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March 1, 2020

Defense of Taiwan -a Test for the U.S. Alliance System in the West Pacific-

(This article was written for the English-Speaking Union of Japan at http://www.esuj.gr.jp/jitow/585_index_detail.php

Early in January I went to Taiwan for the first time after more than ten years of interval. The economy is highly developed and the society is liberal just as ten years ago. However, Taiwan is now being caught up by China in terms of the standard of life. Furthermore, her economic model now faces a turning point; huge electronic manufacturers like TSCM (Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co., Ltd.)1 and Hon Hai-Foxconn Technology Group2, which have been thriving in tandem with the U.S. and China, are now pressed by the U.S. to reconsider their ties with Chinese partners, and the drastic fall in the number of Chinese tourists, which is a "punishment" to the current independence-oriented Tsai government, is bringing down her economy. I found that a new grandiose hotel in Kaohsiung, a major city in the south went into bankruptcy because of this.

Nevertheless, even a tour guide told me, "I am rather poor. And yet I prefer the freedom in our society to the economic benefits which China may bring to us. So, although I am non-partisan, I will vote for the Democratic Progressive Party3." Reflecting such voice, Prof. Tsai Ing-wen was reelected in mid-January as President of Taiwan for another four years. She is an advocate of moderate independence, which means abstaining from a formal declaration of independence while maintaining an effective statehood, which is free, democratic and market-oriented. The combination of wide-spread adherence to democracy and the political wisdom of self-restraint is very encouraging, and should help elicit support from foreign observers.

Is Taiwan defendable?

However, is Taiwan defendable from a military point of view? My intuitive answer is "50 to 50". The Taiwanese military bastions on small islands (Penghu Islands et al.) in Taiwan Strait may cause trouble for Chinese naval operation at the initial stage of a conflict, but once the Chinese navy reaches the western coast of Taiwan, the flat terrain in the western half of Taiwan will offer an easy place for land-force operation. I travelled from Kaohsiung to Taipei by train, observing the topography for 300 km.

A problem for possible Chinese intrusion is that Taipei is surrounded by mountains and hills, which makes land-force operation difficult. But if the Chinese navy blockades the sea port Keelung, the entrance to Taipei, the city of three million population will not hold even a month.4 The sea there is shallow, so submarines cannot operate against the Chinese navy. Only land-to-sea missiles, surface battleships and air force will be able to restrain the Chinese navy off the shore of Keelung.

In case of a Chinese military onslaught the U.S. armed forces would have intervened in the past (it really did so in 1996), but President Trump may well avoid a military clash with China. And his hesitation will shake the U.S. alliance system in the West Pacific; Japan, South Korea and others, for fear of being abandoned by the U.S. in case of emergency, will either endeavor to build up their own armaments including nuclear weapons or succumb to the Chinese might to become part of her commonwealth.

On the other hand, if the U.S. decides to militarily help Taiwan, she may face lukewarm attitudes of the Japanese and South-Korean governments. These two countries may not want to provoke China so as to avoid attacks on the U.S. bases in their own countries. In this case the U.S. navy will be forced to fight on its own without logistical support from Japan and South Korea.

In either case the efficacy of the U.S. alliance system in the West Pacific will be seriously questioned. The best solution, therefore, would be the further strengthening of the Taiwanese armed forces, inter alia fighter planes and short-range missiles.

Akio Kawato is a former Japanese ambassador to Uzbekistan and Tajikistan and currently is a columnist at Japanese "Newsweek".
The English-Speaking Union of Japan