Taiwan as a Strategic Factor in Sino-American Relations

American perceptions of Taiwan’s strategic value have changed over the years since the end of World War II. During the Cold War, from as early as 1950, Taiwan was considered an important link in the U.S. containment strategy against Communist China. Toward the end of the Cold War, especially during the early 1980s, Taiwan was viewed by many Americans as a negotiable pawn to be used to advance Sino-American strategic cooperation against the Soviet Union. Today, Taiwan’s strategic value appears to be increasing as a result of China becoming a strategic competitor to the United States in the Indo-Pacific area.

From China’s perspective, Taiwan is Chinese territory and is destined to be reunited with the mainland as part of one China. Taiwan’s strategic value is arguably higher to China than to the United States, because of the island’s proximity to China’s eastern shore. Like Hainan to the south, Taiwan is seen by China as a natural offshore guardian of the mainland. Taiwan also is located close to the sea lanes connecting Northeast Asia with Southeast Asia, the Indian Ocean, and beyond. Taiwan is at the northern entrance to the South China Sea, much of which Beijing claims as its territorial waters. A glance at any map of the region will reveal the strategic importance of Taiwan to China as a potential forward base to defend the eastern provinces and to project power into areas surrounding southern Japan, northern Philippines, and eastward into the blue water of the Pacific. Chinese missile, naval, and air bases on Taiwan could pose significant challenges to U.S. security, geopolitical, and other critical interests in the Western Pacific. Because of its national security interests, China will almost certainly consider developing such bases should it gain control of Taiwan, regardless of any international agreements to the contrary.

A review of Chinese commentary suggests that Taiwan is vital to China in several ways: (1) Taiwan is the last major territory seized from China that must be returned in order to effect the nation’s reunification; (2) Taiwan is home to the last major obstacle to the Communist Party of China (CPC) in asserting its control over all of China; (3)Taiwan is well positioned as a communications and financial hub for all of Eastern Asia; (4) Taiwan controls vital shipping lanes in the Western Pacific; (5) in hostile hands, Taiwan would be an ideal base from which to attack China; (6) Taiwan is used by the United States in its strategy to contain the People’s Republic of China (PRC); (7) Taiwan must be denied to the United States and Japan to prevent these nations from dividing and weakening China; (8) Taiwan is the key to an effective defense of eastern China; (9) Taiwan is China’s natural gateway to the Pacific for its growing blue-water navy; and (10) Taiwan is essential to China if Beijing is to be able to project military force into the Pacific in the future.

Strategists on both sides of the Taiwan Strait have also been fairly specific about the circumstances under which the PRC would likely use force against Taiwan. The most commonly cited of these circumstances include: (1) if Taiwan moves toward independence; (2) if social chaos occurs on Taiwan; (3) if foreign countries intervene in Taiwan affairs; (4) if Taipei refuses over a long period of time to negotiate unification with Beijing; and (5) if Taiwan develops nuclear weapons. These triggering circumstances suggest that the primary PRC concerns are Taiwan’s permanent separation from the mainland and Taiwan’s use as a foreign military base of operations against China. Two additional hypothetical triggers have been discussed at times: (6) if Taiwan’s defenses, including the ability of the U.S. to intervene effectively, become too weak vis-a-vis China’s military capabilities; and (7) if the Nationalist Party (Kuomintang, or KMT) on Taiwan experiences a resurgence in popularity sufficient to threaten the legitimacy of the CPC on the mainland. 

Recognizing the sensitivity of the Taiwan issue, wanting to avoid military confrontation with Beijing, and desiring to continue friendly and supportive ties with Taiwan have been major considerations behind U.S. strategy and policy towards Taiwan. This policy is encapsulated in the 1979 and 1982 U.S.-PRC joint communiques and the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act (TRA). The communiques recognize the PRC as the legitimate government of China, commit the United States to a “one China” policy, and limit U.S. arms sales to Taiwan. The TRA provides the legal basis for the unofficial relationship between the United States and Taiwan, and enshrines the U.S. commitment to assist Taiwan in maintaining its defensive capability. Essentially, U.S. strategy and policy towards the Taiwan  issue since 1979 have been designed to oppose any unilateral changes to the status quo by either side, to encourage the peaceful resolution of cross-Strait differences, and to encourage both sides to continue their constructive dialogue on the basis of dignity and respect. 

