All too often when Washington policymakers think about the importance of Taiwan in relation to American interests in the East Asian region, it is done with a relatively narrow point of view. There is a tendency to focus only on areas having direct affect on tangible American interests; the American trade and military relationship with Taiwan and how these influence the U.S.-China relationship are usually the primary focal points within Washington. Yet the argument could be made that Taiwan's importance to other American allies is nearly as important as the U.S.-Taiwan relationship itself.
Japan is America's closest ally in the Asia Pacific and Taiwan's status should be of paramount importance to the U.S. A free and democratic Taiwan is vital for not only Japan's national security interests, but for the entire East Asian regional stability and as well as American interests.
It's All About Location
Taiwan is located in a strategically important location in the Pacific Ocean. In every direction out from Taiwan there are vital sea-lanes that resource-poor Japan relies upon for trade and energy. Two of these are primary trade arteries, The Taiwan Strait and the Luzon Strait.
Most Japanese imports originating from the Persian Gulf or Central Asia are shipped through the Taiwan or Luzon Straits shipping lanes en route to Japanese ports. If Taiwan lost its sovereignty and fell under the People's Republic of China jurisdiction, the Chinese government could use its naval power to cutoff these sea lines that are vital to Japan's means of acquiring goods and energy. Even the mere threat of doing so could force Japanese concessions in areas that China currently does not have the leverage to enforce (i.e. Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands). Security concerns for Japan and the United States would also emerge.
A PRC-controlled Taiwan would also give the Chinese Navy (PLAN) greater access to the South China Sea, an area through which nearly 60% of Japan's energy supplies are shipped. Additionally, nearly one third of all global trade passes through South China Sea maritime shipping lanes. Any disruption of these trade routes by either blockade or conflict may not only cripple the Japanese economy, but also send shock waves through the global economic system, leaving no country untouched in its wake. Chinese government territorial ambitions in the South China Sea makes the scenario of a PRC-controlled Taiwan even more precarious for Japan's security interests. Former Japanese diplomat Hisahiko Okazaki stated in 2003, "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."
Too Close for Comfort
From the Japanese perspective, PRC control of Taiwan would cause immediate concern, as the Senkaku Islands would result in the already small geographic buffer between the two countries all but erased. Currently the islands are located 200 nautical miles from China, but if China were to control Taiwan, that distance would be nearly halved to 120 nautical miles. Richard Fisher, Senior Fellow of Asian Military Affairs for the International Assessment and Strategy Center, states that "with forces on Taiwan the PLA can better take control of the Senkakus and Sakashima islands, which then give defensive depth to their forces on Taiwan." Fisher also states that in the long term, the island of Okinawa could be a future target of Chinese territorial ambition, "Chinese possession of any of the Ryukyu chain will strengthen its claim to Okinawa. We can be sure that China is helping to stoke Okinawan independence sentiment. You can be assured that the PLA would like to control Okinawa as well." Fisher also says of Taiwan's importance to Japan: "Taiwan bisects Japan's southern strategic horizon. If Taiwan is under PRC control then Japan's sea lines of communication are effectively cut. Aircraft and missiles on Taiwan can reach thousands of kilometers into the Pacific to interdict Japanese commerce."
The Ryukyu island chain is part of the "First Island Chain" that the PLAN must negotiate through in order to move into the open waters of the Pacific.
Taiwan's Importance to the PLAN's Maneuvering & the Aftermath of PRC-Controlled Taiwan
China's navy currently has a number of constraints it must overcome in order to move its vessels into the open waters of the Pacific (This author previously compared these restraints to a Pacific version of the Maginot Line). A PRC annexation of Taiwan would greatly relieve these constraints on a number of levels. Currently, the lack of deep waters on its coast remains an Achilles heel of the PLAN, as described by Okazaki: "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."
PLAN submarine ports in Eastern Taiwan would critically hinder the advanced submarine surveillance capabilities of the Japanese Defense Forces (JDF) and the U.S. Navy (USN). The JDF and the USN would also potentially lose the capability to track PLAN submarines once they left port, as they would not have to traverse through JDF-monitored maritime space near the Ryukyu Island Chain.
