The security of all nations is heavily influenced by geography, and the location of Taiwan is crucial to the security of eastern China.
Just as military forces on Hainan Island protect south China from potential aggression moving through the South China Sea, so the island of Taiwan protects east China from potential aggression transiting the vast area between southern Japan and Luzon in the Philippines.
As China becomes more dependent upon foreign trade and modernizes its navy to better protect its trade routes, territorial waters, and coastal regions, Taiwan's strategic importance to Chinese security interests grows.
As a major power, China cannot allow any foreign country to use Taiwan as a base of operations against the mainland or its trade. As an emerging global power, China must seek control of Taiwan as a forward operations base to project its defense further eastward into the Pacific. No Chinese strategic thinker can ignore the potential impact of Taiwan on the mainland's security.
In terms of Sino-American relations, China correctly perceives that Taiwan can be used -- actively or passively -- as a barrier to Chinese power projection capabilities. The United States does not have to maintain bases on Taiwan to use the island to help "contain" China. By its very geographic position, Taiwan outside of Beijing's control "restrains" the mainland's ambitions.
Conversely, it is not in current U.S. interests to see Taiwan controlled by China. Chinese political and military leaders understand that Taiwan's geographic position would enable China both to improve the security of its eastern provinces as well as to project Chinese power far into the Pacific. China's control of Taiwan would re-order the power equation in East Asia in such a way as to greatly enhance the prestige and influence of Beijing -- probably at the expense of Washington.
This poses several fundamental questions for the United States:
Is the United States willing to cede its pre-eminent position in East Asia to China?
Is continued U.S. support to Taiwan worth the cost in terms of sometimes difficult relations with Beijing?
Would American interests in Asia -- political, economic, security, human rights -- be strengthened or weakened by China's control of Taiwan?
Answers to these questions lead to significant policy choices for the United States. Greatly complicating U.S. policy are rapid political changes on both sides of the Taiwan Strait. As discussed in the next essay, these changes make it difficult to determine whether the United States should be proactive in seeking resolution to the Taiwan issue, continue its policy of calibrated support to Taiwan, or deliberately obstruct China's unification.
October 29, 2011