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Politics & Security

Taiwan: A tasty Target – Chips or No Chips

If it takes Taiwan, the PRC would effectively outflank Japanese defenses and be positioned to dominate and seize Japanese maritime and island territory.

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Chess pieces are seen in front of displayed China and Taiwan's flags in this illustration taken January 25, 2022. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/Illustration

Countries go to war for many reasons — but to grab semiconductor plants would be a first.

Taiwan is a global hub of semiconductor manufacturing. Some analysts argue a principal reason the People’s Republic of China (PRC) would invade Taiwan would be to seize Taiwan’s semiconductor industry. A couple academics even argue that Taiwan can forestall a Chinese attack by threatening to destroy its semiconductor factories at the first sign of a PLA attack.

However, China would be no less keen to seize Taiwan if the islands didn’t have a single semiconductor factory.

From Beijing’s perspective there’s plenty of “up-side” to taking Taiwan by force or by throttling it and bringing it under mainland control.

Let’s think it through.

Strategic Terrain: Breaking the ‘First Island Chain’

Map of China’s aggressive claims in around Taiwan and in the East China Sea

Taiwan has what real estate agents say matters most: location, location, location. Geography matters.

Taiwan sits in the middle of the so-called First Island Chain that runs from Japan southwards through Taiwan and the Philippines and onwards to Indonesia and Malaysia. United States defense concepts call for defending along the First Island Chain.

Viewed from the Chinese mainland, the First Island Chain is a barrier that blocks easy access to the Pacific Ocean for Chinese naval and air forces. Chinese forces need to pass through a handful of narrow (and easily defended) straits or pass over potentially hostile territory. 

So, occupy Taiwan and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has a lodgment smack in the middle of the United States’ (and allies) forward defense line that bottles up the Chinese military. 

Control over Taiwan and its airfields and ports will allow the PLA both freedom of movement and extended range into the Western Pacific, and beyond. 

Additionally, it will give Beijing increased leverage over other countries in the region. Taiwan is a splendid location for interdicting sea lanes through the South China Sea, a region that China claims as its own and through which much of Japan’s trade flows, including vital energy imports. It will also make South Korea even more vulnerable. 

By holding Taiwan, PRC will be in a position to prevent ships from other nations from using the South China Sea. It could even charge administrative fees for the privilege of passing through “its waters.” 

It could also massively expand its Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ), giving it leverage over air as well as sea lanes. 

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Even now China applies pressure on nations with competing claims in the South China Sea. But, with Taiwan under Beijing’s control, those other nations will be able to operate in the South China Sea only with the PRC’s sufferance. 

Sticking It to The Japanese

A flotilla of Chinese maritime militia “fishing” vessels aggressively entering waters near Senkaku Islands (September 2020)

Taiwan’s fall will allow China to teach Japan a lesson – and it is keen to do so. One can see that in action in the East China Sea around Japan’s Senkaku Islands—islands also claimed by China (and Taiwan). 

RELATED: Okinawa Fisherman Takes to YouTube to Show Chinese Encroachment on the Senkakus

Since 2012, PRC naval and coast guard ships have gradually increased their presence in the area. Japanese forces have responded to Chinese incursions, but have not initiated a shooting war. 

However, Japanese naval and air forces are increasingly overmatched as Chinese ships and aircraft appear more often, in greater numbers, and for longer periods of time. The Japanese are holding on, and are also deploying Ground Self-Defense Force anti-ship missile units and air defense systems to the Nansei Shoto (Ryukyu Islands) to bolster their southern defense line.

The Japanese are also finally showing signs of cooperating with United States forces to defend Japan’s southern territory, but it is late in the day.

RELATED: Shift in Japan’s Defense Posturing Signals Taiwan is Now a Core Concern

With Taiwan in hand, the PRC will have effectively outflanked Japanese defenses in the Nansei Shoto, and will be positioned to dominate the East China Sea and seize Japanese maritime and island territory. 

