It is a mistake to see Chinese President Hu Jintao’s visit to Washington as an arc that will transcend the complexities of U.S.-Chinese relations, rather than one which should avow the prudent grounds for U.S policy in Asia on which the U.S. can sensibly and honorably stand. This means a policy that maintains beneficent American interest and presence in the western Pacific and effective concern for Taiwan — exchanging the strategic for the immediate is an exercise in foolishness not statecraft.
The U.S. has a great stake in Taiwan because of its strategic location, which becomes increasingly important as China’s regional ambitions become more open and assertive.
Just recently, Major General and Director of the Navy Information Expert Committee Yin Zhuo stated that
it will take the United States a fairly long period of time to return to Asia. Anti-terrorist wars still constrain U.S. power. … China needs to grasp this strategic opportunity firmly.
This statement is not unique. Indeed the entire knowing world has a very good idea of China’s expansionist aims in the South China Sea. There have been naval provocations with Japan, Indonesia, and the U.S., and Chinese statements that claim “core interests” in extra-territorial waters. In addition, there is unrepentant assistance to North Korea’s nuclear programs, and development of the Chinese military’s anti-ship ballistic missile to threaten American aircraft carriers in the western Pacific. These are but a few signs that Beijing hews to a very different role than the peaceful one it publicly claims.
Who can doubt the centrality of Taiwan on the chessboard into which Chinese diplomatic and military ambition is transforming the western Pacific? To deny China’s aims in the face of mounting evidence is to assume that our own vision of a bilateral relationship based exclusively on economic competition is shared by China. This is a fantasy. China sees both economic and strategic competition as the basis of relations with the United States. Taiwan, Australia, and Japan’s growing concern for their own security all concede the shifting strategic climate in Asia, and their recent military — especially naval — acquisitions prove it.
Taiwan is a democracy increasingly threatened by China’s enormous military buildup on the opposite end of the Taiwan Strait. The 2010 U.S. Department of Defense report “Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China” confirms that China’s military buildup across the Taiwan Strait is unmistakable and formidable. As the report notes, “China continues to deploy many of its most advanced systems to the military regions opposite Taiwan.”
Equally clear is Taiwan’s position as an enormous trading partner and financial stake holder in U.S. business and currency. This should remind every U.S. administration of America’s deep ties to Taiwan. The 1979 Taiwan Relations Act is also a powerful demonstration of the same. It requires us to maintain the capacity “to resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion that would jeopardize the security, or the social or economic system, of the people of Taiwan.”
Premier Hu’s visit is an appropriate occasion to remind ourselves that Taiwan’s strategic position in the South China Sea is especially important now — given China’s increasing assertiveness and aggressiveness. Taiwan’s strategic location is of the highest value for Chinese trade and military interests — and for ours as well. Taiwan is at an intersection of the two most important roads in town.
First, consider the position of China’s main sea ports vis-à-vis Taiwan. Shipping access to Qingdao, Shanghai, and its surrounding region — which supplies tens of millions of Chinese with oil and gas and supports the enormous manufacturing infrastructure of these cities — must pass through the Taiwan Strait. The Taiwan Strait is the choke point for all sea delivery routes north of Fuzhou.
Second, consider that Taiwan is the center point between Japan’s outlying islands and the Philippine mainland. As events have already shown, future Chinese assertiveness will most likely be at sea. Currently, Chinese sea lanes are restricted by South Korea, the Philippines, Malaysia, Taiwan, and a necklace of connecting islands. Japan faced similar strategic geographic restraints in World War II and solved them all by coercion in one form or another. Taiwan is a strong link in the extended island chain that stands sentinel over the approaches to and from the Pacific. Anyone with a map can see it.
We know that expansion, once it begins and accelerates, leads to either confrontation or acceptance of what cannot be changed. Xu Ke, a marine affairs expert at Xiamen University’s Institute of International Relations, said recently:
While the cooperation between the United States and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is still in its initial stage, China should use drastic measures in the South China Sea to take over the islands and reefs occupied by our neighboring small countries. As for the East China Sea, China may have to wait until China’s naval forces are strong enough before taking any drastic measures.
If the most immediate threat is by sea, then Taiwan is at the center of events. American diplomacy will try to make the best of an increasingly challenging relationship with China. American policymakers should never forget Taiwan’s central strategic position.
The Obama administration has so far been sparing with weapons sales to Taiwan. For example, it did not sell the fighter planes needed for a robust air defense, but the administration has realized Taipei’s legitimate need for improved defense against the bristling arsenal across the strait.
What seems to be missing is the larger consideration of Taiwan’s strategic importance. Weapons sales to Taiwan are a start in the right direction toward such an understanding. The extension of these arms sales to include F-16s would help. But a sturdier foundation for future relations with Taiwan depends on American leadership’s grasp that in addition to the democratic and diplomatic bonds that connect Washington and Taipei, China’s possible bid for regional hegemony has turned Taiwan into a strategic keystone in the western Pacific.