Taiwanese frigate Lan Yang alongside in Keelung Harbor. Washington is considering res-establishing warship port-of-call visit exchanges with Taiwan, a proposal that has angered Beijing. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Uwe Aranas

The United States may re-establish port-of-call exchanges in Taiwan for warships of both countries, a move that has brought a strong protest from the Chinese government.

The controversial idea is contained in the National Defense Authorization Act for 2018, which President Donald Trump signed into law last Tuesday. Congressmen on Capitol Hill called on the commander-in-chief to consider resuming regular port-of-call exchanges between the United States Navy and its Taiwanese counterpart.

Beijing immediately lodged a formal protest with Washington. Now it is up to Trump to decide whether US naval vessels will dock at Taiwan ports in the future. Taiwanese leaders likely would gladly barter port visits by US warships for the possibility of buying US-made submarines. But in military terms, mutual port calls and subsurface combat assets are of equal importance to the security of the island.

US warships banned from Taiwan in 1979

The United States suspended naval visits to Taiwan in 1979 when it switched formal diplomatic recognition to Beijing from Taipei. China says the island is a rebel province and should be reunited with the mainland — if needs be by force.

After inking the defense budget bill for the next fiscal year, Trump did not specify whether he would actually allow port visits to Taiwan by American warships. He took care to point out that his administration would treat the relevant provision (Section 1259) in accordance with the executive branch’s prerogatives.

Taipei knows that this is a delicate issue. On Thursday, Taiwanese Foreign Minister David Lee said his country would respect Washington’s final decision on mutual port calls. Joseph Wu, the secretary-general of Taiwan’s Presidential Office, added that Taipei was interested in deepening military relations with the United States. In his words, this is not at odds with the possibility of maintaining peaceful relations with Beijing.

Beijing says port visits violate one-China policy

For its part, the Chinese foreign ministry said that the Taiwan-related clause in the act “severely” violated the one-China policy. In the eyes of the Chinese government, port visits — like arms sales — to Taiwan by a third country constitute interference in China’s internal affairs. Earlier, a Chinese media report said a diplomat at the Chinese embassy in Washington had warned US officials that Beijing would invade the island if any US naval vessel entered a Taiwanese port.

It is unlikely that Trump will move forward with US naval visits to Taiwan, even though this means weakening Washington’s arguments in favor of freedom of navigation, a pillar of the US foreign policy.

An increase in military exchanges between Washington and Taipei risks worsening cross-strait relations, which are already at a low ebb, with China having increased naval and air incursions around the island. For this reason, it is unlikely that Trump will move forward with US naval visits to Taiwan, even though this means weakening Washington’s arguments in favor of freedom of navigation, a pillar of the US foreign policy.

The contradiction is there. On Wednesday, Trump’s national security advisor, H.R. McMaster, reiterated the US commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific region. But by renouncing joint military exercises or mutual port visits with Taiwan, the US government prevents its armed forces from improving interoperability with Taiwanese troops, which is critical to face a crisis with China in a coordinated manner.

It’s not the first time Washington is in a bind over how to balance its obligations to its Taiwanese ally and China’s expectations related to the legal framework regulating Sino-US diplomatic relationships.

The submarine issue is a case in point. Taipei has often tried to acquire US-made submarines. Successive US governments have always refused this request because it would have angered Beijing. However, this refusal is not consistent with the Taiwan Relations Act, under which Washington has to help Taipei maintain a sufficient self-defense capability.

Taiwan begins to build its own submarines

Given that China currently outguns Taiwan, it is evident that Taiwanese self-defense capacities are insufficient. The acquisition of submarines from the US would enable Taipei to build up a credible subsurface force in a relatively short time. More important, it would free resources to expand its surface fleet, as well as its air-defense and anti-ship systems.  the Taiwanese government has begun an expensive domestic program to develop eight submarines, with the first vessel scheduled to enter service by 2028.

The US defense budget also provides for Washington to assess the implications of China’s expanding global footprint for the security of the country. In doing so, the Pentagon and the state department will have to consider measures to reinforce “the roles of allies, partners and other countries” as part of the US policy and strategy toward Beijing.

But if the United States really wants to bolster its commitments to Taiwan and work with Taiwanese leaders to ramp up the island’s self-defense capabilities, it will have to expect more opposition from China. This is a political decision that could orient Washington’s foreign conduct in the Asia-Pacific region for the next decade.

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Emanuele Scimia

Emanuele Scimia is a journalist and foreign policy analyst. He has written for Asia Times since 2011. His articles have also appeared in the South China Morning Post, the Jamestown Foundation’s Eurasia Daily Monitor, The National Interest, Deutsche Welle, World Politics Review and The Jerusalem Post, among others.

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