And once PLA submarines, ships, and aircraft start operating regularly east of Japan’s main islands, Japan will also need to defend its eastern approaches for the first time since 1945.

All this will crimp the ability of US forces to operate in the region.

Operating Into and Dominating the Second Island Chain and Beyond 

This image is adapted from content provided courtesy of Dr. Rieko Hayakawa.

The PRC isn’t just looking east. It’s looking south and southeast as well. 

From Taiwan, with some effort, the PLA can drive a salient into the heart of American “second layer” defenses in the Central Pacific – and even push into the Southwest and South Pacific. China doesn’t have any military bases or access locations in the region, and has only made modest military forays into the area. 

But the PRC has laid the groundwork with 30 years of political warfare, economic and commercial inroads, and physical presence, including scoping the seas and ports via its commercial and fishing fleets. And, at the same time, greasing the way via elite capture. 

Before too long the PLA will have bases in the region. Chinese military access will provide the PRC with options for pressuring US allies, including Australia. 

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RELATED: Targeting Palau and other Island Countries, China Puts Human Rights and Pacific Security at Risk

Chinese Pacific bases or access locations can threaten US forces and facilities in the region. But PRC interest doesn’t stop in the middle of the Pacific. The PLA is also gearing up to operate farther east of Hawaii, off the West Coast of the continental United States, as the PRC assiduously develops ties and shipping routes to the West Coast of Central and South America. 

US-led RIMPAC multilateral naval exercises in the Pacific in 2020 (Sankei)

Demolishing the American Protective Blanket

Despite the breathtaking PRC military expansion over the last 30 years, it was possible for some in the region (and for many in the United States) to believe the United States was still the foremost military power and could defend itself and its friends. And there was an implicit belief that America would save Taiwan. 

But if Taiwan falls to the PRC, the entire dynamic will be altered. Beijing will have demonstrated that it alone has the power—and the will—to dominate in Asia

Consider what a regional nation will see in their neighborhood after the fall of Taiwan. China’s military will be seemingly everywhere— including backing up China’s huge fishing and maritime militia fleets. It will be intimidating. 

The fall of Taiwan will leave a searing impression on all regional nations (even North Korea): 

  • The vaunted US military couldn’t, or wouldn’t, stop Beijing. 
  • Fear of economic and financial retaliation didn’t stop Beijing. 
  • Even fear of America’s nuclear weapons didn’t stop Beijing. 
  • The United States and its allies couldn’t stop Beijing from taking—by force or bullying—democratic, independent, US-friendly Taiwan, and subjugating its 24 million citizens.

And if the Americans couldn’t stop the Chinese, who will or can? 

But maybe the shock of Taiwan falling will concentrate minds and drive nations closer to each other and/or to the United States for self- preservation? Perhaps. 

It is more likely, though, that the concrete and nearby evidence of Chinese power will drive regional countries to cut the best deal they can with China in hopes of being mostly left alone or not being treated too harshly by Beijing. 

Most of Asia will turn “red” and quickly.

Japan and Australia might hold out, but they will be quaking, and the degree of compliance to China will be a constant issue – egged on by well-funded Chinese political warfare. And India might decide it needs new friends. 

Beyond the Indo-Pacific, every other country will take note as well.

So, if taking Taiwan allows China to push the United States out of Asia and knock it off its perch as the world’s leading nation, Xi Jinping might be sorely tempted to pay whatever price is necessary. Remember this is a leadership that has proven willing to do things that could seem to American minds like irrational self-inflicted economic wounds if they assess it would benefit their own relative position. Think of what happened to Hong Kong or Jack Ma. 

Given the stakes, semiconductors don’t matter much in the equation.

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Author: Grant Newsham

Grant Newsham is a retired US Marine and a former diplomat and business executive who spent many years in Asia. He is a senior fellow with the Center for Security Policy. Find his articles on JAPAN Forward here.

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