiwan as an “anchor” in its web of allies and partners in the Indo-Pacific. Such a move indicated the US’s inclusion of Taiwan “in a broader Asia strategy as opposed to limiting it as a subset of its China policy”, as pointed out by Russell Hsiao, executive director of the Global Taiwan Institute in Washington. Washington’s firm commitment to Taipei and its strengthened ties with Tokyo and Canberra could provide Taipei with leverage to stay unwavering amid Beijing’s reckless and assertive behavior. To manage the rise of China, US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan described a “latticework”—a multidirectional approach that America is forging to cooperate with its alliances and partnerships more effectively.

Strengthening the latticework for Taiwan With their shared commitment to regional security and prosperity, the US, Japan, and Australia are well-positioned to work more closely to strengthen their assurance for Taiwan’s security. As close allies of the US, Japan and Australia share the need to uphold the rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific region and are concerned about Beijing’s attempts to undermine regional security. Bilateral agreements, like the defense agreement between Japan and Australia, or AUKUS—a strategic defense alliance between Australia, the UK and the US—and potential military pack between the US and Japan are significant as they are indications of like-minded countries seeking to join hands to deter Beijing’s coercive activities. However, these pacts do not have Taiwan, or more specifically the support of Taiwan’s security and stability in the Taiwan Strait, at its core.

Additionally, Washington’s allies are worried about the reliability and long-term commitments of the superpower. To put it bluntly, President Richard Nixon’s troop withdrawal from South Vietnam in 1973 and the Biden administration’s Afghan pullout in 2021 both have some nuanced implications for its allies and partners. Last year, President Biden’s statements about defending Taiwan were welcomed, but also confusing and revealed a lack of discipline or planning. The good news is America has made tremendous efforts to re-engage with allies and rebuild its reputation in the Indo-Pacific under the slogan “America is back. Diplomacy is back.” As such, the incumbent US president needs a refreshing approach towards supporting Taiwan—Washington’s de facto ally. Seeking to strengthen ties between the US and its allies is not obsolete, but Washington should reframe this strategy to support Taiwan effectively.

Towards a trilateral alliance Seen this way, the US, Japan, and Australia should coordinate to explore initiatives to support Taiwan, which is a beacon of democracy and one of the essential determinants of economic resilience in East Asia. The trilateral alliance should match the focus of the three members, and more military spending seems to be a must to buttress their determination.

The potential trilateral alliance needs to be predicated upon shared values, moral standards, and prudent assessment. Additionally, dialogues organized to share mutual trust and potential frameworks between countries involved to address common challenges should be prioritized, particularly amid constraints of face-to-face diplomatic events caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

However, the US, Japan, and Australia should not take this chance for granted. These countries could face distractions from COVID-19 and obstacles to face-to-face summits. The spread of the highly infectious Omicron variant is surging in Australia, has been on an upward trend in Japan, and continues to send numbers of daily cases soaring in America. Though the Australian federal government has embraced a hardline stance towards China, some Australian officials have voiced concerns over a more determined approach aimed at deterring China. And due to the surge of COVID-19, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida announced his decision to abandon plans to visit the US and Australia. These hindrances could be addressed with the help of coordinated actions and goodwill from these like-minded countries. And the US should take the lead by engaging Japan and Australia in potential frameworks of cooperation. To put it shortly, this new security alliance formation requires the US’s leading role as the bandmaster.

It is critical that these three nations, a great power and two middle-sized powers, share the values of freedom and democracy with Taiwan. The multilateral cooperation between the three Asian-Pacific countries could provide a shield to defend Taiwan while fortifying their ties. This year is essential for a trilateral alliance embraced to cement the “status quo” in the Taiwan Strait as tensions rise sharply with Beijing’s intimidation.