Steve Tsang: The Evolution of Taiwan’s Geostrategic Significance to China & the Risk of Military Confrontation in the Indo-Pacific

An Interview with Steve Tsang

The Evolution of Taiwan’s Geostrategic Significance to China & the Risk of Military Confrontation in the Indo-Pacific

What is the Chinese Communist Party’s domestic narrative regarding Taiwan? How does this position influence China’s stance on the matter within the international community? To what extent will greater foreign presence or cooperation with Taiwan further aggravate the situation?

The Chinese government’s narrative about Taiwan does not necessarily have to be reflective of reality on the ground in Taiwan. The CCP does not describe Taiwan as a vibrant democracy, as it is often portrayed in the West. Rather, it is seen as a Chinese province which, under American influence, is operating under a different system that is chaotic and not sufficiently patriotic. The CCP considers China’s system to be a more organic and better suited arrangement for the people of China—not the Taiwanese version of it.

The Chinese government believes that the international community should not interfere with a domestic Chinese affair. As far as the CCP is concerned, Taiwan is and has always been Chinese territory. From the Chinese government’s perspective, their narrative is the correct and only true narrative. Hence, the more that other countries and third parties try to support the Taiwanese, the more problematic the whole issue becomes.

If Taiwan does not receive support from any foreign countries, it will have to accept a form of peaceful reunification with China. In other words, Taiwan will have to surrender to China. This One China Principle has thus caused problems with major Western democracies, but not necessarily with all other countries around the world, many of which are quite willing to accept the Chinese government’s position on Taiwan. None of the major democracies accept the Chinese government’s position. They merely acknowledge that the Chinese government claims Taiwan and they do not dispute that.

Through the Taiwan Relations Act, the U.S is committed to assisting the people of Taiwan, if the people of Taiwan should refuse to become part of China. That commitment is not as clearly defined as in a mutual defence treaty, but the commitment stipulates that the government of the day will have to consult Congress as to the appropriate response, should such an eventuality materialize, which could involve the U.S interfering militarily. This has caused much concern amongst major democratic countries because the prospect of a military confrontation between China and the U.S over Taiwan would completely destabilize the global economy. Nobody really likes the status quo, but I think many prefer it to such an alternative.

How does the prospect of an independent Taiwan threaten the legitimacy of CCP rule? What is Taiwan’s geostrategic significance?

An independent Taiwan would not pose a threat to the legitimacy of the People’s Republic of China. There are other vibrant democracies that exist in the world—in East Asia, in North America, and in Europe—their existence does not pose a threat to the legitimacy of the Leninist party state in China.

Where Taiwan can pose a threat to the legitimacy of the Chinese party state, is the claim that Taiwan is fully Chinese. If you have a very sizable part of China—in the case of Taiwan, 23-24 million people—fully democratic and fully Chinese, then it does raise the question as to which model would be best for the Chinese people.

Often, Taiwan is presented as a sovereignty issue for China and the Communist Party of China. The historical reality, going back into 20th century history, is that one of the first and the most vocal advocates for the independence of Taiwan was none other than the Communist Party of China itself. From the 1920s until the mid-1940s, the CCP held that Taiwan was much like Korea and should be supported to achieve independence from Japanese imperial rule. This was formally acknowledged at the Sixth Party Congress, held in 1928. Later, the CCP position changed, making it into a national sovereignty issue. Taiwan is now seen as a sacred territory that must be reunited with mainland China.

Taiwan did not have much geostrategic importance in the earlier part of the 20th century. Taiwan was part of the imperial Japanese empire, and the Communist Party had no air force or navy—Taiwan was merely a distant island. Taiwan’s geostrategic significance began changing in 1949, when Taiwan became the last redoubt of Chiang Kai-shek’s Republic of China government that was being ousted from the mainland of China. This government occupied China’s seats at the UN, threatening the legitimacy of the PRC after its foundation.

It was widely expected that the PLA would eventually attack Taiwan once it had the necessary capability, but then the Korean War happened, with Mao’s blessings. A miscalculation on Mao’s part resulted in U.S President Harry Truman neutralizing the Taiwan Strait, effectively rendering it impossible for the PLA to take Taiwan. Even then, Taiwan did not have much strategic importance to China, because the PRC did not have much modern naval or air capabilities.

Reforms in the 1980s lead to a major shift in China’s strategic thinking. The Maoist People’s War concept was replaced by a new maritime strategy, called the First Island Chain. If Chinese naval and air forces could hold the first island chain, then they would secure the eastern seaboard of China—which was rapidly modernizing, becoming the manufacturing and financial center of China itself—for which Taiwan held strategic importance. China has only gained the ability to operationalize this concept within the last decade or so, following its massive build-up of maritime and air capabilities.

There is a second dimension to Taiwan’s strategic importance. Given that Taiwan exists independently of the mainland of China because of U.S protection, if China were to take Taiwan, either by deterring the U.S from interfering, or by defeating American forces, then the balance of power within the Indo-Pacific region would change dramatically.

If ever the U.S cannot defend Taiwan, all of ASEAN would have to make their own deals with Beijing. The very foundations of American Indo-Pacific strategy since the end of the Pacific war, the U.S-Japan Mutual Security Treaty, would be put in doubt. Japan would either need to go nuclear or make a deal with China. America would be pushed further into the middle of the Pacific Ocean, leaving China as the hegemon in the western Pacific Ocean. This would negatively impact the global prestige of the U.S—so much so that it would raise questions as to whether the U.S could remain the global hegemon. Thus, Taiwan is a critical aspect of the U.S-China relationship.

What role do you see for Canada in the Indo-Pacific, as both a middle power and supporter of democratic values and human rights? What considerations should go into a potential Canadian Indo-Pacific Strategy?

Democratic countries that believe in their values must stand up for them. It is much more than just about what military power one can project—but rather, supporting those values. Taiwan is a fully democratic country that shares basic values with Canada. In that sense, the basic interest of Canada and Taiwan are not fundamentally different from the basic values shared between Canada and Australia. The more you can do to protect those values, the more you are protecting yourself.

Secondly, the risk of a military confrontation between the U.S and China is so devastating that we really must do everything we can to make sure that such a scenario does not materialize. China and Taiwan are two very important links in the global supply chain for the globalized economy. If there were to be a military confrontation between the U.S and China over Taiwan, we would see both links removed from the global supply chain. Regardless of the scenario, whoever wins or loses, the global economy will be negatively impacted to a considerable extent, and we are going to see multiple percentage points in GDP growth being reduced in all the major economies.

China needs to understand that the U.S will involve itself in a potential conflict over Taiwan, and such an intervention would have such devastating consequences for China, that is not worthwhile for China to take Taiwan. Nonetheless, deterring Chinese efforts to take Taiwan would be extremely difficult, militarily and I think there is a high probability of military deterrence failing.

Successful economic deterrence would require a coalition of the major economies—which generally happen to be democracies. If Canada, the U.S, the EU, Japan, Australia, the UK, and India support Taiwan’s refusal to unify with China, responding collectively in economic terms, this means we will cut off our economic relationship with China. We know this would have a negative impact on our economies and significantly reduce our growth rate. This would totally and utterly devastate China’s economy. This action could effectively deter Xi Jinping. He is a risk taker, but he is not reckless, and he is not, by any stretch of the imagination, stupid. Canada could do this as it has the moral standing and authority to help coordinate a coalition for such a response. Nonetheless, a comparable scale of economic devastation would occur for Canada and its allies, should China end up in a war with the U.S over Taiwan.




Steve Tsang


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