Taiwan’s Centrality in East Asian Security: From Liability to Asset

Not long ago the Taiwan Strait appeared the only flash point in Asia that could conceivably draw the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the United States into a war. According to this view’s adherents, Taiwan was a strategic liability destined to needlessly sour Sino-US relations and, worse yet, pose the potential problem of forcing Washington to choose between abandoning Taipei and risking Los Angeles in the event of a Chinese ultimatum.

Those days appear gone with new territorial tensions involving China and several ASEAN nations, then China and Japan, and then China and Japan again this past year. Moreover, the Korean Peninsula remains a potential powder keg, one which has been the scene of both real and potential great-power struggle for over a century.

Even though these tensions are downplayed during periods of relative peace and prosperity, none ever disappears completely. In attempts to minimize rhetoric that can lead to dangerous spirals and self-fulfilling prophecies, analysts divert attention from such ever-present dangers and towards broader issues including “cooperation,” “status quo,” “revisionism,” and whether one power or another is “satisfied or unsatisfied.” Governments attempt to appear conciliatory and offer hope by bringing the focus to positive statements and nonbinding guidelines that in truth sidestep harsh realities regarding what are in fact irreconcilable differences.

These statements should not be construed as condemnations of those dealing with vague terms. Instead, the above comments should be read as admissions that evidently irresolvable territorial disputes exist and that these disputes have their origins in both regional political circumstances and the regional power structure. These causes remain as strong undercurrents which exist beneath what at times may seem a placid surface. Territorial disputes can both exacerbate and reflect broader and deeper structural phenomena and bring such undercurrents closer to the surface; they may also serve as catalysts for accelerating structural shifts.

Likewise, admitting the existence of such undercurrents is not the equivalent of asserting that they will be victorious. Instead, discovering a solution to a difficult problem begins with an honest admission that a difficult problem exists and that the unraveling of the knot will be a trying task. These particular territorial knots, which have at their center Chinese territorial claims that have been linked by the Chinese Communist Party to its own very legitimacy and survival, will be tricky ones to unravel. Reciprocity is unlikely to work under these circumstances since it appears that none will recognize any aspect of the others’ claims and since there appears comparatively little that can be given in return: divisions of the contested territories appear out of the question, and nothing appears likely to compensate for the loss of territory and the blow to prestige the “loser” will incur.

These undercurrents also serve an important – however somewhat inconvenient – purpose for US-Taiwan relations. Without them, the role of the United States in East Asia would diminish, leaving the region, and particularly Taiwan, more vulnerable to Chinese influence. Indeed, it is the ongoing presence of such undercurrents that keeps the US-Taiwan relationship strong despite decades-long debates on abandoning Taiwan.

It is ironic that bilateral ties remain relatively unscathed despite the China-friendly policies of the Ma Ying-jeou administration. The relatively less problematic Sino-Taiwan relationship of the past four years can change, most analysts recognize, with the next election or were Beijing to decide that its version of unification were occurring too slowly for its own tastes. In times of regional instability, the US-Taiwan relationship once again shows its ongoing value despite calls in times of perceived tranquility for the United States to cut its losses and leave Taiwan to what some perceive to be its inevitable fate.

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Recognition of less-benign undercurrents also dramatically alters Taiwan’s regional role. Taiwan is certainly not a tool of American “containment” strategy: the vast majority of Taiwanese have made it clear that they support either de jure independence or some form of arrangement preserving the current state of de facto independence. Such sentiments were not transplanted by America but have taken root and reached maturity on the island itself.

More significant is Taiwan’s strategic regional location. Its central position in the Western Pacific between the South and East China Seas, not to mention that it is also a territorial claimant in both, make Taiwan a strategic asset. A hostile force on Taiwan would complicate contingency planning and would make any form of response, be it American or otherwise, potentially both more costly and more time-consuming. Geographically, Taiwan is a strategic asset in dealing with any regional flare up and involving any and all claimants, not just the PRC.

Moreover, Taiwan plays key ideological, intelligence-gathering, and communicative roles. As a democratic partner, Taiwan’s potential as a model for a future China has not gone unnoticed. With its military and intelligence apparatuses geared towards resisting Chinese attack and infiltration, Taiwan already serves an important role in intelligence gathering and would likely play a more pronounced role in the event of a regional crisis. By asserting its territorial claims as independent of the PRC, Taiwan can also help communicate to China and other claimants that unilateral moves to change the regional territorial status quo are unacceptable and have consequences. Since Taiwan asserts its claims separately from China’s, Taiwan can be a more conciliatory and less threatening negotiating partner should any other claimant become too assertive.

Understanding that potential hotspots in East Asia are numerous and linked and not isolated or limited to the issue of Taiwan changes Taiwan’s status from strategic liability to strategic asset for any nation partnered with Taiwan. This need not be interpreted as any form of containment of China per se, as Taiwan’s direct military role in any potential contingency besides one involving a direct attack on the island would probably be very limited. Although the storms currently churning the surface waters of East Asia should make this evident to analysts, experts, and government officials today, it should also be remembered in times of apparent regional peace and prosperity.

Nathan W. Novak is a seven-year resident of southern Taiwan and Master’s student in the Institute of China and Asia-Pacific Studies and Center for Japanese Studies at the National Sun Yat-sen University in Kaohsiung, Taiwan. His scholarly interests include international relations, comparative politics, foreign policy analysis, and Asia-Pacific security. His current research focuses on the Sino-US-Japan strategic triangle and the impact of Japan’s so-called dual hedge on regional security. Nathan would like to thank Romi Jain, Vice President of the Indian Journal of Asian Affairs, and Andi Kao and Luh Nyoman Ratih Wagiswari, Master’s students in the Institute of China and Asia-Pacific Studies at the National Sun Yat-sen University, for their comments on earlier drafts.