When Japan bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, it also simultaneously attacked the Philippines, triggering World War II in the Pacific. It was the opening salvo in the Japanese Empire’s campaign to invade and subjugate Southeast Asia in pursuit of its Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. The bombers were launched from the island of Taiwan, which was then under Japanese military rule. It was the jumping-off point for the attacks on both the Philippines and the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia). Throughout the war, Taiwan served as the staging area and major supply base that sustained Japan’s armies in Southeast Asia and as the control point for all shipping through the Taiwan Strait. The U.S. State Department at the time stated that strategically no location in the Far East, with the exception of Singapore, occupied such a controlling position. Taiwan’s geography tells the story.
Situated at the edge of the South China Sea’s shipping lanes, Taiwan is positioned 100 miles east of China. To the south it is 200 miles from the Philippines, 700 miles from China’s Hainan Island, and 900 miles from Vietnam and the Spratly Islands. It is linked to the north with the Ryukyu Islands, and lies 700 miles from Japan’s home islands. Historically, Taiwan’s pivotal location off the China coast and between Northeast and Southeast Asia has served a variety of strategic purposes for regional powers, both offensive and defensive. In the contemporary era, Taiwan remains geographically at the intersection of most of East Asia’s danger points. (Even a conflict on the Korean Peninsula could be impacted by operations that might be launched from Taiwan.)
Drawing on historical experience, the question is whether Taiwan would be as valuable a strategic asset to a potential aggressor in Asia today as it was for Japan in the 1940s. The only powers that presently threaten the peace and stability of the region are the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in Northeast Asia and its patron and protector, the People’s Republic of China, which has active ongoing disputes in both Northeast and Southeast Asia. Taiwan, which Beijing claims as an integral part of Chinese territory, would enhance China’s strategic position in both areas. Controlling Taiwan would facilitate China’s operations in the South China Sea and enable it to assert its territorial and maritime claims even more aggressively against the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Brunei.
Suddenly, China’s sweeping “nine-dash line” would become even more real and more easily enforceable by Beijing. Most of those 1600 ballistic missiles now targeting Taiwan and the U.S. Navy could instead be moved to Taiwan itself and re-targeted against the ships and territories of other Southeast Asian states as well as the shipping lanes used by world commerce. China would be in an enhanced advantageous position to make the South China Sea the “Chinese lake” it claims as a historical right.
Further, from China’s perspective, Taiwan is one of the critical links in the so-called “first island chain” that includes Japan, the Ryukyus, the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Australia. Beijing sees the navigational “choke points” between those islands as constraining the People’s Liberation Army’s naval access to the “second island chain” (Guam, the Marianas, the Palau island group and other small islands in the central Pacific) and from there into the open ocean far from China’s shores. China’s coastline in the East China Sea lacks the deep-water ports needed to service its naval bases located there. Its submarines must operate on the surface until they are able to submerge and dive deep when they reach the area of the Ryukus archipelagoes. If China controlled Taiwan, its submarines would have a far easier exit from Taiwan’s deep-water ports into the Pacific. They could present a new danger for Japan – which is totally dependent on the East Asia sea-lanes for its energy and other raw materials. Chinese submarines and an enhanced ability to project power into the Pacific could also present an increased threat to the U.S. Seventh Fleet, Guam, Hawaii, and even the West Coast of the United States. Moreover, to the extent China’s far-ranging navy would distract Washington and Tokyo and embolden North Korea’s already-reckless leader, it could directly endanger the security of South Korea.
From a purely naval and military perspective, control of the island of Taiwan would constitute a huge strategic asset for China and a threat to the region in both Southeast and Northeast Asia as well as to the United States. Chinese control of Taiwan, its technologically advanced economy, and control of the entrance to the South China Sea it would provide would have major economic, diplomatic, and political implications for the region. There would likely be a cascading effect as regional governments recalculate their self-interests in the face of an even more powerfully situated China. Singapore might well be intimidated into a more pro-China position, consolidating Beijing’s control of the South China Sea with Taiwan in the north and Singapore in the south. Denying China that asset and that leverage is clearly in the strategic security and economic interests of the countries of Southeast Asia, Japan, and the United States.