Although the United States no longer maintains a formal military presence on Taiwan, it has sold or transferred several billions of dollars worth of defensive equipment to Taipei since 1979. Perception of the strategic importance of Taiwan is an understated driver in the continuation of American defensive support to Taipei to help ensure to the extent possible that China will not attempt to gain control of the island through force.

Friendly and supportive ties between the United States and Taiwan ought not to be viewed as part of an American strategy of “containing” China; nor should these ties be interpreted as an effort by the United States to permanently separate Taiwan from China. Rather, the ties between the United States and Taiwan can best be described as part of a U.S. “hedging” strategy to ensure Taiwan does not become a flash-point in U.S.-PRC relations. The best way to avoid confronting such a flash-point is for the U.S., PRC, and Taiwan to maintain the basic framework of the status quo in the Taiwan Strait. Such a strategy will likely remain viable until China and Taiwan settle their differences peacefully, and Sino-American relations evolve from strategic competition to strategic cooperation in the Indo-Pacific area. These conditions may require several more decades before becoming a reality, since they involve consideration of the interests of all major stakeholders in the Taiwan issue. The major stakeholders and their primary interests might be summarized as follows:

  • * The interests of China must be protected by firm commitments from Taipei that Taiwan is part of China and that it will not seek to become an independent country, separate from China, and from Washington that the United States will not support Taiwan independence.
  • * The interests of Taiwan must be protected by guarantees of its autonomy from communist rule, a respectful place in the international community, security from threat or intimidation, and freedom from U.S. pressure to accommodate Beijing on China’s unification.
  • * The interests of the United States must be protected by peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait region, relations with both the mainland and Taiwan handled in a manner consistent with the joint communiques and the TRA, and assurances that both sides of the Taiwan Strait are committed to a gradual, peaceful, and mutually beneficial resolution of their differences.
  • * The interests of the Asia-Pacific community must be protected by assurances from Beijing that it will not seek regional hegemony, and from Taipei that it will not precipitate a war with the mainland by rejecting the idea of a united China in the future.

As of the end of 2018, some progress on the protection of these varied interests has been made. However, major challenges persist, as for example: Taiwan’s government, when under the administration of the Taiwanese-based Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), refuses to recognize the validity of the “one China” principle; China continues to pressure Taiwan by lobbying against Taiwan’s participation in most international organizations; and China’s efforts to enforce its claims of sovereignty over much of the South China Sea is seen as threatening to the security and economic interests of the United States and several other members of the Asia-Pacific community.

Regardless of the legalities of China’s claims, the PRC’s assertiveness in the South China Sea has once again focused U.S. attention on the strategic importance of Taiwan. This is somewhat ironic since Taipei agrees with Beijing that much of this area is Chinese territory. For example, Taiwan has occupied for many years the island of Taiping in the Spratly Islands. On a larger scale, by proactively re-enforcing its claims in the South China Sea, China has shown itself willing to challenge long-established norms in the Western Pacific, including the predominant role of the United States in maintaining freedom of the seas and protecting the vital sea lines of communication passing through the South China Sea (roughly one-third of global shipping each year). As a result of China’s activities in the South China Sea and elsewhere, the U.S. Defense Strategy for 2018 considers that China is “leveraging military modernization, influence operations, and predatory economics to coerce neighboring countries to reorder the Indo-Pacific region to their advantage. As China continues its economic and military ascendance, asserting power through an all-of-nation long-term strategy, it will continue to pursue a military modernization program that seeks Indo-Pacific regional hegemony in the near-term and displacement of the United States to achieve global preeminence in the future.”

This assessment of China’s long-term strategic intentions to establish regional hegemony and eventually displace the U.S. position of global preeminence has important implications for U.S. relations with Taiwan. As stated in the U.S. National Security Strategy of 2017: “We will maintain our strong ties with Taiwan in accordance with our ‘One China’ policy, including our commitments under the Taiwan Relations Act to provide for Taiwan’s legitimate defense needs and deter coercion.” While this statement parallels other U.S. government statements in the past, the likelihood of Washington reducing its support to Taiwan is much less now in an era of Sino-American strategic competition than it was, for example, in the early 1980s when the United States hoped that China would align more closely with Washington in strategic cooperation against the Soviet Union. Thus, in the near-term at least, Taiwan is becoming more, not less, of a strategic factor in Sino-American relations. How the United States might try to leverage its ties with Taiwan to influence Chinese assertiveness is an ongoing discussion.