Whither Taiwan’s maritime defense?
The ghost of Alfred Thayer Mahan can help strategists analyze the challenges and opportunities confronting Taipei in this age of surging Chinese military might. Best known as the author of The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660-1783, the 19th century’s most influential treatise on maritime affairs, Mahan was a keen student of the relationship between geography and maritime strategy.
Indeed, he cut his intellectual teeth appraising “the inherent advantages of the various ports and coastlines of the Caribbean Sea” and the Gulf of Mexico.
In 1897, he assessed the potential of Hawaii, beseeching the US government to annex the archipelago. None of the islands he examined were identical to Taiwan. Nevertheless, the similarities and differences illuminate how the Republic of China (ROC) Navy can relate strategy to the island’s distinctive geography.
Mahan devised a simple formula to assess a site’s potential as a naval base. The first and foremost virtue of a harbor or an island like Jamaica or Cuba was its “situation,” or geographic location. For Mahan, the US’ sea power “Copernicus,” an island situated near or astride heavily trafficked sea lanes, was best suited to safeguard friendly and threaten enemy shipping.
Strategic position was necessary, but insufficient for a good base. The most promising geographic location in the world was worth little if the fleet couldn’t hold its own seaports. The second attribute of a prospective base, therefore, was “strength” or defensibility. This referred either to imposing natural defenses or suitability for defensive emplacements like shore artillery.
The last metric for gauging the worth of a base was “resources” to support fleet operations and the port itself. Resources could be either natural — say, a verdant countryside surrounding the port — or transported in and stockpiled.
Hawaii bore the least resemblance to Taiwan. The archipelago occupied the intersection of sea lanes connecting the Central American Isthmus — the future site of a transoceanic canal — with East Asia. It also offered a way station for shipping between Canada and British holdings in the Pacific, most notably Australia. However, Hawaii, unlike Taiwan, lay amid a vast, vacant oceanic expanse.
Jamaica held a central position flanking all major routes to the isthmus. It would make an acceptable naval station, but only for a navy dominant enough to compensate for the island’s relatively small size, meager resources and the presence of nearby Cuba, which would inevitably overshadow the island.
Likewise, Taiwan must worry about a nearby military power, but its size and resource endowment vastly outstrip Jamaica’s.
Which leaves Cuba. For Mahan, Cuba held “pre-eminent intrinsic advantages” because it adjoined all routes to the isthmus and ranked high by the measures of strength and indigenous resources.
A navy based in Cuban harbors could influence shipping everywhere in the Gulf and Caribbean.
The island boasted size and strength. Cuba was “not so much an island as a continent” with bountiful resources, an elongated shape and multiple harbors that made it tough to blockade. Even a lesser navy could shift operations from “side to side,” finding “refuge and supplies in either direction.” Such a navy could hope to defy a superior fleet operating nearby.
Though far larger, Cuba comes closest to approximating Taiwan’s strategic circumstances.
Like Cuba, Taiwan straddles important sea lanes, those running along the East Asian seaboard. It possesses strength, with multiple ports and rugged coastlines that a savvy ROC Navy can exploit.
And the island can provide for many of its needs out of its own resources, letting it hold out against superior forces for a time.
However, like the Cuba of Mahan’s day, Taiwan finds itself under the shadow of a continent-spanning nation starting its ascent to great sea power.
Indeed, Taiwan’s predicament is worse than Cuba’s. While Cuba lies only 145km off US shores, the nearest US port, Key West, was and remains a minor base for the US Navy. Mounting a blockade of Cuba from Gulf Coast ports like faraway New Orleans or Pensacola would have posed severe challenges.
By contrast, the Chinese coastline roughly parallels Taiwan’s west coast, letting Chinese forces operate against the island along multiple axes using a variety of sea and land-based weaponry.
Some Mahanian advice: Design ROC Navy strategy and forces to exploit such advantages as the island does possess. A navy made up of small craft that nimbly shift from side to side, finding refuge and supplies in numerous coastal sites, could defy a Chinese offensive for long enough to matter.
James Holmes is an associate professor of strategy at the US Naval War College. The views voiced here are his alone.
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