Why We Need Taiwan

Don't listen to the pundits. The United States cannot afford to abandon Taiwan.

A spate of articles, op-eds and comment pieces have appeared in the U.S. press and academic journals in recent months arguing that Taiwan is not important to America and/or isn’t worth fighting China over, that the United States cannot afford to spend more on its military (which it has to in order to protect Taiwan), and that Taiwan should be abandoned.

Some, a lot fewer, have come to Taiwan’s defense and argue otherwise.

There are numerous arguments to be made that Taiwan is an ally that should be kept. It is a democracy. It is sovereign. It is faithful to the United States, etc.

The critical case to be made, however, is—or at least should be—that Taiwan is strategically important to the United States.

I believe there are two good arguments to be made for Taiwan’s strategic importance: One comes from looking at the history of the United States. The other from geopolitics.

In December 1890, the United States Army won a battle against American Indians at Wounded Knee in South Dakota. This battle marked the end of the Indian Wars and meant that the United States could focus on external matters since it had finally consolidated its territory in the west.

Within ten years of Wounded Knee, the United States was on the way to becoming a world power. In 1898, the U.S. Navy won the Spanish American War. It acquired the Philippines and Guam as a result. The same year, the U.S. incorporated Hawaii and signed a tripartite agreement on Samoa.

In 1900, America made Wake Island its territory. Shortly after the United States started building the Panama Canal.

The expansion of the U.S. Navy was vital to all of this happening. And it continued. By the end of WWI, the U.S. Navy was the world’s largest. It built aircraft carriers that were the game-changing weapon in the Pacific during World War II, and in 1945, the U.S. had a fleet of 1,600 ships; no other nation was close to competing with America.

China’s reunification of Taiwan will be its Wounded Knee. It will no longer need to focus on territorial matters and will doubtless look to realize power ambitions further from its shores.

Its navy has already, for twenty years, been the benefactor of large budget increases (bigger than the air force or army), indicating China’s naval power (enhanced by the recent addition of an aircraft carrier) is ready to break out.

This relates to the second argument, the geopolitical one.

Looking at its geography, China is “contained” by a proximate chain of islands extending southward from Japan, through the Ryukyu’s, Taiwan, the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia and Australia.

To get into the Pacific Ocean, China’s naval vessels must go through one of various choke points between these islands. Its merchant marine (as well as its navy), in order to sail to the Middle East and Africa where China acquires most of its energy and natural resources, must go south through the Strait of Malacca, which is equally constraining.

Some strategists refer to the island chain in East Asia as the “Great Wall in reverse.” China’s naval officers and strategists see China as “boxed in.” Clearly geography does not favor China in its goal of expanding its influence into the Pacific Ocean.

If Taiwan were to become part of China, this would change. China’s navy would no longer be hemmed in. As a matter of fact, it would be able to extend its reach to the “second island chain”—Guam, the Marianas and some other small islands in the central Pacific—not much of a barrier.

Very important, Taiwan’s east-coast ports would give China’s submarines, which are a mainstay of its navy, a huge benefit. From Taiwan, they would be able to quickly get into deep water where they could not be detected and could proceed to the American west coast to show their wares and threaten the United States.

Both these factors, particularly taken together, suggest that Taiwan is important to the United States. Critically important.