#27 - The Fulcrum of Asia
Why Taiwan Matters more than Ukraine, CENTCOM, or any other place in the world
This article is authored by Vermilion and was originally posted in a Lethal Minds Special Bulletin. You can find it here.
From the perspective of the United States’ national interest, Taiwan matters for one paramount reason: its unchangeable geography naturally dominates the littoral, air, sea, and subsea spaces of the first island chain. Taiwan’s extreme height and plunging depth make it of vital military operational importance.
The island of Taiwan boasts five mountain ranges with a total of 258 peaks over 3,000 meters (9,800 ft). The tallest peak of Yushan is higher than Mt Fuji or any other mountain in Japan, Korea, the Philippines, or neighboring Fujian, China. These five mountain chains act as a giant protective shield, blocking the radar waves that military forces use to locate and fire upon each other. The force in control of the mountains can use this shield to protect their vulnerable points while being able to clearly identify targets in the air, land, and on the sea surface from the high ground.
Taiwan’s underwater geography is equally critical. Off the east coast of the island, the ocean floor drops 4,000 meters (13,123 ft) into the open sea. It is far more difficult to track submarines in these deep waters than in the Taiwan Strait (on the west side of the island) which reaches depths of a mere 70 meters. Submarines are likely the key to command of the sea in the future, and subs able to fight from Taiwan’s deep eastern waters are in a better position to dominate this area. The constricted channels north and south of Taiwan are ideal places to employ acoustic sensors that can easily detect submarines. This means that the military force which controls Taiwan is easily able to locate subs near the island, one of the most difficult problems in modern warfare.
Taiwan is clearly the defensive arch stone of the first island chain. If both the US and Taiwan operate military forces from the island, freedom of navigation throughout Asia is assured. If necessary, Taiwan’s advantageous position can constrict maritime traffic transiting the Chinese seaboard between Hong Kong and Shanghai, an area that contains 6 of China’s largest ports. Additionally, the flow of commerce to Japan and South Korea sails directly under Taiwan’s shadow.
If Beijing seized Taiwan, the defensive chain would be broken. China would be secure in the defense of its own littoral. This would allow the PLA to move significant military force onto the island, directly influencing the second island chain. This threat then immediately becomes a domestic problem for the US. Guam would be at high risk and nearby US possessions would likely be indefensible, given their small size and lack of larger supporting land areas.
Japan’s southwest islands (including Okinawa, which currently bases tens of thousands of US troops) would be in an equally indefensible position since these islands are Taiwan’s maritime neighbors. The Philippines’ Batanes and Luzon provinces (the northern portion of the country) would similarly be in danger.
The potential loss of Taiwan leaves US and allied forces with far less defensible basing options, throwing major uncertainty into Washington’s ability to credibly deter or take the fight to China. The US would not possess the capability to sustain command of the seas throughout the first island chain, which serves as the foundation for the free movement commerce throughout Asia. While the military operational significance of Taiwan cannot be overstated, there are several important follow-on effects that must also be considered.
First, if Beijing were to occupy Taiwan, it would gain major economic leverage over Washington’s most important Asian allies. Japan is completely dependent on imported energy, being the world's largest importer of coal and liquefied natural gas, as well as the second largest importer of oil. South Korea is also dependent on imported energy. With the island under its control, Beijing could realistically contemplate turning off or taxing the flow of maritime commerce and energy which predominantly travels near Taiwan. Washington, Tokyo, and Seoul should immediately plan and invest in energy infrastructure and trade deals intended to supply US energy to Japan and Korea should crisis strike, ameliorating the painful energy shocks which are currently reshaping the European economic landscape.
Second, where Beijing has local military dominance, predatory behavior follows. With a stronger hand in Asia, China would begin to coerce US allies and distort the international rules of trade and governance to their own short-term advantage. The Chinese Communist Party’s enthusiastic embrace of concentration camps, employment of forced and slave labor, adopting corruption as a diplomatic tactic, and predatory economic assistance would only be the beginning. Not out of the question would be a follow-on land-grab in the region similar to what Beijing already executed in the South China Sea and Bhutan. We should listen to China when it constantly and stridently asserts that it has the right to regulate land and seas that are in fact governed by other countries, including Indonesia, Japan, Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Taiwan. Aggressive bullies are unlikely to be appeased, which requires the US and Taiwan to coordinate much closer on defense matters.
Even with all the advantages Beijing enjoys in a war over Taiwan, there is one ground truth fact. The PLA must send its forces over water to a very limited number of suitable landing beaches. Therefore, an amphibious assault is required, which is possibly the most difficult and complex of all military operations. For every defending soldier, the PLA must deliver three or more attacking soldiers to maintain a realistic chance of victory. Not maintaining a high enough force ratio in the attack is exactly the mistake that led to Russia’s failed opening offensives in the Ukraine War.
Important to consider in the defense is geography. Insular, mountainous, urban, and jungle covered Taiwan offers the perfect ground to dig in and defend. By stationing significant ground forces on Taiwan, the US is able to inexpensively turn the tables and upend the PLA’s military planning assumptions. With enough US ground combat units, PLA plans for an amphibious invasion move from highly risky to plainly unrealistic. Stationing a strong ground deterrent is more cost-effective than relying on expensive and vulnerable naval and air platforms to arrive at the last minute and employ only fires to affect enemy operations. Ultimately, Beijing would be blocked from moving combat power eastward, safeguarding the entire Pacific theater.
As far as other arguments advocating for Taiwan’s importance, Elbridge Colby perhaps comes closest to the mark when he discusses why Taiwan matters. Taking a high-level grand strategic view, Colby worries that Beijing is attempting to dominate Asia economically and diminish the US, dimming the prosperity of future generations of Americans. Colby believes that Taiwan is important because it is both militarily critical and a bellwether for international perceptions about US power.
Other arguments tend to focus on economic benefit, normative values, or a clash of governance philosophies, but they miss the point entirely. Taiwan is important for purely military reasons and is currently and for the foreseeable future the fulcrum of the Pacific. The US seized ideal defensive positions across the Pacific at an enormous cost in blood and treasure during WWII. Washington has held these positions since 1945, guaranteeing a free Asia from the Cold War to the present. Forfeiting Taiwan would break this defensive chain and squander over 75 years of thoughtful American policy and investment. At the dawn of this new century, the future of the Pacific and the entire world revolves around this mountainous island of free peoples. The US is compelled by national interest and a righteous sense of justice to defend it.