Written by Euan Graham.
Taiwan is central to the security and strategic geography of the Indo-Pacific, perhaps even to the future development of democracy in the region. It remains an economy of significant weight. Yet, as a “stateless” entity, it suffers from a double identity, confined to margins of the region’s international affairs. This gives Taiwan its unique dual centre-periphery status.
As a sizeable island sitting on China’s strategic periphery, geography dictates Taiwan’s strategic importance. This is clear from its history as a territory annexed by Japan, in the late 19th century, in order to support its southward expansion. Yet, in another odd duality, the island has lived a remarkably charmed life, avoiding serious fighting despite wars that have raged all around it.
Taiwan is one of the closest points to the Asian continent on the First Island Chain, which runs from Kamchatka to Sumatra. This gives it particular importance to China, which is “fenced in” more broadly by the island chain, dominated as it is by Washington’s offshore network of allies and security partners in the Western Pacific, including Japan, South Korea the Philippines and Australia. A potentially hostile Taiwan, backed by the United States, still presents a check on China’s aspirations to become a fully fledged maritime and sea power, in spite of China’s mounting gains in the cross-Strait military balance. The Taiwan Strait, 90 miles across at its narrowest, is shallow, like most of China’s coastal waters. East of Taiwan, Asia’s continental shelf slopes off rapidly into the Pacific proper. Control over Taiwan is coveted by China’s navy because it offers unrestricted access to deep water for its submarines and opens the gate for a blue-water surface force to sally out into the Pacific. Taiwan is the key to unlocking the strategic cordon presented by the First Island Chain. Its possession would improve China’s strategic position in the Pacific substantially.
Also central to Taiwan’s strategic importance, reunification with the People’s Republic, is a goal closely tied to the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party. Throughout its long history, China’s leaders have acquired “greatness” mainly by uniting and unified the country. In the Party’s eyes, and those of its military wing, the People’s Liberation Army, the “recovery” of Taiwan is unfinished business from the Civil War. Force remains an option.
It is no surprise that the most powerful leader to have emerged since Mao, Xi Jinping, has set his sights on bringing Taiwan into the fold, during his tenure in office. Some have speculated Xi aims to do this in time for the 2021 centennial of the Party’s formation. This seems unlikely, given the risks, and the fact that Xi faces no obvious internal threat. A more realistic goal would be the hundredth anniversary of the People’s Republic, in 2049. Failure to realize reunification may not be fatal for Xi’s political survival, unless it spells a military defeat. Success, however, would cement his name in the Party pantheon as the leader who delivered on the China Dream.
This combustible combination of strategic location and political symbolism is what makes Taiwan central, if not to the Indo-Pacific, then certainly to China, and its relations with the United States. Taiwan is still a de facto part of the offshore network of US allies and partners in the Indo-Pacific, despite the severance of formal alliance connections almost 40 years ago.
Seen through a values lens, Taiwan is arguably central as a democratic link in the First Island Chain. Taiwan has additional symbolic and demonstrative value as the only Chinese polity to have evolved from military autocracy into a distinct democracy, which its people are fiercely attached to, at grassroots level. This matters in a broader context, given the spreading influence of authoritarian technocratic models, including that of China. Singapore, for all of its undoubted sovereign independence, remains an ethnic Chinese majority city state under one-party rule, despite its carefully constructed multicultural identity and “Westminsterish” trappings. Political freedoms in Taiwan easily exceed those in Hong Kong, Macau or Singapore. Taiwan’s hard-fought progression from military dictatorship to democracy most closely mirrors that of South Korea, which likewise cleaves from hierarchical Confucian traditions, and has developed a similarly robust, sometimes roustabout, civil society.
Taiwan and South Korea make for an instructive contrast. Unlike South Korea, Taiwan has been consummately overtaken in economic terms by its “twin”, the People’s Republic. Taiwan’s relative economic weight in East Asia, though still hefty, has been steadily eclipsed and subsumed by China. South Korea now ranks eleventh globally, as measured by GDP. Its output dwarfs that of the rival North Korean state, which was ahead of the South on some economic measures well into the 1970s.
The biggest factor contributing to Taiwan’s peripheralised status is its marginalization as a non-state in the international system. Compounding this exclusion from the UN and other international organisations, Taiwan is unrepresented in most of the Indo-Pacific’s key multilateral forums. Most of these bodies, including the East Asia Summit, are ASEAN-based. ASEAN assiduously follows the “one China” principle and is under increasing pressure from Beijing to accommodate China’s encroachments in the South China Sea. President Tsai Ing-wen’s administration has struggled to make economic headway, through its New Southbound Policy, against such headwinds.
Taiwan’s main platform for representation among the major gatherings with an Indo-Pacific membership is the increasingly peripheral APEC leaders summit, where Taipei is accredited as “Chinese Taipei”. Taiwan is identically represented on the “Second-Track” Council For Security Cooperation in Asia Pacific. Taiwanese academics attend the influential Shangri-La Dialogue, convened annually in Singapore, by the British-based International Institute for Strategic Studies. But pressure from China to downgrade or exclude Taiwanese representation continues to intensify, keeping it on the periphery.
In this increasingly challenging context, it makes sense for Taiwan to embed itself as a far as possible within the inchoate identity and structures of a still emerging “free and open” Indo-Pacific, especially since the two biggest promoters of this concept are Taiwan’s closest international friends, the United States and Japan. Taiwan’s only official diplomatic constituency across the Indo-Pacific is a caucus of diminutive Pacific island states. Six of them continue to recognise Taiwan as the Republic of China (Marshall Islands, Kiribati, Palau, Tuvalu, Solomon Islands and Nauru). Here too, Taiwan’s position is diplomatically and economically under siege. Solomon Islands is apparently wavering in its support for Taipei.
In Southeast Asia, unique among ASEAN members, Singapore has kept up a longstanding defence training arrangement with Taiwan. This is ongoing despite China’s recently heavy-handed treatment of the city state, including impounding a number of Singaporean military vehicles that were being shipped back from Taiwan, via Hong Kong, in 2016. But bandwidth for engagement in other areas is unlikely to increase.
The Trump administration is making an effort to lift its engagement with Taiwan, through the Taiwan Travel Act and other initiatives. Aside from this, Japan is currently Taiwan’s most important source of non-official support in the Indo-Pacific. A Japanese defence consortium was reported to be among those interested in bidding to build new submarines for Taiwan’s navy, as well as interest from India. However, in an atmosphere of mounting Chinese pressure that is designed to constrict Taipei’s international space, few states in the Indo-Pacific appear willing to wear the costs of engagement, beyond discreet activities that have limited effect on lifting the island’s profile.
Taiwan’s strange centre-peripheral shape-shifting act appears set to continue.
Euan Graham is the Executive Director of La Trobe Asia, at La Trobe University in Melbourne. He has been a close observer of Southeast and Northeast Asian security affairs for more than twenty years, in academia, the private sector, and for the British Government. He previously headed the international security program at the Lowy Institute, in Sydney. Image credit: CC by Simon Yang/Flickr.