York W. Chen
Assistant Professor, Graduate Institute of International Affairs and Strategic Studies, Tamkang University
Overstretch is always dangerous. The key to success for the United States rebalance strategy is determined by the good selection of the pivot on where the American attentions and resources should be concentrated. And the author argues that Taiwan is the right place for performing such a pivot.
In the twenty-first century, the increasing globalization creates the rise of China’s economic power which leads to a steady military build-up. Meanwhile, the U.S. suffers for financial predicaments, low ebb in economic, and expensive military involvements in Afghanistan and Iraq which cause a widespread impression that the American overall national power is now and will keep declining. That China holds over 1 trillion dollars in US Treasury securities is often cited to show the declination of the American influence. Such an assertion infers that China will soon become a major power to replace U.S. in the region and generates the rhetoric of hegemony transition among scholars.[i]
In addition to multiplying China factor, the acknowledgement of Taiwan as a part of China limits the American freedom of action in integrating Taiwan into its strategic design. Even when the U.S. attempts to do so, it often keeps its initiatives as low profile as possible for avoiding possible annoyance from Beijing. Even when a genuine balancing approach was taken against China and the perimeter defense of the first island chain was mentioned again in the early 2000s, Taiwan was omitted. The line of the first island chain, according to the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD), passes through the eastern waters of Taiwan and excludes the Island itself.[ii] As a result, major changes in the U.S. policy toward Taiwan become difficult or even impossible, for such changes will not be quiet and inevitably induce China’s irritation. Gradually, China factors become constant variables in Washington’s Taiwan policy-making because of Beijing’s likely demoting the Sino-U.S. relations as retribution of any policy changes favorable to Taiwan. Logically, when the stakes of the Sino-U.S. relations get higher, it would be more likely that Washington’s strategic deliberation would ignore or degrade Taiwan’s significances. This is exactly the context of the U.S. current pivot strategy.
The continuity of economic globalization is of the U.S. vital national interests; and such a globalization cannot continue without China.[iii] Facing “a world of greater interconnection,”[iv] though some disagreements still exist in the Sino-U.S. relations, Washington works laboriously in widening mutual cooperation. Not only former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton refused the notions of seeing the rise of China as a threat to the U.S. or treating the America’s emerging pivot strategy as the containment against China’s rise.[v] Washington also sees its cooperation with Beijing as a partnership in shaping regional or even global order and stability. So-called “a new model of major country relationship” is recently framed during the meeting between President Obama and Chinese President Xi Jin-Ping at Sunnyland in June 2013. Such a major country relationship is a multi-facet and regional- and global-oriented one and, according to Secretary of Treasury Jacob Lew’s statement at the fifth round of the U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue (July 2013), intended to work “on the issues that matter to each and every one of us, on both sides of the Pacific and beyond.”[vi] In short, while the Sino-U.S. relations are perceived to Washington of regional or even global importance and the stakes involved become higher than before; Taiwan’s significances seem diminished as tactical sideshow.
However, compounded to the U.S. strategic deliberation is the political and economic developments in Taiwan have profoundly changed the nature of geostrategic significance of the island in the way that cannot be measured only in terms of realpolitik.
Taiwanese has created an enviable achievement in economy. This small island, only 7 percent population of the U.S., possesses one third of the American’s sea commence volume.[vii] Though the ranking of Taiwan’s foreign trade in the world was significantly dropped since the late 1990s (in 2011, rank the seventeenth in export and the eighteenth in import), the total volume of Taiwan’s foreign trade (in 2011) still reached 589.6 billion U.S. Dollars (export 308.2 billion USD, import 281.4 billion USD). Again, Taiwanese, 7 percent of the U.S. in population, created approximately 16 percent of the American’s foreign trade volume (3687.4 billion USD in 2011). The U.S. is Taiwan’s third trade partner (next to China and Japan). Taiwan is the U.S. tenth trade partner (slightly ahead of France). Electric machinery and parts is Taiwan’s largest export item (36.5 percent). Its information technology (IT) related industry is first rated. In 2011, eight of its IT related products rank as number one in the world.[viii] Compared with Taiwan’s small population, the relatively higher proportions of see commerce, foreign trade, and industrial development make the island become one of U.S. most important trade partners in the region.