Yet, for a brief period after World War II, Washington seemed to lose sight of Taiwan’s strategic value, even after China itself fell to the Communists. Secretary of State Acheson’s famous National Press Club speech in January 1950 delineated America’s security perimeter in Asia but did not include either Taiwan or South Korea. Mao Zedong and Kim Il-sung – as well as their senior partner, Josef Stalin – interpreted the statement as indicating that the U.S. would not defend either country and saw a green light for their expansionist plans. Pyongyang moved first and invaded South Korea in June 1950. The Truman administration, which until then had effectively written off Taiwan’s security value to the United States, was shocked by the naked aggression and determined that it could not be allowed to stand. It organized an immediate U.N. Security Council resolution authorizing the multilateral use of force to defend South Korea. The president, fearing additional Communist advances in Asia, further reversed course by deploying the Seventh Fleet to deter a Chinese move against Taiwan. (It was also designed to block an attempt by Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek to try to re-ignite the Chinese Civil War. The Nationalists had promised to retake the mainland ever since they were expelled from China.) Truman’s statement explained the dramatic shift in U.S. policy on Taiwan in the context of the Cold War:
The attack upon Korea makes it plain beyond all doubt that Communism has passed beyond the use of subversion to conquer independent nations and will now use invasion and war. It has defied the orders of the Security Council of the United Nations issued to preserve international peace and security.
In these circumstances the occupation of Formosa by Communist forces would be a direct threat to the security of the Pacific area and to the United States forces performing their lawful and necessary functions in that area.
Accordingly I have ordered the Seventh Fleet to prevent any attack on Formosa. As a corollary of this action I am calling upon the Chinese government on Formosa to cease all air and sea actions against the mainland. The Seventh Fleet will see that this is done.
The United States was now explicitly committed to the defense of Taiwan against Chinese aggression – as well as to stability in the Taiwan Strait that might be threatened by military action from Taiwan. The rationale had less to do with protecting Chiang Kai-shek or even the Taiwanese people than with Taiwan’s geopolitical position in East Asia and America’s own strategic interests. General Douglas MacArthur, who was responsible for the postwar transitional administration of Japan, expressed the U.S. position in stark terms:
I believe if you lose Formosa, you lose the key to our littoral line of defense . . . the Philippines and Japan both would be untenable from our military point of view.
[F]rom our standpoint we practically lose the Pacific Ocean if we give up or lose Formosa. . . . We do not need Formosa for bases or anything else. But Formosa should not be allowed to fall into red hands.
If the enemy secured Formosa and secured thereby the Pacific Ocean, that would immeasurably increase the dangers of that ocean being used as an avenue of advance by any potential enemy.
‘Unsinkable Aircraft Carrier’
MacArthur later called Taiwan “an unsinkable aircraft carrier.” He meant for China, since it was clear that Washington did not envision Taiwan as a forward base for offensive operations against China or any other power. Instead, it was a potential strategic asset for China that could be used as a platform for aggression against Taiwan and other U.S. interests in the region. In 1954, China shelled the islands of Quemoy and Matsu in what became known as the First Taiwan Strait Crisis. The U.S. responded by entering into a formal mutual defense treaty with the Republic of China on Taiwan (as well as with the Republic of Korea after the end of its war with the North).
President Dwight D. Eisenhower described the reason for the Taiwan defense treaty as follows:
In unfriendly hands, Formosa and the Pescadores would seriously dislocate the existing, even if unstable, balance of moral, economic, and military forces upon which the peace of the Pacific depends. It would create a breach in the island chain of the Western Pacific that constitutes for the United States and other free nations, the geographical backbone of their security structure in that ocean.
In addition, this breach would interrupt north-south communications between other important elements of that barrier, and damage the economic life of countries friendly to us.
It was clear that both Republican and Democratic administrations saw Taiwan’s strategic value in the same light. The Joint Chiefs of Staff at the time put it this way:
The geographic location of Formosa is such that in the hands of a power unfriendly to the United States it constitutes an enemy salient in the very center of our defensive perimeter, 100 to 150 miles closer to the adjacent friendly segments–Okinawa and the Philippines–than any point in continental Asia
So, even at the time when the U.S. and the Republic of China had a formal mutual defense pact, the U.S. consistently viewed Taiwan primarily as an important strategic asset that must not be allowed to fall under Beijing’s control, rather than as a staging point for offensive operations against China or other potential adversaries in Asia. That thinking has carried forward to the current period, but it could well change as China’s recent expansionist policies in Northeast and Southeast Asia threaten America’s allies and increase the likelihood of a China-U.S. confrontation.
