2005-10-27

The Myth of the strategic location of the Taiwan Strait

I read from many reputable reports that the Taiwan strait is a strategic sea route for oil (and other commodities) from middle east to Japan (presumably via Malacca Strait / Singapore). e.g.


  • "Tokyo must have concluded that a potential cross-Strait war would interrupt Japan's energy supply routes from the Middle East" - Yale Global
  • "Japan sees a key sea route, the Taiwan Strait, in danger." - Der Spiegel
I was confused. So I did a small exercise with maps, Curzon style.


  • The red route is the shortest path between Singapore and Yokohama. It passes the Luzon Strait (Babuyan Channel and Bashi Channel), not the Taiwan Strait
  • The yellow route passes through Taiwan Strait, is obviously a detour from Japan to anywhere, except maybe Haiphong
  • For transportation of other materials from SE Asia, e.g. Brunei, the Black route shows that Taiwan Strait is even further away from the ideal route
  • Even if Taiwan Strait is more convenient, the availability of the alternative via Luzon Strait deems it "optional" instead of "essential"
Indeed Taiwan Strait is of strategic important to China, as it connects Guangzhou/HK to Shanghai and beyond. It may also serve as a short cut between Korea (Pusan) and Vietnam (Haiphong). If anyone should be worried, it should be the Koreans and Vietnamese.

Update: US PACOM map agrees with me.

Now, why is Japan so interested in a sea route which is really very marginal to its needs?

---
Apppendix

A note about Great Circle (geodesic) path:

Since the earth is a sphere and the map is a projection onto a plane (with area distortion), my straight line approach is only an approximation.

To be more precise one needs to use the "great circle" to find the shortest path on a spherical surface. The graph on the right shows the great circle for (see
great cicle tool here)



  • Singapore -Tokyo (via Luzon Strait): 3324 miles
  • Singapore - Makung (Penghu) - Tokyo: 3352 miles (should be longer because the GC path has to cut into Hsinchu, which tanker cannot sail into)
  • Singapore - Kinmen - Tokyo: 3383 miles

So the path via Taiwan strait is 1-2% longer than that via Luzon Strait, not a sizable difference, but Luzon Strait is more "strategic".

The last chart is using azimuthal projection from Singpaore, so that every striaght line from the center represents the shortest (great circle) distance, (but lines not passing the centers are not). We can again see the shortest path is closer to the NW tip of Luzon.

30 comments:

Anonymous said...

Is the apparent straight line path on a flat map projection the true shortest path on the curved earth?

Sun Bin said...

Good point, which I planned to add a note. But you beat me :)

Great circle path (truest shortest, aka geodesic) bulges towards southeast. So that means the path via Taiwan strait is even longer.

If you have a globe, you can try it by yourself.

88 said...

Japan is in no position to deny a request from the US on Taiwan. Who will protect Japan from N. Korea? Who will help Japan "balance" China? The whole region is generally suspicious of Japan if not anti-Japanese. Increased US power in Asia equals increased Japanese power in Asia (and vice versa).

That is one theory, anyway.

dylan said...

A curious piece of work. The strategic location has been (and always will be) Taiwan - NOT the Taiwan Strait. A cursory glance at your mapwork combined with even a limited appreciation of sea lines of communication and the interdiction thereof indicates why this is so. For Japan, a PRC that controlled Taiwan rather than a separate Taiwan opposed to the PRC would be a significant and perhaps irreversible setback.

Sun Bin said...

dylan,

Yes, it is curious, isn't it?:) I have tried to limit my discussions to the "strait" assertion/excuse.

But you have opened up a much more ambitious topic for discussion, and perhaps the true intention of Japan:) Following your reasoning/argument, one would conclude that the same is true for Hainan, or NE China (Manchuria), and also for the 2 Koreas to remain hostile forever.

Sun Bin said...

anon,

I calculated the great circle path. It is perhaps 1.5-2% longer going through the Taiwan Strait.

The shortest path is actually (as I said earlier) a bit more south than my straight line.

