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Can the US Island-Chain Strategy Protect Taiwan from China’s Aggression?

China’s aggression is at its peak, evidenced by sending bombers on May 24, 2024, to intimidate Taiwan and its newly-elected President Lai Ching-te. Just a day earlier, China had positioned 19 warships around Taiwan’s perimeter, along with 16 marine police vessels and 49 warplanes, of which 35 crossed the median line. These maneuvers were part of China’s war games to test its ability to subdue Taiwan and seize control.

Chinese President Xi Jinping had set a clear goal a year ago, directing his army to be ready for action by 2027, signaling to the world his intention to take over Taiwan by then.

The Island-Chain Strategy was formulated during the Korean War in 1951 by American foreign policy statesman John Foster Dulles. It proposed encircling the Soviet Union and China with naval bases in the Western Pacific to project power and restrict sea access. Although not central during the Cold War, this strategy has remained crucial for America and China’s geopolitical status, underscoring Taiwan’s strategic importance.

Now, almost 73 years later, China is once again applying pressure on Taiwan through military drills near its borders. The Chinese PLA Eastern Theatre Command recently conducted joint military drills involving the army, navy, air force, and rocket force around Taiwan to test their joint operations capabilities.

In this context, America’s Island-Chain Strategy has regained focus. The strategy today involves a series of islands from Japan through the Philippines and Indonesia, down to Australia, with strategically placed military bases and naval stations. Key US locations include the Yasuka Naval Base, Kadena Air Base, and the Guam Naval Base, which opened in 2020 and serves as a critical hub to protect Taiwan.

China views America’s Island-Chain Strategy as a threat to its One-China policy and its claim over Taiwan. Conversely, US commitment to Taiwan’s defense further complicates relations with China. Therefore, the Island-Chain Strategy is pivotal in shaping the power dynamics in the Pacific region, serving US interests in maintaining regional security while addressing threats from China.

China’s military strength has significantly increased under Xi Jinping’s leadership, with a recent 7% defense budget increase, the largest in five years. China’s naval expansion and cyber capabilities have heightened its influence in international security, sparking concerns among Southeast Asian nations and US allies over potential conflicts in disputed territories. Increased military encounters between US and Chinese forces raise the risk of miscalculations that could escalate into larger confrontations.

The US Island-Chain Strategy is crucial in containing China’s rise in the Indo-Pacific region. The first island chain extends from the Kamchatka Peninsula to the Malay Peninsula, including Japan, the Ryukyu Islands, Taiwan, and the Northern Philippines. It forms a buffer zone restricting China’s naval and air operations. The second island chain encompasses Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands, reinforcing the US defensive posture with strategic bases and surveillance systems.

Defending Taiwan is essential for maintaining security in the first island chain and protecting South Korea and Vietnam. If China takes over Taiwan, it would breach the first island chain and shift the balance of military power in Asia in its favor, jeopardizing Japan’s southern flank and complicating coalition forces’ cooperation. Taiwan is strengthening its coastal defense with American M182 Abrams tanks and building eight submarines. The US is also enhancing defenses with unmanned underwater vehicles and smart mines backed by acoustic detection systems.

There is a growing call for Taiwan to trust that the US and Japan will defend it against Chinese aggression. The US, with India’s support, is developing an interface to counter China and promote deeper regional ties. Overall, the US Island-Chain Strategy remains a vital means to counter China’s aggression and will be crucial in any military escalation.

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