Taiwan is a laboratory of the westernization and democratization. Contemporary democratization begins since the mid-1980s in a relative stable fashion. The American missionaries, congressmen, and even officials have played a constructive role in Taiwan’s political evolution. In 2000, the opposition Democratic Progressive Party defeated the KMT. A peaceful regime change and credible two-party system marked the unique achievement in Taiwan’s democratization that unthinkable in the mainland and unlikely in the foreseeable future for other Chinese-ruled areas such as Singapore.
Though it will not be of the U.S. interests to sacrifice the Sino-U.S. strategic partnership for Taiwan, the political and economic progress in Taiwan in recent decades also supplements Washington’s difficulties to repeat the precedent of 1979, to abandon Taiwan for building its relationship with Beijing. The American’s security protection of Taiwan is now involving morality issue and America’s creditability,[ix] crucial elements to the very purpose of the U.S. pivot strategy, to maintain the U.S. influence in the region. Taiwan is a democracy administrated by a responsible government. The U.S. believes that “free and open societies are more likely to benefit more people over a longer period of time than any other kind of society.”[x] And political democracy is universal value that the U.S. foreign policy seeks to defend and sometimes promote.[xi] In fact, democracy could not be achieved in Taiwan in such a rapid but peaceful pace if the assistance or pressure from the U.S. was absent. Taiwan’s democracy is thus the icon of U.S. overseas commitment. The fact that Taiwan as an American-modeled democracy may be a moral issue only; when combined together with the fact of Taiwan’s geographic connection with other regional democracies, it is no longer the subject that catches the idealists’ attentions only. “Were the United States simply to abandon Taiwan,” this may not be an easy repetition of the fall of Saigon that the U.S. could manage to recover from the reputation lost within two decades. An American analyst see the consequence in such domino-metaphor-based scenario, “[the abandon of Taiwan]could undermine America’s bilateral relationships with Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Australia, and other Pacific allies, let alone with India and even some states in Africa, which will begin to doubt America’s other bilateral commitments, thus encouraging them to move closer to China, allowing for a Greater China of truly hemispheric proportion to emerge.”[xii] As Wallace Gregson, former US assistant secretary of defense for Asian and Pacific security affairs, told his audience at Taipei, the U.S. and the world need China to be a successful contributor to the international system, “but at the same time, the U.S. needs to work with our allies and friends and be there to support their interests.”[xiii] For the trust of the pivot strategy to be built among U.S. regional allies and partners, Washington’s maintaining its commitment to Taiwan could be low profile but should be credible enough.
Taiwan could be utilized as multiplier in the U.S. strategic rebalance in the Asia Pacific. Basically, the U.S. rebalance strategy is centered on the rise of China and may be seen as traditional “engagement and containment” in other name and with more comprehensive facets. For this engagement to be convincing to China and avoid suspicion from other U.S. partners. Two reinforcing approaches, northward and southward, are taken. Taiwan has the role to multiply the effects of these two approaches.