If Taiwan were to fall under PRC control, the China government could then move on to redirecting its military capabilities toward other territorial claims in the Pacific region. Its increasingly advanced aircraft and naval vessels could be turned towards pressing claims in the East and South China Sea. The PRC government has been in negotiations with Russia for over five years in an attempt to secure a sizable order of Sukhoi-35 fighter jets. If a sale is completed, these aircraft with extended fuel tanks would allow for increased periods of time the PLAAF would have in patrolling the skies over the Senkaku islands. The ability for the PLAAF to take off from airfields in Taiwan (in lieu of bases in Southeast China) would greatly increase the patrol times of the aircraft as well. Such a move would force Japan and/or the United States to increase their respective patrols of the skies, thus increasing the possibility of conflict, or allowing the PLAAF to patrol over the area unimpeded.
Additionally, the PLA 2nd Artillery Corps could focus its nearly 1,600 ballistic missiles based in eastern China towards other adversaries, with Japan being a likely target. The PLAN would also have the ability to extend its reach directly toward the American military hubs in the region, Guam and Hawaii, unimpeded. The "boxing in" of the PLAN would be no more.
Reason for Optimism?
There are experts, however, who believe that such a scenario is highly unlikely, if not impossible, under current conditions for both military and political reasons. Ian Easton, a Research Fellow at the Project 2049 Institute, believes that "for a number of reasons, the PLAN will not be able to compete with us and our allies for at least 20 years." He also states that Japan has a tremendous ASW, minesweeping, and air defense capability--and the 7th Fleet relies on the JMSDF to a great degree in these areas. For its part, Taiwan is rapidly developing and fielding the means to destroy any PLAN surface operation within some 100-200 nm of her coastline with land, air, and sea launched anti-ship missiles. (The) PLAN is extremely vulnerable to Taiwan's missiles---and USN submarines and F-18s. The more aircraft carriers China builds, the more vulnerable it will be."
Regarding the much-publicized 1,600 missiles that China's 2nd Artillery Corps has aimed in the direction of Taiwan, Easton states that Taiwan appears to be developing and implementing the capabilities to counter what is thought by many to be Taiwan's most serious military threat. "These are a real threat," he states, "but one that Taiwan is well positioned to counter through a combination of passive air base hardening and resiliency measures, active BMD interceptors (PAC-3 and TK-3), and conventional strike (and cyber) attacks on PLA launch units and command nodes. Japan and the U.S. are less well prepared to defend against Chinese missiles, and have much to learn from Taiwan."
The Big Picture
Finally, what would the long-term ramifications be for Japan and the region if such a scenario were to unfold? First, it would likely mean a regional arms race, a diminished role for the United States in the region, states increasingly accommodating an assertive PRC, and a new order in the Pacific region. Mr. Fisher offers two points on this scenario.
On an imminent regional arms race: "A free Taiwan plus the continued engagement of the Americans allow Japan the luxury of not having to rearm completely. Japan has the luxury of stressing those forces most needed to assist U.S. military operations only for the defense of Japan. A loss of Taiwan will mean that such an era is over for Japan, it will have to build a full nuclear deterrent, which will spur R.O.K., Australia, and Vietnam to follow suit."
On the aftermath of a PRC-controlled Taiwan: "At this point an un-free Taiwan becomes not just a liability for Japan but also for the U.S. as well. An Asia in which most states have daggers and nuclear daggers drawn on most of their neighbors is a recipe for incalculable instability, and a grand loss of the benefits of our vast commercial relationship with Asia. In a post free Taiwan era, the U.S. security network in Asia will be based not on an extended US nuclear deterrent, but upon our willingness to proliferate, give nuke weapon tech to our closest friends, which would make inevitable the very instabilities for our children that our predecessors prevented from befalling our generation."
For Japan and the United States alike, a PRC-controlled Taiwan could aid the CCP-controlled Chinese government in its goal of reshaping the regional maritime order that has been a bedrock of stability for not only the economic development of the region, but for its overall stability as well. Oftentimes the interests of a state and one or more of its allies will directly intersect, creating a scenario in which a mutual interest can be found. In the case of a Taiwan free from PRC control, Japan and the United States should not find it hard to see that there is a mutual interest in maintaining the current order in the Pacific.