The Strategic Value of Taiwan
Hisahiko OKAZAKI (Director, Okazaki Institute)
Prepared for the US-Japan-Taiwan Trilateral Strategic Dialogue, Tokyo Round, on March 2, 2003
I What is strategy?
To discuss the strategic importance of Taiwan is a delicate task. It is in itself delicate to discuss any strategy openly. Strategy is based on calculation of naked national interests. It is irrelevant to current norms or ethics of international conduct or ethics. If not unethical, it could be discourteous. "He is neither rich nor promising. Therefore, I wouldn't think of marrying him." Any lady has the right to think so. But it is definitely impolite to explicitly say so.
When one refrains from discussing strategy, however, quite often, one forgets the importance of strategic thinking. After the Russo-Japanese War, strategy was not taught or discussed in military education because it was considered to be top-secret. They taught only battlefield strategy. Then gradually, nobody talked about grand strategy. They lost the memory of the vital role played by the Anglo-Japanese alliance. And, they believed that it was only the tremendous Japanese fighting spirit that won the war. Thus, all the military leaders eventually became strategic-idiot. That is a bitter reflection of the wartime Japan after the disastrous defeat.
In diplomacy as well, diplomats quite often concentrate on producing "position papers" for briefing prime ministers and foreign ministers on current affairs, with much attention to bilateral courtesy and public reaction, and stop thinking about anything beyond.
I cannot help but have the impression that recent American Taiwan policy has also been fossilized in "position papers," which do not provide us any clue to their underlying philosophy or strategy. Let me quote from a recent statement of Mr. Richard Hass, Director of Policy Planning Staff at the US Department of State, which is not particularly a bad example at all, but rather a typical one:
The United States is committed to its "one China" policy, as well as to longstanding obligations under the Taiwan Relations Act. We do not support Taiwan independence. We have an abiding interest, above all else, in the peaceful resolution of cross-Strait differences.
It is impossible to explain this remark in the light of American strategic thinking, although it can be explained by Chinese strategic thinking. Instead, it is absolutely explainable from the background of the past Sino-American diplomatic exchanges.
American position was first expressed in the US-China Communique of 1972 and confirmed and gradually modified over and over again between the two countries for the past thirty years. In that process, the Chinese have modified the expression inch by inch in their favor. The US, while explaining to itself and to the third party, "No substantial change from what the US had already said," repeated unilateral concessions to China for the reason of "common defense against the Soviet threat," preventing the then deteriorating Sino-American relationship," or "making a presidential visit successful."
In that process, American position moved from an objective reflection of the situation at the time of Shanghai comminuque, that is; The United States acknowledges that all Chinese on either side of the Taiwan Strait maintain there is but one China and that Taiwan is part of China, to the position of "American support of one China policy and non-support of Taiwan independence."
This is the result of the accumulation of "no change in the fundamental posture" and "no unnecessary friction with China", and is definitely impossible to explain by the philosophy or strategic thinking of the US for the long-term peace and stability of Asia.
Now, let us turn to the strategic value of Taiwan.
Strategy requires thinking in long-terms and taking account of all possible contingencies. One of recommendable approaches is to consider extreme cases first in discussing strategy and then examine more realistic conditions. If you start with current affairs, it is hard to have a long-term vision. A typical example is the post-war debate on Japanese defense. "In case of a warﾓ is the most basic assumption for any strategist. But for the post-war Japan, you have had to overcome various arguments, such as, "Peaceful solution should be sought first," or "Why do you believe current international relations are so grave?" After all, you will have ended up with no time to discuss strategy, never reaching defense strategy.
We can even define strategists as those who always have extreme cases in mind. Just as philosophers or the religious think about the question of life and death even in their normal life, strategists always think almost unnecessarily far and deep.
Let us start thinking from an extreme case where China has succeeded in getting Taiwan in full control.
