Although cross-strait relations are principally a matter of concern to mainland China and Taiwan, with deep U.S. involvement because of its own regional interests, the Asia-Pacific community as a whole has considerable stake in a peaceful resolution of the Taiwan issue. These interests include assurances that Beijing will not pursue regional hegemony, and that Taipei will not precipitate a war with the mainland by rejecting the idea of a united China in the future.
These twin concerns -- that China not become a regional hegemon and that war be avoided in the Taiwan area -- are fundamentally important to continued growth, prosperity, and peace in the western Pacific region.
Countries all around the periphery of China view Beijing's policies toward Taiwan as an indicator of Chinese intentions toward other contested areas, which range from the tops of the Himalayas, to islands in the South China Sea, to the sea bed of the East China Sea. Because China is becoming a superpower and has historically dominated much of Asia, concerns over possible Chinese hegemony are one of the most important determinants of security policy for nations throughout the entire region. Too great of a pressure applied by Beijing to Taipei will be viewed as a harbinger of pressure elsewhere around China's borders. Since Chinese intentions in this regard are unclear, its neighbors are taking precautions, including the build-up of their military strength, insistence that territorial issues be addressed in a multilateral forum rather than bilaterally with Beijing, and a renewed interest in closer security cooperation with the United States.
The likelihood of war in the Taiwan Strait is considered small by most Asia-Pacific countries, but possible: one of those worst case scenarios whose consequences might be so severe that strategic planning is necessary. The problem is one of unanticipated escalation, in which China believes that it cannot afford to lose, Taiwan refuses to give in despite heavy loses, and the United States -- almost certain to intervene at some point -- decides it must inflict serious damage on PLA air, missile, and naval assets to prevent the island from being overwhelmed. Under these circumstances, U.S. forces would operate from bases in many countries around China (presenting a risk of horizontal escalation). Trade, communications, and economic development throughout the region would be very adversely impacted.
Such a war could have a major impact on the regional balance of power, with either a stronger or weaker, more aggressive or more peaceful China emerging. U.S. policy could similarly be affected. A significant realignment of the balance of power in the region would in turn compel many Asia-Pacific countries to adjust their own security and diplomatic postures.
Because of the uncertainties surrounding the Taiwan issue, Asian Pacific countries strongly prefer that the issue be settled peacefully and gradually with as little disruption to the status quo as possible. In some ways, the far-reaching implications of a conflict in the Taiwan Strait contribute to regional stability. (Who would benefit from such a conflict?) But the political, economic, and security fault lines running through the region are prone to slippage at almost any time.
March 31, 2012