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China's Regional Ambitions Threaten U.S. Allies

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.