Why Taiwan Matters

February 28, 2014 Topic: DefenseSecurity Region: Taiwan

Why Taiwan Matters

A small island of great strategic importance.

Should the United States disengage from Taiwan? Why does the island democracy matter? Are America’s security commitments to the small, isolated, Republic of China (ROC) worth both the risk and the cost? China’s impressive economic and military rise, when viewed through the prism of America’s recent economic difficulties and bouts of domestic dysfunction, has engendered amongst certain U.S. elites an exaggerated sense of America’s decline. This declinist persuasion, has, in turn, added grist to the arguments of proponents of U.S. military retrenchment or offshore balancing, who believe that America’s commitment to Taiwan serves little to no strategic purpose. Meanwhile, the growing strength of isolationist sentiments amongst an American populace weary of costly overseas engagements has rendered it increasingly challenging for U.S. policymakers to muster popular support for U.S. actions in remote foreign locales. Summarizing these trends, leading academics, such as John Mearsheimer, have predicted that,

Given the fact the United States will eventually reach the point where it cannot defend Taiwan, there is a reasonable chance American policymakers will eventually conclude that it makes good strategic sense to abandon Taiwan and to allow China to coerce it into accepting unification.

Others point to the fact that Chinese elites regularly invoke the issue of U.S. arms sales to Taiwan as a major source of friction, and as the principal obstacle to deeper U.S.-China military-to-military ties and greater mutual trust between Washington and Beijing. Finally, a number of leading academics view the United States’ security commitment to Taiwan as a perilous strategic liability, which fans the flames of Sino-U.S. military competition. For these thinkers, Taiwan forms a dangerous and unnecessary flashpoint at the very heart of the Sino-U.S. relationship. Christopher Layne, one of the best-known proponents of offshore balancing, has argued that

An offshore balancing strategy would also require a new U.S. stance on Taiwan, a powder-keg issue because China is committed to national reunification and would regard a Taiwanese declaration of independence as a casus belli. If U.S. policy fails to prevent a showdown between China and Taiwan, the odds are that America will be drawn into the conflict because of its current East Asia Strategy… the issues at stake in a possible showdown between China and Taiwan simply would not justify the risks and costs of U.S. intervention.

Charles Glaser agrees with this assessment, cautioning that a “U.S. attempt to preserve its ability to defend Taiwan, meanwhile, could fuel a conventional and nuclear arms race… and leading to a general poisoning of U.S.-Chinese relations,” before concluding that

The United States should consider backing away from its commitment to Taiwan. This would remove the most obvious and contentious flashpoint between the United States and China and smooth the way for better relations between them in the decades to come.

At first glance, some of the arguments invoked by those in favor of abrogating the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) might appear compelling. Indeed, since the earliest days of the Taiwan-U.S. military relationship, U.S. decision makers have fretted over the risks of entrapment. To this day, the United States still struggles to calibrate its policy of “dual deterrence,” which seeks to not only deter China from aggressing Taiwan, but also to dissuade Taiwan’s leadership from sparking conflict by overtly declaring independence. Even the staunchest defenders of the U.S.-Taiwan relationship also recognize that the issue of U.S. arms sales to Taiwan remains a major irritant in Sino-U.S. relations. Nevertheless, despite the validity of these concerns, an abandonment of Taiwan would constitute a major strategic blunder for several reasons.

First, abandoning Taiwan would likely fail to improve the Sino-U.S. relationship. Second, the abandonment of Taiwan might considerably enhance China’s geostrategic position in Asia and endanger that of the United States and its allies. Last but not least, forsaking the small island democracy would severely erode American credibility in the Indo-Pacific, add fuel to an ongoing regional arms race, and encourage nuclear proliferation.

Abandoning Taiwan would likely fail to ameliorate the Sino-U.S. Relationship.

There are certain core issues troubling the Sino-U.S. relationship that extend far beyond the Taiwan Strait. Whether it is Beijing’s assertiveness towards its neighbors, some of whom, like Japan and the Philippines, are treaty allies of the United States, or issues related to cyber-espionage and human rights, the challenges currently testing the bilateral relationship are profound and numerous. China is a revisionist power—and its claims on the international system do not end with Taiwan. One should not surmise, therefore, that Sino-U.S. strategic competition would abate were the Taiwan issue to be resolved. Indeed, a growing body of work in the strategic studies community has suggested that Sino-U.S. tensions are more structural than conjectural, and are the natural result of the friction that traditionally occurs between rising and established powers.

