“The chain matters,” Blumenthal wrote in an e-mail, emphasizing the US could thwart ocean-bound Chinese submarines at the chokepoints. “It is very hard to defend the Pacific if you lose the ability to slam the gate shut.”
The official US view appears to be to ignore the chain, lest an increasingly powerful China react aggressively. US President Barack Obama’s administration believes it makes far better sense to approach Beijing not so much as a rival, but as a potential partner for dealing with a welter of crucial issues — nuclear proliferation, for example, as well as climate change and global economic security.
“We are in the same boat, and we will either row in the same direction or we will, unfortunately, cause turmoil and whirlpools that will impact not just our two countries, but many people far beyond either of our borders,” US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said in a speech last year dedicated to US-China relations.
Since then, the regional geopolitical climate has grown much tenser, fed by a series of confrontations between Japan and China over the disputed islets and escalating friction between Beijing and a number of Southeast Asian countries over expanding Chinese territorial claims in the South China Sea.
Under its “Pacific pivot” policy, Washington has expanded military exercises in the region and placed important military resources in strategic Asian locations, but it has made no mention at all of the chain and avoided taking sides in the territorial disputes.
Treating the chain as a relic seems a dubious proposition in Suao, which looks out onto a broad expanse of open water that Chinese naval vessels often cross en route to the Pacific. On a recent weekday morning, three Taiwanese corvettes lolled placidly in its waters, just to the west of a breakwater.
However, the US ended its direct military relationship with Taiwan in the run-up to the transfer of its recognition from Taipei to Beijing in 1979, effectively removing Taiwan from the first island chain, and few analysts expect it will be reintegrated anytime soon.
“I think we have come to a point where maintaining cordial ties with China trumps lesser concerns for many officials in Washington,” said James Holmes of the US Naval War college in Newport, Rhode Island, in an e-mail. “No US government agency sees a pressing stake in Taiwan anymore.”