Taiwan has significant importance as a security factor in Sino-American relations, as well as in relations between Washington and Beijing and other nations in the Asia-Pacific region.
The policies assumed toward Taiwan by China and the United States are seen as indicators of the intentions of both superpowers. If the United States wavers too much in its support of Taiwan, other countries in the Western Pacific will ponder the level of American commitment toward regional security. If China pursues overly provocative policies toward Taiwan, Asian Pacific nations will see this as a warning that Beijing is hardening its position on regional issues.
The importance of other nations using Taiwan as an indicator of U.S. and PRC policies should not be underestimated. The United States cannot go it alone in Asia and needs confident, cooperative friends and allies to help protect American interests. China -- if it eventually is to play a key leadership role in Asia -- must be respected and trusted by its neighbors, most of whom have centuries of mixed experience with the Middle Kingdom and need reassurance of Chinese intentions.
PLA strategists often focus on Taiwan contingencies in their planning. Much of China's military modernization is built around the goals of preventing Taiwan from separating permanently from China and deterring American intervention on Taiwan's behalf. From the U.S. perspective, China's increasing ability to mount a successful attack against Taiwan drives many forward deployments in the Western Pacific.
The Asia Pacific is one of the most dynamic regions of the world, and the vital interests of both China and the United States require that they invest enormous power, prestige, and resources to protect those interests. The Pacific is no longer "an American lake," and the United States must give way to Chinese emergence as a top competitor for regional leadership and influence.
Because China is not a democracy and because it is pursuing hegemonic traditions from the past, it is very easy for many Americans to see the PRC not only as a competitor but also as a potential enemy. Many Chinese have mirror images of the United States. This is a fairly dangerous balance of power, and one of the tipping points is Taiwan.
China cannot let Taiwan go its separate ways; the United States cannot allow China to absorb Taiwan against the will of its people. A sustainable compromise on Taiwan -- taking into account the interests of China, the United States, Taiwan, and East Asian neighbors -- has yet to be found. And until such a solution is found, Taiwan will be front and center in security considerations in the Western Pacific.
November 26, 2011