The Second Taiwan Strait Crisis in 1958 saw a resumption of Chinese bombardment of the offshore islands. The defense of Quemoy and Matsu became an issue in the 1960 presidential campaign as both Vice President Richard Nixon and Senator John Kennedy pledged to defend Taiwan against Chinese aggression. The Taiwan-China and U.S.-China standoffs over Taiwan continued for the next decade-and–half with the Seventh Fleet serving as the enforcer in the Taiwan Strait, through the administrations of both parties. Taiwan reciprocated as a loyal ally during the 1960s, providing logistic, intelligence, and other support to the United States during the Vietnam War.
The situation changed dramatically with President Nixon’s opening to China in 1972, made in order to play the China card against the Soviet Union and to win Beijing’s support for an honorable American exit from Vietnam. Nixon and his national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, were so intent on enlisting China as a strategic partner against the Soviets that they began making concessions on Taiwan even before Nixon visited China –violating their so-called “realist” principles about never giving up something without getting something in return. Nixon withdrew the Seventh Fleet from the Taiwan Strait and began removing all remaining U.S. military facilities from Taiwan.
Then came the Shanghai Communique, Beijing’s “one China” principle that Taiwan is part of China, and Washington’s “one China policy” that it is up to China and Taiwan to work out the relationship peacefully. The U.S.-Taiwan Mutual Defense Treaty remained in effect for the time being, but the handwriting was on the wall for Taiwan’s fate within the international community. Seven years later, the Carter administration recognized the People’s Republic of China, severed formal diplomatic relations with Taiwan and terminated the 1954 defense treaty. Once again, Taiwan’s strategic value was ignored by a presidential administration in Washington more intent on cultivating good relations with China.
Taiwan Relations Act
The U.S. Congress, however, had a different perspective on Taiwan’s future and passed the Taiwan Relations Act “to declare that peace and stability in the area are in the political, security, and economic interests of the United States, and are matters of international concern.” The Act stated that its further purpose was “to make clear that the United States decision to establish diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China rests upon the expectation that the future of Taiwan will be determined by peaceful means.”
To help deter China’s use of force against Taiwan, the TRA also obligated the United States to provide Taiwan with all necessary defensive arms. Congress considered the Act essential to undo some of the harm caused by Carter’s abrogation of the Mutual Defense Treaty, which had kept the peace for a quarter of a century. But it fell slightly short of renewing the iron-clad American commitment to come to the defense of Taiwan that the Defense Treaty guaranteed.
The opportunity to affirm that kind of strong and clear U.S. commitment to Taiwan came when China reacted to a U.S. visit by then-President Lee Teng-hui in 1995 and to Taiwan’s first direct presidential election in 1996 by firing missiles toward the island and closing the Taiwan Strait and the airspace above it to world commerce. On the first occasion, President Bill Clinton sent two aircraft carrier battle groups through the Strait, the first time the U.S. Navy had traversed it since Nixon withdrew the Seventh Fleet 23 years earlier. China vehemently protested the incursion into what it considered Chinese waters. Washington, instead of simply informing Beijing that the U.S. and other nations have every right to be there under international law, said the transit was the result of a weather diversion, implicitly conceding that China’s consent was required.
In December 1995, Chinese officials asked Assistant Secretary of State Joseph Nye directly what the U.S. would do if China attacked Taiwan. Instead of invoking and strengthening the Taiwan Relations Act by saying the U.S. would assist Taiwan’s self-defense, Nye’s response was: “We don’t know and you don’t know. It would depend on the circumstances.” A few months later, Taiwan held its first direct presidential election and China showed its displeasure once again by lobbing missiles toward Taiwan, this time straddling both sides of the island. And once again, Clinton dispatched a carrier battle group to the region. But this time, Beijing warned that any ships entering the Strait would find “a sea of fire” (a favorite threat of Northeast Asia Communist regimes as well as the one in Iran). Washington got the message and the ships stayed out – not just then but for the next decade.