As a method of annexation of Taiwan, we may exclude direct use of force because it means a scenario of a Sino-American war, but not necessarily that of successful annexation of Taiwan by China. Quite likely, annexation would be the result of political and psychological pressure. Certainly, threat of force has to be behind it, but it will take a form in which the US at that time would find it difficult to convince its public opinion for necessary intervention. Also, it may not take a direct form of annexation at first, but begin with Hong Kong style "one nation, two systems," and gradually proceed to full annexation. Anyway, we presume an extreme case of China getting Taiwan in complete control.
II The impact of China's annexation of Taiwan
The first concern of Japan in such an eventuality would be over sealanes of communications in East Asia. It is a natural reaction for Japan, which is unable to self-supply food and other vital raw material.
During the Cold War, Japan felt, it was the northern and eastern sealanes that are insecure under the constant threat of the Soviet submarines and long-range bombers. On the other hand, the southwestern sealanes, which are the most important for Japan, remained quite safe. This was because of Taiwan's geopolitical position.
China lacks deep waters, particularly on its East China Sea coastline where China's important naval bases backed by industrial capacity are located. Therefore, Chinese submarines have to sail on the surface for a considerable distance and dive near the Ryukyu Archipelagoes in order to operate in the Pacific. As a result, Chinese submarines are presently not a serious threat. In contrast, Taiwan's east coast is directly faced with the deepest sea in the Pacific. If China controlled Taiwan, China could utilize Taiwanese ports for submarines to operate freely throughout the Western Pacific.
The question of sealanes is more serious in the South China Sea. China has an extensive claim for territorial waters in that area. Occupation of Taiwan means control of the northern entrance of the South China Sea. Then, the large part of the South China Sea would become a kind of China's inner water. If China claims exclusive jurisdictions there, in case of emergency, the only safe seaplane for Japan in Asia will be the passage through the Lomboc Strait in Indonesia through the east coast of the Philippines.
What is vital to Japan's interests, however, is not limited to the question of oil routes to the Middle East, because in an extreme case, Japanese ships could reach the Gulf by going around the south of Australia.
What is more important is the political impact of China's annexation of Taiwan on Southeast Asian countries, which have been Japan's economic stronghold. Among Southeast Asian countries, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, and Brunei have no exit to the sea except through the South China Sea. Most Malaysian ports face the South China Sea. Therefore, these countries have vital interest in the South China Sea.
In the 1980s, Thai Prime Minister Chachai once expressed concern about China's advance to the South China Sea and openly proposed Thai-Japan joint naval exercises. Japan responded with silence as usual. This negative reaction gradually induced Thailand to other alternative, that is, accommodation of China. The entire control of the regional nations' outlet to the sea would be one of China's useful tools of Finlandizing these nations. Finlandization of Southeast Asian nations by China will undermine Japanﾕs vital interests.
There still exists a more important question. The overseas Chinese in Southeast Asia are now divided into pro-Beijing, pro-Taiwan, and neutral groups. However, China's control of Taiwan would make this division disappear. This may happen even under the interim period of "one state, two systems," short of complete control of Taiwan.
Southeast Asian governments used to govern the oversea Chinese by utilizing this division, but this will no longer be available. In the past, China, while showing strong interest in the defense of interests of the overseas Chinese, has been extremely cautious, considering countereffects of Chinese intervention. As China's Finlandization of Southeast Asian governments proceed, China would have a freer hand. Also, the local overseas Chinese will feel freer to resist the existing discriminatory policy of local governments.
In Indonesia, the overseas Chinese govern the economy. We have to expect that their political influence will increase reflecting their economic influence. In Malaysia, China will show more sympathy toward the local Chinese who have always complained of racism by the local governments.
Posture of Singapore may also change. Singapore has maintained a policy of independence from China, having achieved a unique law-abiding society and high standards of living, while it has quite often showed pro-Chinese gestures, reflecting its racial affinity. Singaporeﾕs fundamental geopolitical conditions are that Singapore is an isolated island in the sea of the Malay races and that Singapore has to be cautious not to offend to the neighboring countries. If Chinese influence extends to the South China Sea and Southeast Asia, Singapore will find it no longer necessary to play low-key in the region. If Singapore sways to pro-China, Chinese control of the South China Sea will be complete with Taiwan in the north and Singapore in the south.
