In recent months, concern has been growing about the potential for conflict in the Taiwan Straits. American defense officials have publicly expressed worry about the ability of the United States to successfully deter the People’s Republic of China (PRC) should Beijing decide to use force against the island of Taiwan. The steady increase in size and frequency of Chinese aerial intrusions into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone has exacerbated these concerns.
Are such concerns justified? Yes. To what extent does the fate of Taiwan affect the United States? A lot.
To begin with, there is the geographic importance of Taiwan. Taiwan is part of the so-called “first island chain,” stretching from Japan through Okinawa and Taiwan to the Philippines and the Straits of Malacca. This chain, if in hostile hands, is a barrier to both Chinese military and commercial access to the seas. As important, since China’s economic center of gravity is on the coast from Tianjin to Shanghai to Shenzhen, it is vulnerable to attacks from the sea — or from that same island chain.
Conversely, in Chinese hands, Taiwan and the broader first island chain will serve as a shield for China. Taiwan, in the center of that chain, would be a key factor determining whether China’s military must operate defensively or could operate offensively.
Ownership of Taiwan would provide Beijing other, greater advantages. If China were able to deploy surface-to-air missiles, radars, and airborne early-warning aircraft to Taiwan, Beijing’s warning time of any attack would be substantially increased. Long-range strike forces deployed on the island would provide the PLA Air Force and PLA Navy an unfettered ability to range deep into the central Pacific to attack oncoming forces, while also interdicting supply routes to Japan and South Korea.
This geographic importance is not solely a wartime concern. The PRC is unique. It is a land power that depends on the seas. China needs the oceans to import key resources, the most important of which is food. China is a net importer of food, including staple grains; without such imports, the Chinese population would experience skyrocketing food prices, which in turn could threaten the rule of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
In addition, the PRC must import energy, including oil, as well as raw materials. The PRC converts said raw materials into a range of products, from steel I-beams to T-shirts to computers, and exports them around the world. All of this is by way container ships, of which China is now one of the largest producers.
Without easy access to the sea, the CCP would have trouble feeding its people, maintaining its factories, and earning income. Even with the Belt and Road Initiative and other infrastructure investments, for the moment China cannot replace its dependence upon the seas.
There is also the reality that Taiwan is a key link in the global supply chain supporting information and communications technologies. Taiwanese firms, along with South Korean and some other companies, are the key producers of microchips, the silicon-based components that effectively animate the world’s electronics. The current shortage of chips has had downstream effects across industrial sectors, extending beyond information and communications technologies to include automobiles.
Taiwanese firms have more than 60 percent of the global market share of chip production. Were China to somehow jeopardize that capacity, Beijing would have the ability to influence other countries to an overwhelming degree. This would affect not only the United States but such key allies as Japan and Germany.
It is not for the United States to determine the ultimate fate of Taiwan, or dictate the relationship between Beijing and Taipei. But it is in America’s interest to ensure that this sensitive region, with its enormous impact on global economic security, does not see the outbreak of conflict. American efforts to support a peaceful resolution of the Taiwan Straits issue, including deterring a Chinese use of force against the island of Taiwan, are an integral part of sustaining global peace and stability.