The post has been updated.

Budding Sinologist said...

Dylan is exactly correct. The most common wording of this claim that I have seen is "Taiwan sits astride a vital sealane" or something to that effect. I think it is pretty clear they are talking about the importance of the waters off Taiwan's east coast, not the strait itself.

Bruce said...

I believe the strategic value lies in the fact that the Taiwan Straits are still on the continental shelf, while the waters off the east coast of Taiwan are deep ocean. If that's true, then as a skipper I'd rather take a route that was perhaps a few tens of miles longer if that gave my ship a safer path that was less exposed to deep ocean currents and typhoons.

Sun Bin said...

budding sinologist,

Dylan is correct, but you are not. It is about the island of Taiwan itself, not just the water surrounding it. There are lots of wide water east of Taiwan, for which Japan can still find a safe and reasonably convenient route of transportation.

Well, just be careful of what you ask for. China would have perfectly good reason (following your logic) to be worrying about Tsushima strait or Osumi Strait (for goods to send from Tianjin/Qingdao to Walmart) and perhaps send troops to help the Korean over Dokto, and also to the Russians regrading Kuriles. This is the can of worms Japan opens.

Sun Bin said...

Bruce,

That is probably true in the pre-Columbus years. Ships sail near the coast in calm seas. Today's mega-tanker and sea-farring technology make this irrelevant.

Still, it is good to be near the land in case of emergency. Then the question is, if China is hostile to Japan (let's assume Taiwan is friendly for discussion purpose). Is the strait still a preferred route?

Bruce said...

Sun Bin, whom are we assuming Taiwan is friendly to, for this discussion?

Sun Bin said...

to all countries, including Japan :)

Bruce said...

Another question, too, is, is this a mutually hostile situation, or is the hostility is more in one direction or the other? Traditionally (pre-WW2), Taiwan was seen as a great layover point for Japanese liners, and thus a geopolitically strategic objective for Japan -- a point which China failed to anticipate when it signed the Treaty of Shimonoseki.

Today, reacquiring Taiwan is ostensibly a point of pride. Your point, if I'm reading correctly, is that that's really all it is, because liners don't in fact prefer the relative calm of the Taiwan Straits because the extra few dozen miles of detour do not provide a marginal benefit of evading the elements of the deep ocean.

I'm not completely persuaded that Japanese liners are going to reroute themselves to the East of Taiwan should China acquire Taiwan. Simply calculating distance, even taking into account the curvature of the globe, does not take into account other factors such as weather, current, refueling, etc.

If, however, the case can be persuasively made, then Japanese business have to be persuaded to invest in cargo liners that will take the Eastern route.

Sun Bin said...

I was laying out a hypothetical situation, which none of us has any control or say. It is entirely up to the Sino-Japanese interaction. I wish I could define the situation, but it is up to the Japanese, not me. :)
-----

Ok, back to your comment.
1. Yes, pre-WWII, Japan sees Taiuwan as a stepping stone to invade SE Asia. Some of them probably still couldn't get over it.
2. Qing lost the war, it had no choice. and yes, Qing did not realize the strategic importance of Taiwan.
3. No, that is not my point. :) (btw, were you referring to China or Japan about 'reacquiring'?). My point is, as Dylan correctly pointed out, there is nothing strategic about the Taiwan strait to Japan. Japan uses that as an excuse to justify its meddling with Taiwan.....which, I think we could agree, is the business of the 23M people there, not anyone else
4. As to the liners, the difference is small. Some might still prefer the strait (smaller ships). But the point is that the TW Strait is NOT the only available route, nor is it the sole best route.
5. Yes, you are right that Japanese liner might still sail into the strait and the Chinese would not mind that at all. Then why all that fuss about strategic value by Japan?
Japan was making a point that this route would be blocked by China, if say, Japan reinstates militarism. I was saying, they could simply switch to another route.

I hope this clarifies the issues?

Sun Bin said...

A very minor point to your last statement.