Finally, any scenario in which Taiwan will be put in Chinese control means that the US did not or could not intervene for one reason or another. This means, in turn, the collapse of American credibility. It is predictable under this circumstance that the entire Southeast Asian public opinion would be swayed toward pro-China.
III The historical significance
The above development means a return to the status quo ante of 1965. Before that time, Southeast Asia had been under the threat of communist insurgencies since the end of the Second World War. Prince Shihanouk of Cambodia was definitely pro-Beijing. Indonesia was on the eve of communist takeover. There was the Beijing-Phnom Pen-Jakarta axis against the US. Many Southeast Asian nations were resigned to the eventual communist takeover. In 1965, the American Marine Corps landed on Vietnamese soil. Although the American Vietnam campaign eventually failed, Americaﾕs act gave Southeast Asian nations the courage to resist communists. In September, the communist coup in Indonesia failed. Southeast Asian nations formed ASEAN in 1967. This was the beginning of the present stability and prosperity of Southeast Asia. In short, American withdrawal from Taiwan annihilates all the American efforts since 1965, including the tremendous sacrifice made during the Vietnam War.
China's threat has often been debated. Those who deny the threat usually forecast the Chinese economic and military power in the future and draw a conclusion that China cannot possibly match the US in strength in the coming decades. They may be right. However, If China annexed an industrially advanced and prosperous Taiwan, controlled the entire region of Southeast Asia, and extended its influence as far as the West Pacific and the Indian Ocean, China would be a formidable challenger to American hegemony.
This would be historically significant. China has always been the greatest empire in the world in the past thousand years. It was weakened in the modern times mainly because it lost all of its hinterlands to Western imperialism from the 17th to 19th century. The Russians took Siberia. West European powers governed South and Southeast Asia. Japan and the US controlled China's exit to the Pacific by colonizing Taiwan and Philippines. Therefore, Chinese annexation of Taiwan, and the eventual increase of Chinese influence on Southeast Asia, may well mean the revival of the Chinese worldwide empire.
Regarding Japan, in past half century, it has spent tremendous efforts and resources to establish economic relations with Southeast Asian nations. As stated above, however, Japan did not respond to their security needs and concentrated on trade and investment, thus making Japanese influence in the region shallow and vulnerable. The loss of Southeast Asia will be a huge blow to the Japanese economy.
IV What is the strategic implication?
As stated above, the outcome of Chinese annexation of Taiwan will be far-reaching. America and Japan should always bear in mind this strategic importance of Taiwan. It may be, however, more important for China to recognize it.
The public normally ignores strategic value until they face a real crisis. However, one can never underestimate the reaction of the public when they suddenly recognize strategic implications. China has achieved a great diplomatic success. Since the Shanghai Communique, China has been successful in making American diplomacy retreat a long way on words. Finally, the US committed to "one China" policy, which the US had not committed to at the time of the signing of the communique. But China should be prepared for America's reaction when China really tries to make "one China" come true. The reaction is not limited to the US. Japan and Southeast Asian nations might also react sharply when faced with this strategic truth even after China will have already achieved a kind of Finladization.
China may claim the ethical and nationalistic right to annex Taiwan, quoting the history of humiliation one hundred years ago. China may argue for its legal right, quoting all of America's verbal commitment to "one China" as well as various principles of the current international law. Facing the strategic reality, however, these arguments may suddenly become powerless.
In the past four centuries, no challenger successfully defeated Anglo-America hegemony. The Spaniard and the Dutch lost their empires, the French lost India and Canada, the Germans lost half of their territory, the Japanese lost their empire, and finally, the Russians lost all their gains since Peter the Great. China is almost the only remaining empire in the world, possessing Tibet, Uigure, Mongolia, etc. If China challenged Anglo-American hegemony unsuccessfully, it is quite predictable that China would lose its empire.
China may conceive the annexation of Taiwan to be merely an achievement of the final goal of Chinese nationalism. It may, however, be the beginning of a deadly, perhaps fatal, confrontation with a world hegemon.