The U.S. northward approach in strategic rebalance towards Asia is to strengthen U.S.-Japan and U.S.-South Korea alliances. Japan and South Korea are democracies as Taiwan; the former two are the interior of democratic zone in the Pacific while Taiwan at the southernmost tip of the perimeter. It is a thin “blue” line indeed. Beyond the line, the vast Southeast Asia where only very few mature democracies exist is traditionally the soft underbelly in U.S. regional strategies. Thus, the second, relatively innovative, southward approach is taken to rapidly improve U.S. relations with countries adjacent the South China Sea such as Vietnam, Philippine and others. This area is where anticipated difficulties lie. Dissimilarities in polity, religion, culture, and economy are strikingly great among these countries. Some of them are still ruled by authoritarian or communist regimes. Some suffer from serious societal division, if not civil war. Most importantly, suspicion of regional hegemony, be it China, Japan, or the U.S., is widely immersed. Therefore, a neighborhood partners for Secretary Clinton’s emphasis of “forward-deployed” approach[xiv] may be needed there. In this regard, Taiwan is a better choice than Singapore. Not only because of Taiwan long experiences and sufficient capacities, as it did in the 1970s, in assisting the developing countries, it is also Taiwan’s as a geographically connecting nod that make this seemly imaginary idea attractive. Without Taiwan, the U.S. two reinforcing approaches are separated, irrelevant, and piecemealed. The bonus that the U.S. gets in the Northeast Asia today will be discounted in the Southeast Asia tomorrow. Without Taiwan, the American needs more resources to invest in this soft underbelly. And it may still leave uncertainties and vulnerabilities in the region where the U.S can hardly “lead” from the rear.[xv]
Furthermore, Taiwan is crucial for the U.S. in building the required credibility in rebalance strategy. The U.S. security and economic ties with the Northeast and Southeast countries are of course increasing, but the real test for rebalancing strategy as recently demonstrated in 2010-11 and 2012 lies at the U.S. capabilities in managing territorial disputes in two flash points: the South China Sea and the Diaoyutai (Senkaku) Islands.
For the former, the South China Sea has long been considered as one of the hotspots where might erupt a military conflict. Since 2010, the tension of the South China Sea has further fuelled followed by the escalation of Sino‐Vietnam and -Philippines disputes. The U.S. engagement of this issue is seen as an indicator of its initiatives of the rebalance strategy. Among eight parties who assert overall or partial sovereign and (or) economic claims in the South China Sea, Taiwan is the best reliable America’s security partner among the claimants in the area. Taiwan currently has the same lines of historical assertion on overall rights over the entire South China Sea as China’s which Secretary Clinton rejected by saying that “claimants should pursue their territorial claims and accompanying rights to maritime space in accordance with the UN convention on the law of the sea. Consistent with customary international law, legitimate claims to maritime space in the South China Sea should be derived solely from legitimate claims to land features.”[xvi] However, Taiwan and China have different positions and intentions. Taiwan possesses only two islands in the South China Sea. But these two are of importance: the Dongsha and the Taiping Islands. China took the control of the western Xisha (Paracel) Islands from Vietnam after 1974 and fortified the Yongxing (Woody) Island (2.1 square km, the largest island in the South China Sea, with a 2,400 meters long runway) as its forward base back by the major rear base, the Hainan Island. China advanced into the southern Nansha Islands only after its naval victory off the Chigua Jiao (Johnson South Reef) in 1988. In the Nansha, the most seriously disputed area, China’s footings are much confined. China is the only occupying country without any runway in the Nansha. China’s main outpost, the Yungsu Jiao (Fiery Cross Reef), is virtually a small artificial terrace (only 8,080 square meters) swarming with 200 strong troops with observation post, radar facility and helicopter platform. In short, while China firmly controls the western part (the Xisha) of the South China Sea, the most littoral area and closer to China’s Hainan, and barely holds Zhongsha Islands (Macclesfield Bank) in the center; Taiwan has significant superiorities in the northern (the Dongsha) and southern part (the Nansha) where really relevant to the U.S. urges of freedom of navigation and open access to any maritime commons.
