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SPF China Observer


No.45 2023/12/04

Chinese Views of Taiwan’s Geostrategic Value

Toshi Yoshihara (Senior Fellow, Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments)

Taiwan holds essential strategic and military value to China. This axiom has many adherents in China, and it feeds a larger storyline that rationalizes Beijing’s resolute policy to take the island, by force or by insidious means.[1] This geostrategic orthodoxy explains, in part, why Xi Jinping believes “reunification” is a prerequisite to China’s renewal toward national greatness. It is an article of faith that reveals how hard Chinese leaders would be willing to fight over Taiwan and hints at how China might militarize the island should it fall into Communist hands.

As China continues to ratchet up military pressure against the island democracy and as concerns grow about a cross-strait war, it is vital to understand the geospatial underpinnings of Beijing’s quest to control Taiwan. It behooves policymakers in Washington and other allied capitals to revisit China’s discourse about Taiwan’s geographic importance and discern what Beijing’s geostrategic mindset might mean for Asian security. Drawing from writings by mainland strategists, the following lets the Chinese speak for themselves.[2]

Taiwan’s Maritime Geography

Located opposite Fujian Province off the Asian continent, Taiwan is nearly the same size as Kyushu, measuring almost 36,000 square kilometers. It sits at the midpoint of the first island chain, the transnational archipelago running south from Japan through Taiwan to the Philippines. To its west, the Taiwan Strait separates the island from the mainland by just 70 nautical miles at its narrowest and by about 220 nautical miles at its widest. To the south, the Luzon Strait, comprising the Bashi and Balintang Channels, connects the South China Sea to the Pacific Ocean. To the northeast, Japan’s Southwest Islands form a series of narrow seas and chokepoints through which mariners must pass through to reach the open waters of the Pacific. Taiwan’s northeastern port city of Suao is merely 60 nautical miles from Yonaguni, the most western tip of Japanese territory.

A Maritime Junction

Taiwan sits astride critical sea lines of communication that facilitate global maritime commerce. The Taiwan Strait connects the East and South China Seas that are in turn the avenues to reach the Pacific and Indian Oceans. It is a major shipping route linking Northeast Asian economies to European markets and all points in between them. Chinese observers have variously described the strait as a “crossroad [要冲],” “hub [枢纽],” or “key point [要点]” of seaborne traffic so essential to China’s trade and wealth.[3] Moreover, Taiwan is located between the Yangzi River Delta and Pearl River Delta Economic Zones, home to China’s most productive manufacturing centers and to the world’s largest and busiest port systems.

Militarily, the Taiwan Strait is a “strategic thoroughfare [战略通道]” that allows Chinese naval and air forces to transit between the Yellow, East, and South China Seas, the three main bodies of water that form China’s “near seas [近海].”[4] Yet, in Zhang Wenmu’s eyes, the cross-strait stalemate breaks up the near seas into their component parts and divides China’s navy, diluting its combat power. To Zhang, Chinese control of Taiwan would unify the Yellow, East, and South China Seas into a singular, integrated body of water. The Chinese navy’s North, East, and South Sea Fleets would then be free to swing through the strait to concentrate their forces in times of danger, enabling “China’s maritime defense power to form a synergy.”[5]

A Maritime Buffer

Chinese strategists see Taiwan as a “protective screen [屏障]” that would shield the coastal provinces from external threats. They have accordingly developed geospatial constructs that place Taiwan at the center of an arc-shaped buffer zone. To Zhu Tinchang, Zhoushan Island, Taiwan, and Hainan Island form a “maritime defense line [海防线]” that increases China’s strategic depth in the seaward direction.[6] Likewise, Huang Qiuyun conceives of Shandong Peninsula, Taiwan, and Hainan Island as the maximum seaward extensions of Chinese territory, forming China’s defensive perimeter in the western Pacific. Notably, Huang argues that control over Taiwan would transform the Taiwan Strait into China’s “strategic inner lake [战略内湖].”[7]

Conversely, so long as the island remained out of China’s hands, it would expose the mainland’s coastal metropolises, seaborne commercial traffic, and the movement of air and naval forces to hostile forces located on Taiwan. Indeed, the island has served as a “springboard [跳板]” from which external threats have invaded the mainland. Zhu Tinchang recalls Taiwan’s “irreplaceable role [不可替代的作用]” in advancing Imperial Japan’s territorial conquest of Guangdong and Hainan in the late 1930s.[8] The island’s “superior strategic position [优越的战略地位]” also contributed to Japan’s early operational successes in Southeast Asia during the Pacific War, including the devastating naval and air assaults launched against the Philippines from Taiwan. Chinese possession of the island would thus deny its offensive potential to others.

