Why Taiwan Matters
A small island of great strategic importance.
In this light, the continued lack of resolution over Taiwan has, in effect, been largely beneficial, rather than detrimental, to American grand strategy in Asia by focusing the PLA’s strategic attention, thus diverting it from potentially more ambitious undertakings overseas. If China gained control over Taiwan, the nature of its military competition with the United States would undoubtedly change, and take on a more global character. After having spent several decades focusing primarily on antiaccess and area denial, the PLA would now be able to invest more intensely in air and naval assets better suited for power projection. As Robert D. Kaplan
If China succeeds in, in effect, consolidating Taiwan, not only will its navy be in an advantageous strategic position vis-à-vis the first island chain, but [...] its national energies [...] will be just as dramatically freed up to look outward in terms of power projection, to a degree that has so far been impossible.
Proponents of offshore balancing argue that American grand strategy should return to its core roots, and limit its ambitions to preventing a peer competitor from gaining control over Eurasia. Forsaking Taiwan might paradoxically precipitate, rather than prevent, such an outcome.
Abandoning Taiwan would erode American credibility in the Indo-Pacific and add fuel to an ongoing regional arms race.
Taiwan policy cannot be compartmentalized, and viewed in isolation from the pivot and U.S. policy towards Asia. Decision-makers in Seoul, Tokyo, and Manila would naturally question U.S. resolve and Washington’s commitment to their security in the event of an abandonment of Taiwan. Japan, in particular, would feel threatened by the stationing of Chinese forces on Taiwan—in essence losing a valuable geopolitical buffer—in such close proximity to its southwestern approaches. Heightened threat perceptions in Tokyo, if combined with a lack of faith in the credibility of U.S. conventional and nuclear deterrence, could lead Japan to acquire a nuclear-weapons capability.
The corrosive effect of forfeiting Taiwan would also extend to other key allies such as South Korea, which might question Washington’s determination to defend it from North Korean aggression. Indeed, recent public-opinion polls have indicated that a growing proportion of the South Korean public now favors the development of a South Korean nuclear arsenal. Revealingly, the reasons invoked for such a shift were growing concerns over North Korea’s increasingly unpredictable and belligerent behavior, as well as over the continued viability of the United States’ security guarantee.
Meanwhile, smaller regional states might find themselves both disinclined to place their faith in the United States, and cowed into submission by a more self-assured and advantageously positioned China. An abandonment of Taiwan could thus lead to a creeping Finlandization—or rapid nuclearization—of large tracts of the Indo-Pacific, and, in time, to the sunset of American primacy in Asia. Taiwan, therefore, most certainly matters.
Iskander Rehman is a fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA) in Washington, DC.
Image: Wikimedia Commons/Luuva and Frye1989. CC BY-SA 3.0.