Taiwan has no intentions to expand its footings in the South China Sea. In fact, it is often seen as a dangerous overstretch for the defense of Taiwan, particularly in the case of distant Taiping Island. Taiwan decided to demilitarize the Taiping. In 2000, Taiwan’s Marine Corps was withdrew from the island and replaced by the Coastal Guards whose role is more policing‐oriented. But for China, this is a different picture. The South China Sea, the passageway for China’s oil supply, is crucial for sustaining her current economic bloom. China also needs to protect its fishing boats operating in the area and prevent other contenders such as Vietnam and Philippine (cooperating with Western oil companies) from exploiting oil and gas. More importantly, it is the area that China could possibly transform herself from a continental power to a maritime power in the immediate future. For China, the South China Sea is the most accessible key to open the gate of the Pacific and Indian Oceans. A so-called “String of Pearls Strategy” which refers to China’s expansion of her political influence or military presence via a series choke points ranging from Hong Kong, Thailand, Myanmar, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Maldives, Pakistan, to Omen, is widely circulated.[xvii] For these reasons, China has stronger incentives to be assertive and lesser room for compromise.
It is of Taiwan’s security interests to have as many “friends” near the South China Sea as possible both for balancing China at the strategic level or, at the operational level, for protecting Taiwan’s southern waters from China’s navy approaching. Particularly, a good relationship with the U.S. is uttermost crucial to Taiwan’s security. By this line of argument, in solving the South China Sea issue, the U.S. could assist Taiwan to open dialogues with other regional claimants, which had been failed in the past. It would not be particularly difficult for the U.S. and positive results could be expected. But the America’s leadership seems not to be genuine enough. Taiwan is still blocked from any bi- or multi-lateral discussion on the South China Sea issues. The U.S. inactivity and the fear of being marginalized or damaging its détente policy towards China, drives Taiwan’s Ma administration implicitly siding with China. It further complicates the issues. Recently, several second-track dialogues between scholars and ex-military from China and Taiwan are intensively conducted. Some initiatives on the cooperation of oil exploitation and maritime policing in the South China Sea are also attempted. Some even go further and argue that a strategic partnership with China, constructed by some kinds of explicit confidence building measures or implicit bilateral supportive consensus between Chinese-held Yongxing Island and Taiwanese-controlled Taiping Island. Some urge to re-militarize the Taiping such bring back Marine Corps or significantly strengthen the defense of the island (including deployment of battle tanks, surface-to-air and anti-ship missiles, or missile boats). These developments are not helpful for the stability in the South China Sea or solution of disputes.
The same causes (the U.S. ignorance towards Taiwan), drives (Taiwan’s fear of being marginalized and damaging its current détente policy towards China), and effects (Taiwan sides with China and complicates the issue) repeated in the case of the Daioyutai Islands. For the Diaoyutai, it was once the dispute only between Japan and Taiwan (Taiwanese regards the Diaoyutai is Taiwan’s geographical associated islands) and calmly handled by both sides in the past. Again, it would not be particularly difficult for the American to mediate this mainly symbolic dispute between its official and unofficial allies. After all, both Japan and Taiwan share deep-rooted friendship. However, China outpaced the America. Based upon its one-China principle asserting Taiwan’s associated islands is part of China’s territory, China took Japan’s nationalization of the islands as the pretext and moved in the Taiwan-Japan Diaoyutai dispute. China’s unprecedented intervention induces Taiwan’s escalation for fear of being marginalized and damaging its China policy.[xviii]