If a liner can sail through the South China Sea, and the Japan Sea to the east of Yokohama, why would it need any modification in order to sail into the Luzon Strait and the north of it?

Bruce said...

I think we're agreeing on most points here, with the exception of this one:

3. No, that is not my point. :) (btw, were you referring to China or Japan about 'reacquiring'?). My point is, as Dylan correctly pointed out, there is nothing strategic about the Taiwan strait to Japan. Japan uses that as an excuse to justify its meddling with Taiwan.....which, I think we could agree, is the business of the 23M people there, not anyone else

The same could be said of China's interest. (BTW, in terms of "reacquiring", I was referring to China, as a short hand for the PRC finally acquiring Formosa to begin with.)

If, as you say, "there is nothing strategic about the Taiwan strait to Japan", what then is so strategic about it to China? I think Japan's clear interest is in unmolested shipping, whether that's of energy, or of other cargo. In my view, China has not explicitly threatened shipping; and I think that the PRC will find that it would not be in their international interests to do so anyway. However, neither has the PRC been ver reassuring to interested parties with regard to guarantees of stability in the region.

That brings us to the main question: Why is everyone so worried about the Taiwan Straits? Simply put, people are worried about a resumption of the Chinese Civil War. To be sure, the chances are not very high, but given current policies, once the 23 million people of Formosa exercise what you call their "business", and in such exercise choose a status of de jure independence, PRC is obligated by its own laws and policies to invade.

A resumption of hostilities may not be ostensibly antagonistic to Japan, just as Anglo-German hostilities 1914-1917 and 1939-1941 were not ostensibly antagonistic to the United States. However, in all 3 situations, the third party (the United States 1914-1917 and 1939-1941, and Japan in the hypothetical future) will be economically impacted. This is even more serious for Japan, which has few natural resources of its own. It is not necessary for the PRC to declare war on Japan in a Straits War; the practical necessity of having to board all ships passing through not only the Straits, but even in your proposed sea lane East of Taiwan would result in disruptions to Japan's economy. If Japan deems these disruptions unacceptable, and in the absence of a U.S. Seventh Fleet presence, Japan would have no choice but to re-arm its Navy at the least. That's clearly a recipe for an arms race, despite the lack of evident hostilities between the PRC and Japan at the onset of a Straits War.

Currently, the stability guarantee comes from the U.S. Seventh Fleet, and China has wisely chosen not to challenge the status quo outright. But Japan is doing the responsible thing by paying attention to potential future conflicts despite the alliance with the United States, something which the ROC would be well-advised to emulate.

Sun Bin said...

1. The strait is more important for China. It would be a huge detour to sail from Guangzhou to Shanghai otherwise. But that is NOT the reason for China wanting to reacquire Taiwan, you know. China never talked about a 'strategic' Taiwan strait.

2. For PRC it is about the 'pride' you mentioned, plus some legitimate historical reason, and some mis-calculation I plan to blog about later.

3. To your question, NO ONE SHOULD worry about the Taiwan strait, except the Chinese and the Taiwanese people. They are the one who will suffer if there is a war or conflict. Everybody else has his own hidden agenda. In fact, anyone else who is over enthusiastic about the Taiwan matter is either a world police or an imperialist.

4. This is something I would disagree with you: if there is war over the TW strait. Japan is the one who is to be benefited. In fact, Japan benefits from any hostility between the TW strait. Same way US benefited from conflicts over Europe. The 2 WW made US the hegemony in the world.

You said [I]"If Japan deems these disruptions unacceptable, and in the absence of a U.S. Seventh Fleet presence, Japan would have no choice but to re-arm its Navy at the least"[/I]. You have read Japan's mind pretty well.
But such logic used by Japan is what that had disgusted me. It fact, I think only aggressors like Hitler uses strategic interests in a third country as a reason/justification to arm and go to war. That is why Chinese and Korean are justified in worrying about re-militarization of Japan. Japan might as well care about unmolested shipping over the Malacca, Suez Canal or Panama Canal as well. Lots of thing to worry in this world if you are a busybody. :)

---
To make this analogy clearer, if one of your neighbor is very hostile to you, you would just avoid passing his yard. You do not take a gun and march into his sitting room, and tell him I have no choice because I want my short cut.