It was only when the Defense Department reviewed its Freedom of Navigation program in 2006 that the U.S. Navy began sending its ships back through the Taiwan Strait, always over Chinese objections. On 2007, after Beijing suddenly revoked a scheduled goodwill U.S. port visit to Hong Kong, the Kitty Hawk battle group returned to Japan by going through the Strait. China strongly condemned the passage and Admiral Timothy Keating, head of the U.S. Pacific Command, responded: “We don’t need China’s permission to go through the Taiwan Strait. We will exercise our free right of passage whenever we need to – correct that – whenever we choose to.”
The incidents demonstrate that it is not only the island of Taiwan that is of critical strategic importance, but also the Taiwan Strait. Any conflict across the Strait would have a major impact on both naval and commercial passage. If China controlled both sides of the Strait, it would have a stranglehold on that international waterway.
There is another aspect to Taiwan’s security dimension related to its geostrategic location – its role in humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, both as a recipient and a provider of HADR. The Asia-Pacific is subject to some of the world’s worst weather and natural disasters. When Typhoon Morakot struck Taiwan in 2009, the U.S. Seventh Fleet sent ships and aircraft to come to the aid of the Taiwanese people. In 2011, when the earthquake and tsunami devastated Fukushima, Taiwan immediately dispatched rescue teams and technical personnel and was the largest financial contributor to Japan’s recovery effort. When the Philippines suffered the impact of Typhoon Haiyan in 2013, Taiwan responded quickly with major assistance. Taiwan has consistently responded to HADR needs around the world from Indonesia’s 2004 tsunami, to Haiti’s earthquake in 2010, the Western Sahara’s drought in 2013, and other natural disasters in Asia and elsewhere.
To summarize, Taiwan’s strategic importance from a military, economic, and humanitarian assistance standpoint is clear, even though there have been historical periods when U.S. administrations of both parties have seemed to minimize it for what they saw as the greater goal of accommodating the Chinese government. Since the 1980s, however, the people of Taiwan have added an entirely new dimension to the country’s value to the West. Taiwan’s political opposition, and eventually its leaders, recognized that once official U.S. diplomatic relations had shifted from Taipei to Beijing because of considerations of realpolitik, its salvation as a viable de facto independent entity depended on moral and political values. Taiwan’s phased, planned transition to democracy meant that Washington and the West no longer had the easy “realist” rationale – that is, that the Taiwan policy dilemma was merely a matter of choosing a small, friendly dictatorship or trying to improve relations with a larger, formerly hostile one. Now Americans, and Japanese, could look at Taiwan as a moral and political soul mate, certainly by contrast to a country ruled by the Chinese Communist Party.
For the same reason, Taiwan now became even more of a bone in Beijing’s throat as a model of democratic governance in a Chinese society, undermining the myth that democracy and Confucianism are incompatible. The potential internal pressure for political reform in China increased during the 1980s, culminating in the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre. Given those geopolitical stakes regarding the future of Taiwan, the U.S. commitment enshrined in the Taiwan Relations Act took on even greater strategic significance for the United States.
When President Barack Obama announced what he called the U.S. “pivot to Asia” before the Australian parliament in 2011, he linked America’s strategic interests to the success of democracy in the region and pledged “every element of American power” to achieving “security, prosperity, and dignity for all.” That places Taiwan and its democratic future at the strategic epicenter of America’s moral and political commitment to the region. U.S. credibility is now tied inextricably to Taiwan’s fate, with or without an explicit defense commitment in the TRA. Any weakening of American resolve to ensure Taiwan’s continued security would significantly undermine that credibility throughout the region among friends, allies, and most critically, our adversaries.
Those who argue that the Taiwan game is not worth the candle fail to grasp how much weight other countries in the region place on America’s commitment to Taiwan as a bell-weather of U.S. reliability should any of them come under increased coercive pressure or outright hostility from China. They see the U.S. as the necessary balancer to China’s military buildup and expansionist policies and Taiwan is the number one test case of U.S. will.