It is rather academic to judge whether the rise of China is a threat or not. For strategic planners, it is more practical to “make” rather than “think” China’s rise not become a threat. To prevent such a threat, the military aspect in rebalance strategy involves the redeployment of the U.S. military presence in the region.[xix] However, China’s military might, though keeps growing, could not seriously harm the U.S. regional interests as long as Taiwan remains independently from China’s dominance. Taiwan’s geographical position in blocking China’s military adventure is ten-time magnitude than what England’s Scapa Flow had done to German High Sea Fleet in WWI. Without taking Taiwan, as Chinese strategists believe, China’s military is tightly confined in the littoral and every ocean-going mission deems a very risky one. Therefore, Taiwan’s defense is not a singular issue of its own. It matters in terms of regional stability. Though not strong enough in defeating all China’s military full-spectrum threats, Taiwan has sturdy military capabilities in inflicting unbearable costs on China had the People’s Liberation Army crossed the Strait. After over a century fortification, Taiwan virtually becomes a substantial military base. Small in size, but Taiwan harbors 26 principal surface combatants (4 destroyers, 22 frigates) in five naval bases. Additional eight commercial or industrial ports can be converted for military purpose in time of war. No less than twenty three larger fishing ports are capable for the anchorage of Taiwan’s newly commissioned Kuang Hua VI class fast missile boats, some of them will be used for the latest fast stealth missile boats (the first boat to be commissioned in 2014) which carry eight super-sonic Hsiung Feng III anti-ship missiles, so-called “carrier killer”.[xx] Small in size, Taiwan’s Air Forces has some 300 front-line combat fighters stationed at five major bases. The FCK-1 fleet is now under modernization and transform themselves capable for long-range ground attack missions.[xxi] The F-16 fleet is about to be upgraded within next ten to twelve years. Advanced radar for detecting China’s stealth fighters will be installed. Meanwhile, Taiwan’s anti-air and -missile capabilities are also strengthening. Some 200 600-km range Hsiung Feng II land attack cruise missiles are deploying.[xxii] Longer range versions are also successfully developed. Small in size, Taiwan is sturdy in military strength. Though every U.S. major arms sales to Taiwan will definitely induce China’s demotion of the Sino-U.S. relations as retribution, there are many ways to reduce or even to neutralize such risk while maintain Taiwan’s defense capabilities. Taiwan’s indigenous development of the FCK fighters in the 1980s was a case. Moreover, Taiwan could provide extendable security dividend to the U.S. and its allies. For example, Taiwanese first-rated experiences and expertise in defending against China’s organized cyber-attacks are ready for export.[xxiii] In preventing any military misperceptions and miscalculations, the timely information from Taiwan’s powerful early-warning radar may be particularly useful for the America’s partners in the soft underbelly area that cannot financially afford such.
As RAND analysts suggest, the situation in the Taiwan Strait can be seen as a possible prelude to a broader challenge to the U.S. in the East Asia that might emerge in the next ten to twenty years. As with almost every question impinging on the Sino-U.S. relations, these are questions of balance.[xxiv] The level is always fluid. Balance is needed but difficult unless the right pivot point is identified. Taiwan is geographically over here. Its strategic significances do not automatically come from the map, but from the creations of the strategists in Taipei and Washington.
[i] For example, G. John Ikenberry, “The Rise of China and the Future of the West,” Foreign Affairs, Vol. 87, No. 1 (2008), pp. 23-37; Joshua R. Itzkowitz Shifrinson, “Correspondence: Debating China’s Rise and U.S. Decline,” International Security, Vol. 37, No. 3 (2012), pp. 175-176; Kishore Mahbubani, The New Asian Hemisphere: The Irresistible Shift of Global Power to the East (New York: Public Affairs, 2008), pp. 1-9.
[ii] U.S. Department of Defense (DOD), Military Power of the People’s Republic of China, 2006, p. 15; DOD, Military Power of the People’s Republic of China, 2007, p. 16; DOD, Military Power of the People’s Republic of China, 2008, p. 25; DOD, Military Power of the People’s Republic of China, 2009, p. 23; DOD, Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China, 2010, p. 32; DOD, Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China, 2011, p. 23; DOD, Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China, 2012, p. 40; DOD, Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China, 2013, p. 81. After 2007, the DOD specifies the line is based on the concepts of the PRC military theorists. The Japanese, though admitted the Taiwan Strait is including in “the areas surrounding Japan” that applicable to the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security between the United States and Japan, also follows DOD definition and excludes Taiwan from the first island chain. See Japan’s National Institute for Defense Studies, NIDS China Security Report, 2011, p. 11.
[iii] For example, Thomas P. M. Barnett, Blueprint for Action (New York: G. P. Putnam’s, 2005), pp. 158-162.
[iv] Cited from White House, National Security Strategy, 2010, p. 2.
