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#5 - On the Importance of 台湾: Maritime Vital Ground
台湾 - Tai2 Wan1 - The Independent Island Nation of Taiwan
The reason Taiwan is important is very simple; it is a very tall mountain surrounded by water. It seems that most people, even most strategists, entirely miss this basic point. At its apex, the mountainous spine of Taiwan (Yushan) is higher than Mount Fuji in Japan. Military forces operating in this terrain are able to hide from missiles and build hardened bases. Because of this, Taiwan dominates its surrounding maritime and air domains.
Any significant military force operating from such an advantageous geography is able to choke mainland China from its access to the sea. With roughly 20% of the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC’s) GDP tied to exports, and an overwhelming reliance on energy imports, Beijing is fundamentally not secure until it can control its own sea lines of communication.
This is why international spats over tiny islands in the south and east china sea produce such heat and friction. PRC leaders know they are not the masters of their own destiny and cannot chart a truly independent foreign policy until Beijing controls the seas and entrances of at least the first island chain. Anything less, and the US Navy will be able to blockade virtually all PRC maritime traffic.
The insular nature of Taiwan is also important. Since it is surrounded by water, Taiwan is spared from the possibility of PRC land forces maneuvering directly against its protective mountains. This is a major advantage, as China has traditionally been a land power, and not a maritime one (though this is changing). If Beijing desires to dislodge military forces on Taiwan, the People’s Liberation Army will be required to conduct an amphibious invasion against a tropical, urbanized locale with dug-in defenders. Theoretically, this could be the most difficult and complex operation in military history. This comes as quite a shock when simply viewing on the map how close Taiwan is to the Chinese mainland. Taiwan is a major impediment to PRC policy and conversely a major opportunity for the US.
Other arguments for Taiwan’s importance surely carry weight; but these arguments do not explain why this island is the point of maximum geostrategic friction between the PRC and the US. When either country contemplates the possibility of waging war on the other, it is the Taiwan scenario that both sides refer to and prepare for. Still, two alternative narratives are worth mentioning here.
The first is that the PRC seeks domination of all ethnically Han (Chinese) people and sees any alternative life outside of direct or indirect rule by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) as unacceptable. This line of thought is often expressed at the individual level in the PRC. When talking with locals, many PRC citizens will say something to the effect of “yes, having more rights would be great, but China has so many people and everyone is out for themselves. It would be too chaotic. I don’t trust other people.” This gives the CCP a blank check to rule as totalitarians.
The fact that Taiwan exists as a functioning democratic country shows that the Han can live as a free people. Some observers believe the existence of this alternative reality of a free China represents an existential threat to the PRC, which is primarily concerned with internal revolution. In this line of thinking, the simple existence of Taiwan as a free country undermines the CCP’s theory of totalitarian government.
The second narrative is that CCP leadership employs the Taiwan topic as a tool to create and control nationalist narratives domestically. These narratives are then employed to focus citizen’s attention on external enemy forces, unifying public opinion. This view may be entirely true, but holding it up as the main reason for Beijing’s stance is irresponsible for two reasons. First, the only people that really know the PRC’s strategic thinking and reasons for acting are the eight (7+1) men of the Politburo Standing Committee. These are the eight communist party members that truly run China. Their decision-making process and long term strategy are almost entirely opaque to US observers. It is professional malpractice for any China observer to claim he has high confidence in his judgment of the PRC’s intentions. Therefore, serious attention needs to be paid to the PRC’s capabilities instead. Second, this view, by assuming intentions, greatly minimizes the potential dangers to US interests by placing the locus of the PRC’s Taiwan obsession internally instead of externally, something which cannot be known.
Consequences for Strategic Competition:
Americans need to closely watch the military balance of power on both sides of the Taiwan Strait. The situation in this critical region dictates the health of US strategic interests throughout all of Asia. Policy regarding Taiwan should feature prominently in US presidential debates. The PRC cannot become a great power, super power, or true rival to the US until it controls Taiwan. The island serves as the most effective safeguard against PRC tyranny in the world. Washington would be remiss to not seriously address this fact. Small scale and half-hearted efforts done in secret will not openly and convincingly communicate US resolve to defend Taiwan. Substantial US forces must be based on the island while Beijing still lacks the capability to oppose the effort.
As long as Washington’s pledge to defend Taiwan remains ambiguous and US forces stationed on the island are inconsequential, a window of opportunity exists for factions of the CCP to seriously entertain invading. It is time to slam the window shut.