Anonymous said...

Taiwan is an unsinkable aircraft carrier.

Anonymous said...

The island of Taiwan would make one hell of a navy base for a superpower.

88 said...

>>Same way US benefited from conflicts over Europe. The 2 WW made US the hegemony in the world.

I think this is a misleading analogy.

1) The US and the allies almost lost WWII. The outcome was never certain, and the US did not enter the war with the goal of "hegemony." In fact, the goal was the opposite: to stop the world hegemony of Germany and Japan.

2) There was great resistance within the US to entering either conflict, esp. WWI.

So I don't think Japan is "calculating" that it would benefit from a war in the strait. No one would benefit.

>>In fact, anyone else who is over enthusiastic about the Taiwan matter is either a world police or an imperialist.

So does that make the CCP "a world police" or an "imperialist?" ;) Joking..

I think this is the same mistake I talked about on your other post about Japan. Yes, the US has geopolitical reasons (read "power") for supporting democracy in Taiwan. Yes, Japan does not want China to dominate the region (and reaquiring Taiwan would help them do that in Japan's view). BUT, some people support Taiwan (read "sell them missles") because of issues like democracy and human rights, which they think will disappear if Taiwan is reunited with China. So, you can't only look at the power equation; wars are also fought for ideological and religious reasons that have nothing to do with geopolitics and "hegemony." Your analysis will miss important parts of the equation if you reduce everything to power.

The CCP will never allow Taiwanese independence (well, declared independence. They already have de facto independence.) The CCP has built the issue up too high over the past 50 years. The regime would lose all legitimacy and fall. Many in the West fail to understand that. The CCP couldn't allow declared Taiwanese independence even if it wanted to.

88 said...

For the record, Japan's interest in Taiwan has nothing to do with shipping lanes. Lamest reason I've ever heard.

Sun Bin said...

88s,

You are right. (and thanks for clarifying the caveats). the 2 WWs were never choice by the allies.

I was merely making a point (re: Bruce's statement) that Japan could enjoy seeing conflict across the strait, for its own advantage. (whether it is just tension or armed conflict) That is when it can play one against another. Some in Taiwan were already trying to appease Japan on the Diaoyu issue, in exchange for Japan's support in diplomacy and maybe militarily. (CCP can only blame itself pushing Taiwan away though)

---
China (the mainland) and US have some historical legitimacy for getting involved in the Taiwan issues, plus not so legitimate reasons as you stated.
I suppose other countries are also justified to express concern for peace and democracy.
I am just not sure if Japan's motivation is as pure as that of, say, Australia or Germany, or even the Phillipines per se.

---
Yeah, the lamest reason. :) The fact that TW Strait is not even that strategic only helped to expose the lameness of it.... well, EVEN IF the TW Strait is on its way...

Bruce said...

Sun Bin, thanks for your visit over to my blog! :)

I think you have misunderstood me in one of your points:

This is something I would disagree with you: if there is war over the TW strait. Japan is the one who is to be benefited. In fact, Japan benefits from any hostility between the TW strait. Same way US benefited from conflicts over Europe.

I'm not sure I've ever said that Japan would benefit from war in the Straits. In fact, if you read what I wrote, I think it's clear that I think nobody would benefit from such a war. Here's what I said:

If Japan deems these disruptions unacceptable, and in the absence of a U.S. Seventh Fleet presence, Japan would have no choice but to re-arm its Navy at the least. That's clearly a recipe for an arms race, despite the lack of evident hostilities between the PRC and Japan at the onset of a Straits War.