[v] Secretary Hillary Clinton, “America’s Pacific Century,” Foreign Policy, November 2011,
[vi] The term of “a new model of major country relationship” and Secretary Lew’s remarks are both cited from “The U.S.-China Closing Statements for U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue,” July 11, 2013, see
[vii] Taiwan’s four major international commerce seaports (Keelung, Taipei, Taichung, and Kaohsiung; all in the western coast) handled 13.2 million TEUs (Twenty-foot Equivalent Unit, the standard size of container). Figures (2011) from Taiwan’s Ministry of Transportation and Communication,
[viii] These leading IT products include notebook PC (occupies 89 percent of world production), tablet device (86 percent), smartphone (81 percent), motherboard (80 percent), LCD monitor (69 percent), digital camera (48 percent), server system (44 percent), and desktop PC (43 percent). See Bureau of Foreign Trade (Ministry of Economic Affairs), Annual Report of the Bureau of Foreign Trade: 2011, pp. 3, 29. Original in Chinese.
[ix] For example, Robert D. Kaplan, The Revenge of Geography: What the Map Tells Us about Coming Conflict and the Battle against Fate (New York: Random House, 2012), p. 217.
[x] Secretary Hillary Clinton remarks at the ASEAN Regional Entrepreneurship Summit, delivered at Bali, Indonesia, July 23, 2011
[xi] For example, Obama’s National Security Strategy prioritizes democratic value as one of its national security objective by announcing the U.S. “believes certain values are universal and will work to promote them worldwide. These include an individual’s freedom to speak their mind, assemble without fear, worship as they please, and choose their own leaders; they also include dignity, tolerance, and equality among all people, and the fair and equitable administration of justice. The United States was founded upon a belief in these values.” White House, National Security Strategy, 2010, p. 35.
[xii] Kaplan, The Revenge of Geography, p. 219.
[xiii] “US Experts Say Taiwan a Vital Interest,” Taipei Times, April 19, 2012, p. 1.
[xiv] Secretary Hillary Clinton, “America’s Engagement in the Asia-Pacific,” remarks delivered at Honolulu, October 28, 2010.
[xv] Wording taken from Aaron L. Friedberg, “America Cannot ‘Lead from Beyond’ in Asia,” The Diplomat, October 9, 2012
[xvi] Secretary Hillary Clinton remarks at the ASEAN Regional Forum, delivered at Hanoi, Vietnam, July 23, 2010
[xvii] For example, Christopher J. Pehrson, String of Pearls: Meeting the Challenge of China’s Rising Power across the Asian Littoral (Carlisle: Strategic Studies Institute, 2006).
[xviii] David G. Brown, “China-Taiwan Relations: A Year for Consolidation,” Comparative Connections,
<http://csis.org/files/publication/1202qchina_taiwan.pdf> pp. 5-6.
[xix] Thomas Fargo, “The Military Sides of Strategic Rebalancing,” in Asia Policy, No. 14 (2012), pp. 27-29.
[xx] “‘Carrier Killer’ Program Goes ahead,” Taipei Times, April 28, 2012, p. 3.
[xxi] “Taiwan Seeking a Better F-CK, with Possible Longer-Term Aspirations,” Defense Industry Daily,
[xxii] “Ministry Mum on HF-2Es on Penghu,” Taipei Times, September 14, 2011, p. 3.
[xxiii] The Institute of Information Industry (a Taiwan’s government-funded semi-official institute responsible for information security of non-governmental sector) identifies “the participation of international organization for promoting international cooperation mechanism for information and communication security” as one of its priorities. See Institute of Information Industry website
<http://www.iii.org.tw/business/2_5_6.asp> original in Chinese.
[xxiv] David A. Shlapak, David T. Oretsky, Toy I. Reid, Murray Scott Tanner, and Barry Wilson, A Question of Balance: Political Context and Military Aspects of the China-Taiwan Dispute (Santa Monica: RAND, 2009), p. 142.