The ‘Taiwan factor’ in Sino-US Great Power Politics in the Indo-Pacific

The geostrategic significance of Taiwan has made it one of the linchpins of Sino-US great power politics within the Indo-Pacific region. The geopolitics revolving around the issue of Taiwan is heavily contested and has major implications for the overall security architecture of the region. The two major aspects which has made Taiwan a major security issue is A) the nationalism factor from the PRC’s perspective and B) the geostrategic position of the island. This article will look at the second factor which is guiding the Sino-US strategic rivalry in this region.

The strategic location of Taiwan has been well understood since World War II, when the US general Douglas MacArthur termed the island an ‘unsinkable aircraft carrier’. The island plays a pivotal role in American power projection and containment strategy in the Asia-Pacific region. Because of this, the issue of Taiwan has been the major area of contestation in Sino-US relations and is considered to be a major flashpoint in the Asia-Pacific region. Beijing has always considered Taiwan as part of China and all nations forming relations with the PRC has to accept the One China policy. However, the US has always used Taiwan as a strategic hedge against Beijing. China, on the other hand, has used the issue of Taiwan as a matter of no compromise. The growing US-Taiwan relations is generating a lot of friction in Sino-US relations due to the structural shift in US policy towards Taiwan under the Trump administration. Under the Trump administration, both the military and economic relationship with Taiwan has expanded, with the US currently exporting large chunks of state-of-the-art military hardware to Taiwan. Beijing has been unhappy with these new developments – brewing a new power competition in the region.

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The geostrategic location of Taiwan has been a major reason for both the US and China to exercise their influence in the island nation.  From the Chinese perspective, Taiwan is not only a political and sentimental issue for China but also one of immense geostrategic value. The strategic importance of Taiwan can be understood in the context of the ‘Island Chain’ dilemma that China faces in the Pacific towards US influence. The Island Chain is a geographical and security concept used by the US to define its defensive and offensive perimeter in the Pacific by linking the island masses together. It is divided into the two parts: the First Island Chain which basically runs from the Islands of Japan, Okinawa, Taiwan, Philippines till Indonesia; the Second Island Chain which stretches from Japan to Micronesia and Guam. Due to this strategy, China in geographical terms feels that it is boxed in the region, as it cannot access the open waters of Pacific. The First and Second Island Chains are also home to key US military bases which have been sources of US power projection and challenges to Chinese interests in the region.

If China secures Taiwan, it will diminish its First Island Chain dilemma and allow it to project power in the western Pacific which, in the long run, can limit US influence. The deep water ports in eastern Taiwan can allow Chinese submarines to dive deep undetected towards the Second Island Chain of Guam. The unification of Taiwan with the mainland will help China create a united naval defence zone stretching from the Yellow Sea to the South China Sea. The reunification of Taiwan with the mainland will help the PRC to develop its own sphere of influence in the region, undermining the US influence dramatically. For the US, having Taiwan under its sphere of influence is of prime importance as losing it will not only impact the US strategically but also politically. This has made the US Navy transit through the Taiwan Strait regularly as it attempts to maintain its security influence, which, in return, has angered the Chinese.  This is galvanizing the power competition between the US and China in the Asia-Pacific region, possessing the intensity to escalate into a major conflict which can hamper the security and stability of the entire region.

Featured image credit: Remi Yuan on Unsplash

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