You drew some parallels, which I led you toward, with the buildup of U.S. power after the Second World War. However, I think that analogy is flawed, and here's why:

Britain and France were initially well-matched for the German forces. Although they were inferior, they had some motivation. The French and British forces, with their backs against the sea at Dunkirk, would have been able to lash out beyond their calculated power, as Sun Tzu would have said. It's always been a puzzle to historians why Hitler allowed them to flee. It may in fact be because he didn't want his forces to get roughed up too badly. If the Anglo-French forces lashed out, there would be a heavy cost to the Wehrmacht. But if the Allies made it across the Channel, Hitler always had the option of using the Luftwaffe. (The gamble failed in the end because the RAF had no choice but to fight back; indeed, it may be a good sign of what they might have done at Dunkirk if pressed.)

Taiwan, despite possessing some military equipment more advanced than that of China, is overmatched. Taiwan's strength right now lies in its anti-aircraft and anti-amphibious weaponry. However, I honestly don't believe Taiwan will be fight very hard if actually invaded. As I've argued here and here, Taiwan's military and civilian body politic don't seem able to withstand a sustained effort from the PRC. In fact, an economic blockade of Formosa, along with lobbing some of the older (thus more expendable) missiles would be the PRC's best hopes for softening Taiwan up. The hope for the PLA would be that Taiwan's citizens opt for surrender (like the French in 1941) rather than a tooth-and-nail fight. If Taiwan is able to hold out for a few months, the Seventh Fleet might intervene. However, such a blockade would inevitably mean that vessels serving the Japan market would have to be boarded anyway, if the PLA intends not to allow any contraband to slip by.

That brings us right back to the point that for Japan, a war in the Straits is bad for business (literally). The only possible upside is the economic activity that may be spurred on by massive re-armament, but given the convolutedness of Japanese distribution systems, I don't see that happening.

Still, it would be remiss of any Japanese government to neglect potential hotspots, especially one so close to home.

Lastly, your suggestion:

You said [I]"If Japan deems these disruptions unacceptable, and in the absence of a U.S. Seventh Fleet presence, Japan would have no choice but to re-arm its Navy at the least"[/I]. You have read Japan's mind pretty well.

I honestly don't think it makes sense to describe a democratic government as having that level of long-term vision.

But such logic used by Japan is what that had disgusted me. It fact, I think only aggressors like Hitler uses strategic interests in a third country as a reason/justification to arm and go to war.

I think your interpretation and resultant feelings of disgust stem more from your general suspicion of Japan than from the facts at hand.

Oh, and actually, Hitler invaded Poland for ideological reasons, not strategic ones. States that have used strategic interests as rason/justification for war have included India v. Pakistan in Kashmir; India v. China in the Himalayas; France and Sweden each in their turns in the Thirty Years' War; Hannibal crossing the Alps in the Second Punic War; the United States v. Iraq in Kuwait in 1990-1991. The list goes on and on. I think you might have painted just a little too broadly with that one.

Sun Bin said...

i think we understand each other:) you said Japan suffer if there is war. I said the right wing in Japan does not see it that way.

1. yes, I know you said Japanese business would suffer, true. A sane mind would not like a war in his neighbor, true. But the right wing wants to see conflict over the TW strait. Japan wants to see (鹬蚌相争). I think I explained it well about in my previous reply to 88s.

2. yes, all the examples you provided, given the motivation you assumed, were unjustified wars in 21st century. They should ALL be condemned. The right wing in Japan does not see it that way, they see it as law of the jungle. That is why people are suspicious of the Japanese.

3. Hitler on Poland was not about ideology. On Russia, maybe.
In fact, the better analogy is Hitler over Benelux to capture Paris. A brilliant move tactically, with good strategy reason, but TOTALLY immoral and unjustified.

Sun Bin said...

http://english.sohu.com/20041217/n223533434.shtml

this is an english link to "鹬蚌相争"

Anonymous said...

Dear All,

Thanks for the discussion. I believe the real confrontation is between those wanting to maintain the status quo and those whose mere existence and growth would result in upseting said status quo. A conflict over Taiwan would benefit the status quo protectors or the status guo challenger (whether they intend it or not)is the real issue here. Careful calculations would be made by all interested parties and the one with the conclusion that conflict would benefit them more would be the one creating the tension for a showdown. Which one will actually fire the first shot is a different question altogether.

denk said...

