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The Asia-Pacific

The Asia-Pacific – 2018

The Taiwan Strait

The Taiwan Strait is the main body of water that separates Taiwan from mainland China, and as a result of enormous importance as per strategic positioning and moreover, it must be physically crossed in order for a decisive military incursion to take place, or be politically cum symbolically overcome in terms of establishing ownership. To be sure, Taiwan consists of a main island and a series of smaller islands, all however, constitute Taiwan ROC’s territories.[1] It is the capture of the main island that presents the singular importance to the retrocession by the CCP and extending on this parameter, it is from both a semiotic and physical perspectives that the main island must be gained passively or aggressively by China if the unification it desires is to take place. From fiscal and economic perspectives—with investments by Taiwanese in China and the resultant nautical and air-traffic associated with trade and tourism—the Strait is not problematic as there is abundant mercantile activity which poses only isolated problems.[2] From a military, strategic, and tactical perspective however, the Taiwan Strait must be acknowledged as a definitive signaller of intent—to all nautical and air-traffic whether allied to Taiwan, China, multi-allied or neutral—and moreover, the semiotics of robust involvement in the Strait, as in the A-P, should not be underestimated.

The Strait as a strategic locale has a turgid history beginning in 1954 -1955 when Chinese mainland forces bombed the islands controlled by Taiwan and again in 1958 which in the latter occurrence involved the US, which actively intervened on behalf of ROC forces. The initial frictions are summed up

The importance of the islands in the Taiwan Strait was rooted in their geographic proximity to China and Taiwan and their role in the Chinese Civil War. Jinmen (Quemoy), two miles from the mainland Chinese city of Xiamen, and Mazu, ten miles from the city of Fuzhou, are located approximately one hundred miles west of Taiwan. When the Nationalist Government of the ROC under Chiang Kai-shek recognized that it had lost control of mainland China during the Chinese Civil War, the officials and part of the Nationalist Army fled to the island of Taiwan, establishing troops on these two islands and the Dachen Islands further north. In the early 1950s, Chiang’s forces launched minor attacks from Jinmen and Mazu against the coast of mainland China. Leadership on both sides of the strait continued to view the islands as a potential launching pad for an ROC invasion to retake the Chinese mainland and had an interest in controlling the islands.[3]

In the early phases of Taiwan’s independence and for many reasons, it could rely on the political and military input of allies. This would result in two issues coming to the fore: Taiwan would stiffen its resolve in the quest for independence; and China would do the same in its quest for unification. In the 1950s however, China would not have the capabilities to engage in progress toward unification other than a UN presence, and its accompanying Maoist repetitive monologue.

The manner in which the Taiwan Strait is viewed comprises a regional geo-strategic element that must come to the fore in terms of dealing with the Taiwan – China impasse. For Taiwan however, the Strait inevitably takes on disproportionate levels of strategic importance and this remains true for China. Notwithstanding the strategic component alluded to, a single element of the Taiwan Strait, aside from the geo-strategic remains omnipresent: symbolism. The Strait encompasses and signals immediate tactical rationale and future intent. For Taiwan it represents a bulwark to China’s expansionism, for China it represents a link to the terra firma of its ‘rightful claim’ and the trajectory therein. There have been throughout history numerous locales that have symbolically represented more than the geo-physical or nautical ‘space’ they represented. The Pacific islands leading to Okinawa in the Pacific phase of WWII were required to be conquered. In the island-hopping push toward Japan they were symbolic as well as tactical and strategic necessities and thus, the occupation of them was required for the ‘punishment phase’[4] of the bombing of Japan to take place. The taking of the islands was as much a symbol of American power as was the actuality. Other islands during WWII were also of prime importance, Malta had to be taken by German forces, and then fought over by Allied forces due to its strategic value in the Mediterranean theatre of operations. The disproportionateness that is alluded to is able to be observed in compared to the English Channel during WWII; and the Gulf of Mexico for the US after its entry into the war. For the island nation-state of England the English Channel had a long history of enabling it to mount meaningful littoral naval challenges towards its enemies and of protection by the placement of naval forces.[5] This would prove to be the case once again, in WWII and the Gulf of Mexico would provide advantage for Nazi Germany’s U-boats and the American admiralty after entry into WWII (1941), would make a point of breaking the German stranglehold on the Atlantic by harassing German submarines in the Gulf. The usage of refined tactics and the overall geo-strategic kinetic and politico advantages that control (or near-control) of waterways brings cannot be underestimated from the perspectives of both symbolic and physical cum kinetic manoeuvrings and should be predominant in understanding the way in which Taiwan – China relations will evolve.

In contemporary times and as China increases its littoral and blue-water activities this should be a pivot in coming to terms with the Taiwan Strait; and the cross-Strait machinations therein. This stated, said machinations do not begin and end with kinetic actions upon and under the water; nor in the air-corridors above it. With the aforementioned acknowledged and an exploration of the nascent phase of pax-Sino in place, an interlinking of A-P machinations can now be addressed.

Continued tomorrow … Taiwan as the epicentre of an Asia-Pacific war

Previous instalment … Total war


[1] The ROC government has jurisdiction over 22 islands in the Taiwan group and 64 islands to the west in the P’eng-hu (Pescadores) archipelago. Two island groups controlled by the ROC government, Matsu and Quemoy, lie just off the coast of China’s Fujian (Fukien) province. In the East China Sea, the ROC claims the group of islands it calls Diaoyutai, which also are claimed by Japan as Senkaku and by the People’s Republic of China as Diaoyu.’ See: John Cooper. ‘Taiwan, Self-governing Island, Asia.’ Encyclopædia Britannica. The Editors of the Encyclopædia Britannica

[2] A recent problem has been the rearranging of air-corridors over the Taiwan Strait by China which Taiwan viewed with some consternation. See: Michael Cole. ‘Analysis: China’ new air routes Near Taiwan. Why Now? To what End?’ Taiwan Sentinel. 11 Jan, 2018.

[3] ‘The Taiwan Strat Crises: 1954 – 55 and 1958.’ Office of the Historian.

[4] The punishment phase of aerial bombardment is designed to ‘inflict enough pain on enemy civilians to overwhelm their territorial interests’ and in doing so induce surrender, or hasten total defeat.’ See: Robert Pape. Bombing To Win. Air Power and Coercion in War. New York: Cornell University Press, 1996, 59.

[5] The English Channel as an opportunistic zone-of-control and one of employing defensive strategies according to Danner, would cause Napoleon Bonaparte (circa 1810) to be ‘prevented by the “wooden wall” of the British Navy from invading England directly.’ See: Philippe-Paul De Ségur. Defeat. Napoleon’s Russian Campaign. Translated by David Townsend. New York: New York Review of Books, 1986, xxiv.

Strobe Driver completed his PhD in war studies in 2011 and since then has written extensively on war, terrorism, Asia-Pacific security, the ‘rise of China,’ and issues within Australian domestic politics. Strobe is a recipient of Taiwan Fellowship 2018, MOFA, Taiwan, ROC, and is an adjunct researcher at Federation University.


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1 comment

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  1. mark delmege

    So Chinese forces under Chiang Kai-shek INVADED Taiwan and installed a government hostile to mainland rule. Its good to see that acknowledged.

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