That is why the U.S. declarative policy of “strategic ambiguity” needs to change sooner rather than later. Washington’s refusal to make an explicit public commitment to not only provide Taiwan with defensive weapons but to come actively to its defense sows doubts in the region. Worse, it encourages China to continue pursuing its anti-access, area denial strategy of deploying attack submarines and ballistic missiles to deter, delay, or defeat any U.S. intervention in a cross-Strait conflict. After all, Washington has said ever since 1995 that it might or might not defend Taiwan depending on the circumstances. So Beijing has been creating the circumstances to affect that calculus. Would it have invested so much of its national wealth and effort to an anti-Taiwan strategy if the U.S. had made it clear back in 1995 that an attack on Taiwan would certainly mean military conflict, possibly all-out war with the United States? Whatever their faults, Chinese leaders are not suicidal. Yet, some experts argue that a clear declarative policy statement is unnecessary and “passé.” According to that thesis, China has been told in no uncertain terms in various private meetings of the U.S. commitment to defend Taiwan so, they argue, it is already being deterred from taking action against Taiwan.
There are several flaws in that analysis. First, it is highly implausible that a U.S. commitment to go to war with China could be made behind closed doors without the American public being informed. Second, any commitment that is not made publicly lacks credibility precisely because American prestige is not on the line – a secret red line is especially evanescent. Third, China observed with interest what happened when, for one brief shining moment, strategic clarity broke through U.S. policy. After the EP-3 incident in April 2001, President George W. Bush was asked what the U.S. would do to defend Taiwan against a Chinese attack; he replied “whatever it takes.” That unambiguous statement sent shock waves through the China specialist community. White House and State Department officials rushed to “clarify” that U.S. policy had not changed. Fourth, much as Chinese leaders complain about U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, they understand that Washington has deferred to their sensibilities in both the quantity and quality of the weapons transferred. Taiwan is consistently denied the advanced systems it requests: F-16 CDs, F-35s, diesel submarines. Fifth, Beijing has reason to doubt Americans’ will and staying power in any serious military confrontation with China. After all, China has had first-hand experience facing America’s conduct of limited war in Korea and Vietnam. It has also observed U.S. strategic planners’ penchant for “off-ramps” on the escalatory ladder – even with non-kinetic means like sanctions, particularly against a major power, as in the case of Iran over its nuclear program or Russia over Ukraine. China’s leaders may well calculate that, even if here is an initial U.S. response to a Chinese move and Beijing demonstrates a willingness to escalate the crisis over its core interest, it will be Washington that will blink first.
This question will become less theoretical as Taiwan’s 2016 election approaches. If the candidate of the Democratic Progressive Party appears to have a reasonable prospect of winning, let alone if he or she is favored, Beijing may see its last chance at peaceful unification receding out of reach. At that point, as China’s leaders from Mao Zedong on have made clear, Beijing will not hesitate to resort to the use of force. That threat was codified in China’s 2005 Anti-Secession Law, which threatened war if Taiwan declared formal independence or took actions toward that end. But the ASL went beyond warning Taiwan against taking affirmative pro-independence action; it also threatened Taiwan for failing to act in accordance with China’s wishes. It states: “In the event that . . . possibilities for a peaceful reunification should be completely exhausted, the state shall employ non-peaceful means and other necessary measures to protect China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.” In other words, both de jure and de facto independence (Taiwan’s present status quo) are unacceptable to Beijing and would justify going to war.
However, the ASL provides the following assurance to the people of Taiwan:
In the event of employing and executing non-peaceful means and other necessary measures . . . the state shall exert its utmost to protect the lives, property and other legitimate rights and interests of Taiwan civilians and foreign nationals in Taiwan, and to minimize losses.
The ultimate security question that confronts strategic planners in Taipei and Washington is when Beijing may decide that the possibility for peaceful unification is completely exhausted and that it is time to rely on the use of force. Xi Jinping said recently that the Taiwan question cannot be deferred from one generation to another. It is no secret that China strongly prefers Taiwan’s KMT government over a political opposition that takes decidedly pro-independence positions. In the 2016 presidential election, the DPP presently seems to have at least an even chance of being returned to office. Should that happen, would Beijing decide at that point that it cannot accept continuing to defer peaceful unification for at least another four years and that Taiwan has had long enough to accept the rule of the Chinese Communist Party? The answer to that question will have serious implications for the peace and stability of the region.
Joseph A. Bosco is a member of the U.S.-China task force at the Center for the National Interest and a senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He previously served as China country desk officer in the office of the secretary of Defense from 2005-2006.