Chinese Containment Resides with Taiwan
When President Trump spoke to Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, shortly after his election, pundits either decried the move a blunder or praised it a diplomatic victory. Regardless, Chinese President Xi Jinping was frustrated by the action and claimed that the current Taiwan policy shared by the United States and China is non-negotiable. In a phone call in early February, Xi got his way—Trump declared that he would honor the ‘One-China’ policy.
Taiwan remains one of the most sensitive political issues in contemporary China. Ever since Chiang Kai-Shek’s Kuomintang party fled to Taiwan in 1949, China has planned to reintegrate the perceived wayward province. As one of the Asian Tigers, Taiwan is a 20th century economic success story. It has adamantly stood against reintegration. After Taiwan broke away from mainland China, the two societies developed separately. China struggled with faulty collectivization policies for 30 years before the economic reorganization under Deng Xiaoping set the Chinese economy on an upward trajectory. Taiwan, however, began economic reform soon after separation and has been pursuing liberal democratic policies since the mid-1970s. With stark differences in history, governance, and culture, Taiwan and China stand in unambiguous contrast to one another. Nonetheless, China still looks forward to reunification with Taiwan.
Why does China continue to yearn for Taiwan? The island has tremendous geopolitical value. Currently, Chinese naval power projection is stuck behind the wall of islands stretching from Japan through Taiwan and the Philippines, and down to Indonesia. The Pacific Ocean is nearly inaccessible for the People’s Liberation Army Navy. With access to the Pacific, comes access to any ocean. China has worked towards expanding connection to the Indian Ocean. Reasons for this include geographic access to oil in the Persian Gulf, major Chinese investment projects in Africa, and adjacency to China’s biggest regional rival, India. China cannot easily access the Indian Ocean given the inhibition of the Straits of Malacca and the unfriendly waters through which PLA ships would have to sail. Therefore, Taiwan remains the easiest access point from which China can project strength from adjacent Asian vicinities. With Taiwan, China could launch its growing nuclear submarine fleet directly into deep water, effectively hiding it from advanced sonar.
China has shown great interest over the past decade in naval expansion. Its sights are set on an extensive blue-water navy. The PLA fleet recently sailed around Taiwan with its sole, foreign-built aircraft carrier, forcing Taiwan to scramble its air force. Additionally, the first Chinese-built aircraft carrier is due to launch in 2020. A realist nation would not invest in such a major weapons project and display without plans to deploy. The navy would spend its time patrolling the coastal waters from the Yellow to South China Seas without Taiwan allowing an exit. China can embrace its dream of becoming a true regional hegemon if Taiwan becomes a forward base of operations for the PLA Navy.
Taiwan’s value to China is not merely offensive. With several deep-water ports along Taiwan’s western coast, the U.S. Navy has unfettered access for operations along China’s entire coastline. This gives the U.S. Navy immediate retaliation capabilities to flashpoints surrounding China, like the Korean peninsula or the South China Sea. As long as Taiwan remains aligned with the United States, China is contained.
It is easy to understand why China is so absorbed with keeping Taiwan from further gravitating towards the U.S. sphere of influence. Although Taiwanese reintegration has not been a key policy issue during Xi’s presidency, Beijing will not cede ground on the current One-China policy; neither should the United States. The region is vital to U.S. interests. More than $5.3 trillion of trade sails annually through the South China Sea, much of which travels to or from the United States. South Korea, a key U.S. regional ally, depends on its connections to the Pacific to maintain its liberal democracy in the face of pressure from North Korea and China. The United States’ growing relationships with Southeast Asian nations such as Vietnam and Myanmar depend on easier access to the globe for continued liberalization. Many allied nations in East Asia depend on the extension of the nuclear umbrella for territorial security. The region depends on U.S. enforcement of international law and norms. These realities may break down if China is given naval control over the region, and that starts with Taiwan. President Trump’s phone call with President Tsai may not change the current balance-of-power in the region. Nonetheless, it shows Beijing that Washington may be interested in pulling Taiwan further towards the U.S. camp. That is one of the biggest threats to China’s future geopolitical interests.