A Maritime Gateway

To Chinese analysts, Taiwan’s reunion with the mainland would confer to Beijing strategic vistas hitherto unavailable to it. At present, the first island chain imprisons China in a “semi-sealed state [半封锁状].”[9] Moreover, the island chain’s occupants are either formally allied or closely aligned with the United States, the only great power with the will and means to frustrate China’s maritime ambitions. Beijing has long feared that a maritime coalition led by Washington might seek to choke off Chinese access to the seas in a war over Taiwan. Control of the island would thus “shatter the semi-sealed predicament of China’s sea areas” while transforming Taiwan, the central segment of the first island chain, from a barrier into a “portal [门户]” to the Pacific.[10]

Taiwan’s return to the motherland would empower Beijing to impose its will on its maritime surroundings. As Zhang Wenmu asserts, “Taiwan is the crucial link to sea power in the western Pacific. After China achieves cross-strait unification, the scope of its sea control would reach the deep-water areas to Taiwan’s east and exert influence over Miyako Strait to Taiwan’s north and the Bashi Channel to Taiwan’s south.”[11] In other words, Chinese forces on the island would be able to radiate power along the first island chain and beyond. Zhang further explains that direct access to the deep-ocean basin off the island’s east coast would maximize “China’s maritime strategic force with the greatest deterrent power,” namely, its strategic ballistic missile submarines.[12] Chinese boomers would be able to slip directly into the Pacific’s deep waters for deterrent patrols without the need to pass through chokepoints along the first island chain.

Liu Xinhua sees Taiwan as a valuable launch pad to project Chinese naval and aerospace power. The island’s many fine naval bases and ports, including Kaohsiung, Keelung, Taichung, Hualien, Suao, and Tsoying, would meet the Chinese navy’s many peacetime and wartime needs. From air bases and airports on Taiwan, Chinese aircraft with combat radii of 2,000 kilometers would be able to cover the Yellow and East China Seas, the various straits from Bohai to the north to Bashi to the south, and the Ryukyus, Kyushu, Shikoku, and much of the Philippine archipelago. Liu concludes that, “A modern fleet based on Taiwan island supplemented by superior airpower would serve as the material foundation for achieving modern command of the sea.”[13]


The foregoing Chinese discourse shows a deep appreciation for Taiwan’s enduring geostrategic value in economic, defensive, and offensive terms. As Hu Bo succinctly observes, “To China, Taiwan is a natural barrier that shelters the mainland coast, an ideal fulcrum for protecting maritime communications, and a key for the Chinese navy to break through an island chain blockade and to reach the Pacific and Indian Oceans.”[14] In short, “reunification” would fill a major gap in China’s defensive perimeter, furnish Beijing a commanding position over critical sea lanes, and give the Chinese military a forward position from which to project power in peace and in war.

These prospective benefits to China are not mere abstractions. They would pose real-world military risks to the region and to the U.S.-Japan alliance. A deeply researched study by Brendan Green and Caitlin Talmadge convincingly argues that Chinese possession of Taiwan would complicate, if not endanger, U.S. naval operations in the Philippine Sea and, over the longer term, enhance China’s ability to interdict shipping and strengthen its undersea nuclear deterrent.[15]

Green and Talmadge further contend that such hazards would raise concerns in Tokyo about U.S. conventional warfighting, American extended deterrence, and Japan’s sea lane security. The Chinese writings documented above suggests that such unease would be justified. Ding Yunbao and Xin Fangkun, for example, have called on China to develop the means to threaten Japan’s “maritime lifeline [海上生命线]” to gain coercive leverage over Tokyo as the Sino-Japanese rivalry intensifies.[16] Taiwan’s fall to China would presumably go even further to help Beijing carry out such a threat.

Chinese views of Taiwan’s geostrategic value, especially its offensive varieties, must be treated seriously. They should not be dismissed as theorizing or chest thumping among members of China’s chattering class. Instead, these perspectives and their likely influence on Beijing’s strategy, if the island were to fall into China’s hands, should inform allied thinking about—and planning for—Taiwan’s defense.[17] They should reinforce the high value that the United States and Japan attach to the status quo, one that has kept a friendly nation on Tokyo’s southern flank. They should also spur the U.S.-Japan alliance to do more to support the island democracy against China’s peacetime coercion and to develop credible operational concepts to deny a Chinese military victory should Beijing choose to use force against Taiwan.

Toshi Yoshihara is a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA). He is the author of Mao’s Army Goes to Sea: The Island Campaigns and the Founding of China’s Navy.

