Taiwan is a country of 23 million people on an island just over 35,000 square miles. With the size of this island taken into consideration, one may scratch their head when trying to comprehend how it occupies such an important role in the current geopolitics of East Asia. How is it that this tiny island could possibly create great power conflict in our world today? Further, to what extent should the United States support Taiwan, if at all? Do we bend to China and refuse support or do we maintain both a military and diplomatic relationship with the island? The US must walk a tightrope, not provoking China by officially recognizing Taiwan, but also maintaining a strong military relationship in order to address strategic interests in the region.
The issue of Taiwanese independence presents a major identity crisis for the People’s Republic of China (PRC). When the Chinese Civil War ended in 1949, key members of the PRC fled to the island of Taiwan. Ever since, Chinese leaders have wanted to take back the island, asserting that Taiwan is historically part of China. China views the island as a key part in maintaining Chinese territorial integrity and its notion of “One China.” Thus, the US officially recognizing them as a state would be viewed by the PRC as a major affront to Chinese sovereignty. There is no reason for the United States to needlessly antagonize Chinese interests by establishing diplomatic relations and recognizing Taiwan as a country. With rising tensions on trade and human rights, the US should avoid adding strain to this relationship by elevating Taiwan to country status. Additionally, in recent months, Chinese military activity in the region of Taiwan has given rise to fears of increased tensions which could transform into hostile actions by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) against the island. This increase in force presence adds another reason for the United States to avoid adding more tension.
While the United States should not establish official diplomatic ties with Taiwan, the question of military support is another consideration altogether. The United States has been a key military ally to Taiwan since 1950. During the 1950s, the security guarantee of the United States Navy played a huge role in ensuring that the PRC did not attempt to take back Taiwan. But why should the United States continue to maintain such a strong defense relationship with Taiwan? While a lot of this may seem like abstract defense posturing, Taiwan occupies a very important strategic position for China. Taiwan is a part of the first island chain, which is a group of islands spanning from the southern end of Japan down to the Philippines. This island chain effectively seals China from the Pacific Ocean, limiting Chinese force projection capabilities. These limits would hinder China greatly in any future conflict as they could easily be blockaded with nowhere to expand and no access to the Pacific Ocean. Additional strategic consideration arises with issues of trade and territorial disputes. A Chinese military and commercial position on Taiwan would open a gateway to the Pacific that could be used for military or trade purposes such as expanding control over the South China Sea or dominating Pacific markets. With these expansions would come a rise in Chinese regional power at the expense of the United States. Thus, it is in the best interests of the United States to ensure that Taiwan remains a military ally of the United States and stays out of Chinese hands.
Taiwan’s independence from China is one of the United states’ toughest geopolitical issues. While it is important that we do not raise tensions with China over the unnecessary issue of diplomatic relations with Taiwan, it is also critical for us to maintain our strategic interests in the region. Thus, the United States should not pursue a formal diplomatic relationship with Taiwan. However, it is important that we maintain a strong military partnership in order to maintain a foothold in the region and to limit Chinese force projection power.