The Bashi Channel is an unassuming patch of sea located between Taiwan and the northernmost Philippine island of Luzon. At just 90 miles wide, it may seem an unlikely setting for geopolitical confrontation between the United States and China. However, this overlooked maritime chokepoint has become a pivotal location in the escalating tensions between the two powers.
It’s 5 AM on an early Sunday morning in November 2023. Two Chinese J-11 fighter jets streak across the predawn sky over the Bashi Channel, the narrow body of water separating Taiwan from the Philippines. This routine show of force has become increasingly common in recent years. But what has brought this remote channel, located over 300 miles from the Chinese mainland, to the forefront of US-China tensions?
The answer lies in the Bashi Channel’s strategic significance for a potential Chinese invasion of Taiwan and projection of force into the Western Pacific. Its location also makes it a vulnerable bottleneck for global undersea data cables. These factors combine to make the Bashi Channel one of the most crucial and contested maritime chokepoints in the Indo-Pacific region.
Invasion of Taiwan Scenarios
For Chinese military strategists gaming out possible invasion plans for Taiwan, the island’s geography presents two key challenges: its towering central mountain range and the narrow chokepoints enclosing it.
The 100-mile wide Taiwan Strait separating Taiwan from mainland China is the most well-known. To the north lies the 70-mile wide Yonaguni Channel between Taiwan and Japan’s westernmost Yonaguni Island.
But the third and most overlooked is the Bashi Channel to the south. At under 90 miles wide, this maritime pass assumes an outsized role in Chinese invasion scenarios as it provides access to Taiwan’s largest port, Kaohsiung.
Kaohsiung handles over 60% of Taiwan’s shipping traffic. It has the cargo handling capacity and storage facilities required to take in the massive quantity of supplies needed to sustain an invading force.
Fuel, spare parts, machinery, munitions and even refrigerated food containers are essential to keep troops in the fight. Studies show that a brigade-sized unit of 3,000-5,000 soldiers consumes over 500 tons of supplies daily, mostly fuel and food.
While smaller craft could offload some materiel directly onto Taiwan’s beaches, the volume of goods required means dependence on large cargo vessels and major port facilities. Kaohsiung fits the bill. Its possession is thus a priority for Chinese forces.
Bashi Channel in Invasion Planning
Recent Chinese military exercises demonstrate the PLA’s focus extending beyond Taiwan itself to controlling surrounding waters. Live fire drills have been planned north and south of Taiwan, with successive maneuvers south of the island.
The largest exercise occurred off Kaohsiung, pointedly trespassing into Taiwanese territorial waters. Another live fire drill took place directly in the Bashi Channel, demonstrating China’s emphasis on dominating access to Kaohsiung.
This marks a shift from 1990s exercises held closer to Chinese shores that avoided trespassing into Taiwanese waters. The recent drills show intent to control the seas and airspace surrounding Taiwan – with the Bashi Channel emerging as a key objective.
Strategic Force Projection
The Bashi Channel holds equal strategic import for the United States and ability to project power in the Western Pacific.
It provides the only Pacific access point to the South China Sea wider than 50 miles. Chinese control over this chokepoint would constrain the US Navy while allowing the People’s Liberation Army Navy freer rein to operate in the South China Sea and Taiwan Strait.
Conversely, US dominance over the Bashi Channel allows Washington to potentially interdict Chinese naval forces trying to break out into the Pacific Ocean. It also provides a launchpad for a southern prong to supply Taiwanese forces if required.
New US bases in the northern Philippines provide land basing within easy range of the Bashi Channel. Stationing US air assets there enhances deterrence andcontrol of airspace over critical portions of the South China Sea.
Recent Philippine purchases of long-range Indian BrahMos cruise missiles also extend its area denial umbrella far beyond the archipelago.
From Beijing’s viewpoint, these developments negate the protective buffer previously provided by the South China Sea. Now major Chinese economic centers in the south also lie within 600 miles of potential US attack.
This leaves China feeling encircled, with limited outlets to access the open Pacific without traversing easily threatened chokepoints like the Bashi Channel. Repeated transits to assert its rights have brought Chinese and US forces into increasingly close contact in these confined waterways.
In addition to its navigational significance, the Bashi Channel also carries the majority of undersea data cables connecting China, Hong Kong and Taiwan with Japan and the United States.
97-99% of all data traffic including phone calls, messages, files, photos and other communications flow through this subsea fiber optic cable network. Its disruption could have devastating impact in a potential conflict scenario with Taiwan.
This was demonstrated on a small scale in March 2023 when two undersea cables linking Taiwan’s Matsu Islands to the mainland were mysteriously cut. While repairs were swiftly completed, it provided a preview of the havoc that could be unleashed by comprehensively severing these underwater connections.
The Bashi Channel’s critical undersea cables constitute a valuable target that both sides seek to protect in any cross-strait conflict.
The Bashi Channel’s geography, adjacent to both Taiwan and the Philippines, has placed it squarely within the US-China rivalry. Both countries appreciate its strategic import either for potentially invading Taiwan or as a fulcrum for control of the South China Sea.
Subsea data cables passing through this confined seaway further increase its significance and vulnerability. While the Bashi Channel has so far escaped broader public notice, its emergence as a frontline flashpoint bears close monitoring as tensions continue to simmer.