1 See, for example, Alan M. Wachman, Why Taiwan? Geostrategic Rationales for China’s Territorial Integrity (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2007), pp. 118-152 and James R. Holmes and Toshi Yoshihara, Chinese Naval Strategy in the 21st Century: The Turn to Mahan (London: Routledge, 2008), pp. 54-62.

2 The affiliations of the Chinese authors are identified in the endnotes following each new citation.

3 靳怀鹏 刘政 李卫东 [Jin Huaipeng, Liu Zheng, and Li Weidong], 世界海洋军事地理 [World Oceanic Military Geography] (Beijing: National Defense University, 2001), p. 132. The three authors were instructors at the Chinese National Defense University at the time of the book’s publication.

4 刘宝银 杨晓梅 [Liu Baoyin and Yang Xiaomei], 西太平洋海上通道: 航天遥感融合信息战略区位 [Maritime Thoroughfares of the Western Pacific: The Strategic Location of Aerospace Remote-Sensing Information Fusion] (Beijing: Ocean Tide Press, 2017), p. 20. Liu is a researcher at the First Institute of Oceanography, Ministry of Natural Resources. Yang is a researcher at the Institute of Geographic Sciences and Natural Resources Research, Chinese Academy of Sciences.

5 张文木 [Zhang Wenmu], 中国地缘政治论 [On China’s Geopolitics] (Beijing: Ocean Press, 2015), p. 123. Zhang is a professor at the Center for Strategic Studies at Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics.

6 朱听昌 [Zhu Tinchang], “中国台湾地缘战略地位的历史和现实 [The History and Reality of Taiwan’s Geostrategic Standing for China],” in 强国之路: 地缘战略卷 [The Road to Great Power: Volume of Geostrategy], 刘晓宝 主编 [Liu Xiaobao, ed.], (Beijing: Liberation Army Press, 2015), p. 313. Zhu, a military officer, was a professor at the then People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Institute of International Relations, which was folded into the National University of Defense Technology in 2017.

7 黄秋允 [Huang Qiuyun], “论台湾的地缘政治重要性 [On Taiwan’s Geopolitical Importance],” 中国领导科学 [China Leadership Science], no. 1, 2016, p. 167. Huang hailed from the then PLA University of Foreign Languages, which was folded into the PLA Information Engineering University under the Strategic Support Force in 2017. The journal is published by the China Institute for Leadership Science under the Central Party School.

8 Zhu Tinchang, p. 308.

9 Liu Baoyin and Yang Xiaomei, p. 12.

10 Zhu Tinchang, p. 313.

11 Zhang Wenmu, p. 123.

12 Zhang Wenmu, p. 137.

13 刘新华 [Liu Xinhua], 中国发展海权战略研究 [Research on China’s Seapower Strategy Development] (Beijing: People’s Press, 2015), p. 314. Liu, a prolific scholar on maritime affairs, is a professor at the Zhongnan University of Economics and Law.

14 胡波 [Hu Bo], 后马汉时代的中国海权 [Chinese Sea Power in the Post-Mahanian Era] (Beijing: Ocean Press, 2018), p. 72. Hu is the director of the Peking University Center for Maritime Strategy Studies.

15 Brendan Rittenhouse Green, Caitlin Talmadge, “Then What? Assessing the Military Implications of Chinese Control of Taiwan,” International Security, 47:1 (Summer 2022), pp. 7-45. The authors concur with Zhang Wenmu’s view that strategic ballistic missile submarines based on the island’s east coast would enhance China’s nuclear deterrent posture, although they see such a development as a longer-term prospect.

16 丁云宝 辛方坤 [Ding Yunbao and Xin Fangkun], “日本海权战略及其对中国的影响 [Japan’s Sea Power Strategy and Its Influence Upon China],” in 周边国家海权战略态势研究 [Research on Sea Power Strategies and Postures of Surrounding Nations], 倪乐雄 主编 [Ni Lexiong, ed.] (Shanghai: Shanghai Jiao Tong University Press, 2015), pp. 39-40. Ding and Xin are professors at the Shanghai University of Political Science and Law.

17 Encouragingly, one Japanese academic has produced a preliminary study, based on extensive interviews with Japanese strategists, to assess the strategic risks to Japan if Taiwan were to fall under Chinese control. Matake Kamiya, “China’s Takeover of Taiwan Would Have a Negative Impact on Japan,” in The World After Taiwan’s Fall, David Santoro and Ralph Cossa, eds. (Honolulu: Pacific Forum, 2023), pp. 29-38.

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