Bruce said,
“I honestly don't think it makes sense to describe a democratic government as having that level of long-term vision.”

Hello Bruce,
About 15 years ago, some hong kong folks tried to land on the disputed Doayu isle., (here is some background material, http://www.skycitygallery.com/japan/diaohist.html )
Their boat were rammed and sunk by Japanese navy vessels, the hong kongs folks were hauled on board for “interrogation”, they refused to divulge any info. What do you know? The Japanese took their photos and went into the control room, minutes later they emerged triumphantly and show the hong kong folks their bios. Apparently they faxed the fotos back to some data base in Tokyo and got the men’s bios in no time. In other words, the Japanese at that time already had ordinary activists of hong kong in their data base, never mind the prominenet figures. What were they up to, preparing for future conflict with china?
If this seems far fetched, don’t forget, the Japanese sent their agents to south east asia as merchants etc years before wwii to collect information, no sooner than they occupied Malaysia and singapore when they were able to round up prominent “anti Japanese” figures. That’s the kind of long term planning a war mongering democratic country is willing to do, Bruce. And you aren’t seen nuthin yet…
The world’s “greatest democracy” planned its world domination soon after wwii,…..
"To maintain this position of disparity (U.S. economic-military supremacy)... we will have to dispense with all sentimentality and day-dreaming.... We should cease to talk about vague and... unreal objectives such as human rights, the raising of the living standard and democratization. The day is not far off when we are going to have to deal in straight power concepts.... The less we are then hampered by idealistic slogans, the better." -George Kennan [Director of Policy Planning U.S. State Department 1948]

US high officers routinely talked about their plan to put down other countries such as China matter of factly, as if it’s the most natural thing in the world.
http://www.zmag.org/ZSustainers/ZDaily/2001-04/09herman.htm
The blue print for pax amerika was conceived as early as 1998,
http://www.sundayherald.com/27735
may be we should count our lucky stars that every night while we sleep, there are those good men burning mid night oil in the pentagon basement, planning how to make the world a better place, er --- for Exxon, general dynamics, Halliburton, etc….

denk said...

hello Bruce,

oops, there was a broken link,
here it is again,
http://www.skycitygallery.com
/japan/diaohist.html

Anonymous said...

First of all, in response to your reply on 10/27/2005 9:35 AM. Taiwan strait is the optimal route because it offer protection from the wheather. The modern tankers still prefer to sail near the land. The technology have advanced since the columbus day, but these tanker rely on the advance radar sensor to steer them away from hurricane. Very few ship, even the air craft carrier are built to withstand more than a cat-3 storm. It simply not cost efficient to storm proof all tanker.

Second. If China ever invade Taiwan, they will be able to cutoff Korea and Japan's supply line. China's navy has no blue water capability. Most, if not all of their ships are limited to coastal warfare at this point. (go back and read my first comment, if military navy is not blue water capable, what make you think tankers are?) But if China takeover Taiwan, their sphere of influence would be extend. And their coastal navy would be able to block both Taiwan and Luzon strait.

Sun Bin said...

anon,

1) there is a more recent post of US PACOM sea route map , which shows clearly that Luzon Strait is the route. check it up and see if you agree.

but i think you are right that when there is typhoon, the strait route is a hedge. but this is the same as when the typhoon goes to near the strait, luzon becomes the alternative.

in reality, in case of storm, the ships won't go to either strait. so we are back to the good weather situation (and where the storm is situation).

2) of course, if taiwan becomes part of china, they together will have almost full control of the strait, and can even project to luzon strait. that is nothing japan can control or can complain about. China does not complain about the strait between kyushu and honshu.

when there is war, i guess taiwan strait will be disrupted. luzon strait might also be affected as little, thought very unlikely. so there is still a safe (and a more optimal) route for japan.
however, for koreans it will be a detour.