China’s increasing capacity for power projection and rising belligerence has changed the status quo in the Pacific and demands the United States adopt a policy of containment similar to that practiced against the former Soviet Union. Central to a strategy of containment must be a robust forward defense of Taiwan.
The defense posture of the United States in the Pacific has been largely static since the end of the Korean and Vietnamese Wars, and the adoption of the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979. Between them, they established the strategic balance between China and the U.S., the former, master of the mainland; the latter, dominant in the archipelago stretching from the Aleutians to Australia.
In the past few years, however, China has violated international law by building a series of artificial islands with airfields across the South China Sea, in areas that either belong to others or are neutral. Similar to the Japanese Empire in the 1930s, China is striking south to secure resource rich areas, and to protect trade routes that run through the Straits of Malacca to the Middle East and beyond.
Unlike China’s northern flank, where the armistice line between North and South Korea has frozen the strategic calculus in place, the southern flank is wide open to influence via commercial ties and/or military-backed pressure. In the past year, President Duterte of the Philippines has toyed with switching his long-standing alliance from the U.S. to China. Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Malaysia have also signaled their intention to strengthen ties with Beijing. The only outlier in the region is, ironically, Vietnam, which regards China’s encirclement of their maritime access and resources as an unambiguous threat.
Efforts in the south are, however, merely a precursor to the main event, the re-conquest of Taiwan. The geographic fact is that China cannot be the dominant maritime power of Asia without Taiwan, which functions as the cork in the bottle preventing China from projecting power into the Central Pacific. It divides China’s immediate security perimeter into two disjointed spheres, severely complicating their ability to shift forces on a north-south axis, and leaving any immediate-range sorties highly vulnerable to attacks on their rear.
Chinese advances in the South China Sea are useful in themselves, but also serve to envelop Taiwan. Were the Chinese successful in turning the Philippines into a military satellite, then only the American base at Okinawa would be left in the corner of a square that includes Manila, Hong Kong and Shanghai, with Taiwan at the center.
The Taiwan Relations Act commits the U.S. to a policy of strategic ambiguity with regards to the defense of the island, and our “One China” policy means we do not officially recognize their basic sovereignty. While these policies were adequate to their time, the Chinese are now taking advantage of our inaction, by laying down pieces in a regional contest of Go, the ancient Chinese strategy game of territorial acquisition. If the U.S. refuses to play, the game will continue without us, until Taiwan is lost, our defensive lines are driven thousands of miles east, and Japan and South Korea are subjected to a “Finlandization” of their foreign policies.
In explicit recognition that Chinese belligerence in the South China Sea has violated both international law and the modus vivendi of Sino-American relations, the United States should seek to re-establish a mutual defense treaty with Taiwan. We must make crystal clear our intention to defend the island, and stock it with enough short- and intermediate-range missiles to destroy any invasion force, and wreak havoc upon the coastal areas that are so vital to the Chinese economy.
Our aim should be to nuclearize Taiwan as the ultimate guarantee not only of its safety, but also of our own. If China is allowed to acquire power and prestige through armed force, we will inevitably be at war over a piece of real estate that we are unwilling to surrender. If, however, the military seizure of China’s primary objective is taken off the table, they will have little recourse but to resort to diplomacy to achieve their great power designs.
President-elect Trump made a good start by talking to President Tsai Ing-wen of Taiwan, but later backed off by re-iterating the “One China” policy. Perhaps Trump believed China would help with North Korea by cutting off trade to punish their nuclear weapons program, but with trade between Beijing and Pyongyang increasing over the last six months, that delusion should be put to rest.
Taiwan may have no desire to become the West Germany of the Pacific, but if they do wish to defend themselves aggressively, they should be given every weapon we possess. No doubt the usual suspects in the Council on Foreign Relations would decry such moves as “provocative” and “dangerous”, but the status quo is failing, and if the U.S. does not step up on our timeline, the Chinese will continue to step up on theirs.
A firm rejection of Chinese aggression, coupled with strong efforts to secure a forward defensive position, would go far to convince the region to hold the line against Chinese hegemony. A Sino-American war is the last thing America or the world needs. We should make every effort to convince the Chinese of the prohibitive costs of starting such a conflict, even at the expense of a short-term deterioration in bilateral relations.
P. H. Guthrie is a former Republican campaign operative. His work has appeared in USA Today, Real Clear Politics, The Federalist, and The Daily Caller. He has also appeared on "The Dan Caplis Show" on KNUS 710. He currently resides in the Washington, D.C. area. Follow him on Twitter @PHGuthrie. To read more of his reports, Go Here Now.
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