Taiwan as a focal point
Tomohiko Taniguchi (Editor at Large, Nikkei Business Publications)
A glance at the map of East Asia tells you that China will find it hard to become a major sea power. This is in large part because its long sea front, from Qing Dao in the north down to Hainan Island in the south, is faced only with shallow water where the depth hardly exceeds 200 meters. In a littoral area like that, even an extremely quiet submarine can easily be detected by standard reconnaissance aircraft.
Yet for China there is one way to drastically alter this situation and that is to acquire Taiwan, whose east coast immediately faces deep sea, indeed as deep as 8,000 meters. By annexing Taiwan, China can obtain one of the world's best places to homeport scanner-shy submarines, and herein lies the oft-neglected, but most important strategic significance of Taiwan for the US, Japan and China.
A call for an arrangement of "one nation, two systems" not dissimilar to that between Hong Kong and the mainland may sound increasingly seductive for some in Taiwan, it means the same thing because even under that arrangement China will still be able to use Taiwan's strategic advantage cited above.
It should go without saying, were Taiwan to be really part of China, the SLOC (Sea Lane of Commerce) for Japan would no longer be under the command of the US Seventh Fleet but of Chinese naval forces, bringing about a substantial departure from the strategic equation that the region has long since had.
It is under these circumstances that Taiwanese President Chen Shuibian is aiming at having a referendum on the 20th of March, the same day as the Presidential election takes place. Many see this as his election ploy.
According to a law passed by the Taiwanese parliament last autumn, it is not the executive house but the legislative chamber that can call for a referendum. The only exception being in the case of emergency where the "national security and sovereignty" are in extreme danger. President Chen is going to use this exceptional clause to implement a referendum. To justify Taiwan deserving to have one at this point President Chen has repeatedly mentioned that as many as 500 missiles are already deployed on the coastline of China, and all the warheads target Taiwan. He also maintains that for Taiwan to stop Beijing from continuing to bully them with added missiles it is imperative for the Taiwanese now to cast a vote of resistance toward Beijing. Yet for Beijing, that firmly holds that Taiwan is a mere province of China, Taipei's calling for such a vote itself makes a material breach of the "one China principle", something utterly intolerable.
To Chen's dismay, the US and Japan leapt to the defence of Beijing, supporting its argument that the status quo of the Taiwan strait must be maintained by all means. They are doing this conceivably because Taiwan's extremism might well backfire by benefiting Beijing, who might accelerate the planned annexation program. The end result will equip the mainland with deep sea ports.
Whether or not Chen Shuibian does hold a referendum therefore puts all the parties involved under enormous stress. It could also confuse the virtual alliance now taking shape between the US, Japan and China in order to corner Kim Jong Il to let him abandon nuclear development programs.