The National Defense Authorization Act for 2018 passed by the US Senate by a vote of 89 – 8 in September contained a clause on Taiwan that has upset Beijing.
It directs the Pentagon to assess the feasibility of mutual port visits by US and Taiwanese warships, and the ports are tipped to include Kaohsiung in southern Taiwan, plus key US Navy strongholds in the Far East and Pacific, such as Guam and Pearl Harbour.
Beijing has hastily lodged a protest against the proposal even though the bill is yet to be finalised.
The irony is that US aircraft carriers and other warships continue to visit Hong Kong two decades after the transfer of sovereignty from London to Beijing in 1997 – the latest being the USS Ronald Reagan this month, which drew hordes of US sailors to watering holes in the city’s Central and Wan Chai districts.
But no US ship has entered Taiwanese waters following Washington’s shift of diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing in 1979, even though Taiwan remains a de facto ally with a tacit security guarantee from Washington.
For instance, USS Denver, an amphibious transport dock, refrained from docking at any Taiwan port when it took part in a natural disaster relief operation in southern Taiwan in 2009.
So, the fact that calls at Taiwanese ports are being floated, despite slim chance of that happening, is widely seen as sign of a thaw in US-Taiwan military dealings, given Washington has been circumspect about major arms sales to the island, which Beijing claims is a renegade province.
Such exchanges were debated when the independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party ruled the island, during Chen Shui-bian’s presidency (2001-2008). Taipei even broached a joint US-Taiwan contingency plan to fend off any aggression by the mainland, Taipei-based Asia-Pacific Defence Magazine reported.
Washington has also been sending an expert panel – since 2001 – to observe the Taiwan army’s Han Kuang Exercises, an annual wargame to beef up the island’s defence capacity, which used to be conducted jointly with the US forces.
It has also been revealed that the US Marine Corps helped survey up to 17 locations on the island’s west and east coastlines that the People’s Liberation Army Navy may use as landing points in the event of an all-out war.
All vital military infrastructure and commands throughout the island, including the Ministry of Defence headquarters, Air Combat Command and key missile and submarine bases, are all open to US personnel dispatched to the island.
The top official in the Taiwan military in charge of routine exchanges with the US is a deputy chief of defence and he has a dedicated, 100-strong team maintaining close contact with their US counterparts.
The 1996 Taiwan Strait crisis – when the island was pushed to the verge of a full-blown war – saw two aircraft carriers, the USS Nimitz and USS Independence, sent to intercept Beijing’s rogue missile-firing. That episode helped Washington realise the urgent need to learn more about the island’s capabilities and military weaknesses.
Observers say a face-off between the PLA and US troops in Taiwan is a far-fetched scenario, and that Washington would rather help boost the island’s war-readiness to delay any takeover by the PLA and to try to win time for international mediation, in the event of Beijing wanting to invade.