Mon, Apr 02, 2018 - Page 6 News List

Abraham M. Denmark On Taiwan: A role for Taiwan in the Indo-Pacific

During his epic November trip across Asia, President Donald Trump announced a new strategy for the United States in the region — promoting a free and open Indo-Pacific. Not lacking in ambition, the strategy clearly signaled Washington’s interest in strengthening its power and influence in the region, though the specifics of this strategy apparently remain under development. Among many others, one key question that remains to be addressed is what role Taiwan may play, if any, in this strategy.

Due to the unofficial relationship between Taiwan and the United States, official exploration of any role for Taiwan in this strategy entails some unique challenges. Nevertheless, Taiwan has a significant potential role to play in supporting a free and open Indo-Pacific in several ways, and the Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) government has already put many of the key pieces in place for Taiwan to play an important role in this strategy.


Ensuring that smaller nations have the ability to defend their own sovereignty and resist coercion by larger powers will be a critical aspect to maintaining a free and open region. Considering its unique status, its close proximity to mainland China, and the persistent potential challenge of coercion from Beijing, Taipei is uniquely positioned to assist like-minded partners in Southeast Asia in these endeavors.

One particular area where Taiwan could play an especially helpful role would be in building capacity among the navies and coast guards of Southeast Asia. Taiwan’s maritime forces are robust and highly capable, and Taiwan can help partners across Southeast Asia to better maintain and more effectively utilize their burgeoning maritime capabilities. This can be accomplished rather simply by conducting small maritime exercises, exchanging naval and coast guard officers and trainers, and providing technical assistance when needed.

Such a program would enhance the ability of Southeast Asian partners to accept more advanced capabilities from the United States and other countries, and to ensure those capabilities can be sustained and effectively utilized well into the future. Moreover, this program would help tie Taiwan more closely in the with region, and could potentially facilitate greater levels of exchange between Taiwan and like-minded Southeast Asian partners across other subject areas.


Construction of infrastructure — especially in South and Southeast Asia — has become a new arena for competition between China and its regional competitors — Japan and India. Most famously, Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has driven a wide range of infrastructure initiatives across the region worth an estimated US$1 trillion. At its heart, China’s infrastructure strategy has been to enhance regional connectivity with China, in an attempt to more firmly place China at the center of the region’s economic (and, therefore, geopolitical) destiny. In South Asia, especially, this has meant a series of “North-South” infrastructure initiatives that connect the region to China and connect China directly to the Indian Ocean, thus allowing China to (at least partially) bypass the Southeast Asian littoral and its associated chokepoints.

Less well-known than BRI have been similar efforts by India and Japan to build infrastructure across the region. Yet while Beijing has primarily sought to improve “North-South” connectivity, Delhi and Tokyo have focused on improving intra-regional connectivity, primarily through several “East-West” infrastructure projects. This has included joint efforts to aggressively develop infrastructure projects in India’s northeast, as well as a major joint effort to build infrastructure in Africa through the Asia Africa Growth Corridor. While lacking the grand ambitions and deep pockets of BRI, the promise of like-minded states cooperating in building infrastructure to enhance regional economic interconnectivity is clearly a new arena for geopolitical competition in the region.

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