This began as a comment to a Kos diary, yesterday. It was suggested I turn it into a diary, so here it is. I have to begin by saying this is my own idea and opinion. I am not relating any official State Department intel, or anything I have specifically read elsewhere, though there have been hints in other contexts. It just seems like a likely scenario to me.

Further, it has to be said, this is not the only possible reason for China’s interest in Taiwan. For one, Taiwan makes some of the world’s best computer chips and, much as Putin lusts for Ukraine’s wheat harvest, it seems likely China simply wants to gobble up a chunk of Taiwan’s chip profits. Pure right-wing, fascist crimeing. Another reason seems to be simply vanity — and this seems to be the US and international media’s primary take on it all (they’re journalists, vanity and ego is their jam) — China has said they are going to “reclaim” Taiwan and that’s that (even though, technically, the current regime has never actually “owned” Taiwan, the claim originates in an era long before Mao’s communist revolution). So, it’s a matter of pride and saving face. The leadership of the ruling party feel they cannot back down. Doing so would look like cowardice in the face of a weaker state and, far worse, capitulating to the evil United States. Lastly, expanding China’s Exclusive Economic Zone might foster the fishing industry, and other maritime activities might be in play. But it seems like a weak reason for all the bluster and posturing, not to mention the expense. Most of Taiwan’s EEZ is already inside China’s It would be spending billions on a war to capture another, maybe, 5% of the possible fishing haul. (And all the oil fields in the SCS are hundreds of miles to the south.) Nevertheless any and all of these reasons may be valid to one degree or another. But there’s one idea I haven’t seen discussed and it seems a likely motivation to me. So here goes… 

We have to remember, more than 60% of all global maritime trade passes through the Malacca strait and the South and East China Seas.

A whopping 5.3 Trillion USD trade is passing through the South China Sea every year. More than 60% of global maritime trade and more than 22% of total global trade passes through this waterbody. One third of global shipping passes through this sea every year.

Look at a map and it’s obvious that China wants to seal up much of that trade into an exclusive economic zone that includes the one surrounding Taiwan. This intrudes deep into zones claimed by Japan, the Philippines, Korea, Vietnam, and the US.

Map by Captain Frogbert and Google Maps

The purple area on the map is China’s current Exclusive Economic Zone,* 200 nautical miles from their cost (note, territorial waters are 12 nautical miles, that’s different). The blue is Taiwan’s EEZ and the yellow is the Philippines.’ Japan, Vietnam, and Korea have their own, as well (not shown), all overlapping in the South and East China Seas. The yellow line is the most common trade route through the area for shipping, representing a huge slice of world trade. Currently, every nation in the area is pretty liberal about passage through their areas of interest, and they have to be because they overlap so much and nobody wants to screw too much with trade.

But if China gets control of Taiwan’s EEZ, they can start playing games that could result in a huge problem for world trade. This is also one reason why they are building artificial islands out in those seas, hoping to extend their EEZ to encompass all of the South China Sea. They are filling these islands with military bases, the better to control the resulting expanded zones of control. All this could have an enormous effect on global trade, either forcing most maritime trade out of the SCS and into waters south of the Philippines, which are more shallow, and full of reefs, shoals, and tiny islands, meaning ships would have to travel slower and thus, use more fuel and time, and go hundreds of miles out of the most economical path to their largest markets. Either that or endure the possibility of imposed fees and delays, or be required to grant favorable trading concessions to China for rights of passage through “China’s territory.”

It’s important to note that China already claims the entire South China Sea as its exclusive trade zone. Way back in 1947 they proposed what they called the “Nine Dash Line” that basically encircles the entire SCS all the way south to Indonesia, making the claim that it is their “Ancestral Territory.” in 2016, the UN ruled that no such claim is valid. Taking Taiwan and expanding their territorial claims with artificial islands is just another way to claim most or all of the SCS as their own private lake. 

One might suggest China would be faced with other nations retaliating for such tactics, England might deny them access to the Channel, or Denmark access to the Baltic. But the unique nature of the seas south and east of China is unmatched anywhere else in the world. No other major shipping lane passes as much traffic in such a crowded stretch of sea. China would have enormous power over the entire area; they could, if they chose, choke off trade from the northern tip of the Philippines to the south coast of China and dare the world to take action.

Also, the existing US-Japan Security Alliance and the ANZUS/AUKUS alliances between Australia, New Zealand, the UK, and the US factor heavily in the security of the region, not only acting as a balance to China’s expansionism, but also dealing with the threat of piracy; the South China Sea suffers the world’s worst rate of piracy. China flexing its muscles north of the Philippines could seriously affect the ability of the US and local allies in policing and securing the entire stretch of maritime trade routes in the region.

Look, in the end, China doesn’t give a fuck about Taiwan, per se. If the island were out near Palau or similar, they’d have no opinion on it, regardless of history or “One China.” All they really care about is their claim to own the South China Sea and the opportunity to control a big chunk of world trade, dominate local international politics, and project “strength” through waters they can claim to “own.”

Also, too, while the US has a nominal regard for Democracy and self determination for Taiwan, we really care more about the free passage of maritime trade and don’t want to have to fight a continual low-grade war with China to keep the trade routes open.

* An Exclusive Economic Zone is an area of coastal water and seabed within a certain distance of a country’s coastline, to which the country claims exclusive rights for fishing, drilling, and other economic activities. This can include passage of maritime trade.

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This is a Creative Commons article. The original version of this article appeared here.


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