Furthermore, while some may assume that China’s absorption of Taiwan might provide at least a symbolic first step towards a more stable and peaceful relationship between Washington and Beijing, this hypothesis also appears somewhat untenable. To the contrary, an American abandonment of Taiwan might only succeed in emboldening, and strengthening hardline elements within Beijing’s leadership, by providing a material confirmation of their long-held desire to see America progressively retreat from the Indo-Pacific theater. Bonnie Glaser and Nancy Bernkopf Tucker have expressed their concerns over such a development, cautioning that

A decision to jettison Taiwan, or even cut back significantly on U.S. support, would prove to an increasingly confident China that Washington has become weak, vacillating and unreliable…Accordingly, a U.S. sacrifice of Taiwan, while gratifying, could not thoroughly slake a continuing need for Beijing to demonstrate its power. Indeed, the sacrifice might promote new appetites and necessitate fresh efforts to satisfy that need.

Abandoning Taiwan might considerably enhance China’s military and geostrategic position in Asia, and severely weaken that of the United States and its allies.

Proponents of abandonment also tend to overlook the considerable geostrategic significance of Taiwan. Famously termed
“the cork in the bottle” of the South China Sea by Admiral Ernest King, and dubbed an “unsinkable aircraft carrier” by General Douglas MacArthur, Taiwan occupies an enviable position at the heart of maritime Asia, with the Luzon strait to its south, the East China Sea to its north, and the Philippine Sea to its East. As U.S. Naval War College professors James Holmes and Toshi Yoshihara have documented, Chinese strategists are well aware of Taiwan’s rarefied strategic location, and frequently refer to the island as the “Gibraltar of the East,” and as a future “springboard to the Pacific.” Authoritative Chinese writings such as The Science of Military Strategy
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If Taiwan should be alienated from the mainland, China will forever be locked to the west side of the first chain of islands in the West Pacific, and…the essential strategic space for China’s rejuvenation will be lost.

China clearly, therefore, views Taiwan as a highly valuable geostrategic asset, rather than merely as an unresolved territorial issue—and for good reason. Indeed, if China were to occupy Taiwan, Chinese naval and air forces could finally break out of the psychological and geographic barrier formed by what Chinese naval strategists commonly refer to as “the first island chain.” Moreover, China would be able to directly threaten Japan’s southwestern approaches, and potentially sever its air and sea lines of communication. After winning control over the Taiwanese islet of Itu Aba in the South China Sea, which forms the largest island in the Spratlys, the PLA would also be in a position to exert stronger pressure on smaller littoral states throughout maritime Southeast Asia. Chinese submarines stationed at the Taiwanese deep-water bases at Hualien and Su Auo would enjoy unfettered access to deep Pacific waters, both expanding their operational reach and rendering them more difficult to detect and prosecute in the event of conflict. U.S. forces might then find themselves wrestling with a similar challenge to that faced by the Royal Navy following the fall of France in World War II. Indeed, in the summer of 1940, German U-boats, which had previously been primarily confined to the North Sea and English Channel, were berthed in newly acquired deep-sea ports along the French Atlantic coastline. From these new bases along the Bay of Biscay, they could rapidly disperse into the deeper waters of the Atlantic Ocean, enabling them to pose a far greater threat to allied shipping. Chinese occupation of radar sites on Taiwan’s mountaintops would also allow the PLA to monitor and target American and Japanese naval deployments with greater ease. More importantly, notes one observer, “The Taiwan Strait would become an inland waterway,” allowing China to interdict the heavy flow of container traffic that transits through the strait on a daily basis.

Thus, in many ways, a Chinese occupation of Taiwan would amount to nothing less than a tectonic shift in the geostrategic balance of power in Asia, much as a successful Ottoman absorption of the isle of Malta would have transformed the entire equilibrium of forces in the Mediterranean of the sixteenth century. A “post-Taiwan” PRC would find its geostrategic position in Asia greatly strengthened, that of the U.S. and its allies considerably weakened, and would be at far greater liberty to coerce its neighbors. Moreover, history suggests that sudden territorial gains frequently foster desire amongst nationalistic elites for further expansion, particularly if the state in question harbors concerns over the security of its extended periphery or over its future vulnerability to economic disruption. As China’s resource penuries and dependence on seaborne energy imports continue to grow, this is an important element to keep in consideration.