USS Carl Vinson is anchored at Tien Sa Port in Da Nang, Vietnam, on Monday, March 5, 2018. For the first time since the Vietnam War, a US Navy aircraft carrier is paying a visit to a Vietnamese port, seeking to bolster both countries' efforts to stem expansionism by China in the South China Sea. Photo: AFP

Instead of sending an aircraft carrier to Vietnam, the US should send a carrier task force to circle around Taiwan. This would send a message to China and President Xi Jinping that Washington understands Taiwan not only as a democratic friend, but as a crucial link in Western Pacific defense.

Taiwan is in the center of the First Island Chain that stretches from the South China Sea to Japan and beyond. It is adjacent to the Ryukyu Islands and Okinawa, where China is challenging Japan’s sovereignty.

Since the end of World War II, security through the Taiwan Strait and the Ryukyu Islands, where the Miyako Strait (also known as the Kerama Gap) lies between Miyako Island and Okinawa Island, has been assured by the United States. The US has an important Marine Corps base on Okinawa that houses the 3rd Marine Expeditionary Force and the Kadena Air Base that features the US Air Force 18th Wing, the 353d Special Operations Group, reconnaissance units, 1st Battalion, 1st Air Defense Artillery, and a variety of associated units.

More than 20,000 American service members, their family members, and Japanese employees live or work at Kadena.

In late March, Japanese Emperor Akihito and his wife, Empress Michiko, paid a surprise visit to Japan’s southernmost island in the Ryukyu chain some 108 kilometers from the east coast of Taiwan. Akihito, who has sat on the Chrysanthemum Throne since 1989, is due to retire next year. His purpose in visiting Yonaguni Island was to send a message that Taiwan is in the emperor’s thoughts. While the world press paid little attention, certainly China’s military establishment took careful note.

Since last year, China has conducted nearly 30 military drills around Taiwan, ratcheting up an already dangerous situation, working to intimidate Taipei. Beijing has sent warplanes and surveillance aircraft around the island, and warships – including the aircraft carrier Liaoning and a task force – through the Taiwan Strait. To this China added live-fire exercises, quite similar to those of 1996 when China closed the sea lanes and fired missiles close to Taiwan itself, sparking a dangerous crisis.

So far, the US has sat on its hands, but if Taiwan is sufficiently intimidated by China, Japan will be exposed to Chinese air and sea power as never before, and Okinawa and other US bases in Japan will no longer be viable

So far, the US has sat on its hands, but if Taiwan is sufficiently intimidated by China, Japan will be exposed to Chinese air and sea power as never before, and Okinawa and other US bases in Japan will no longer be viable.

Last month, the USS Carl Vinson was sent on a four-day visit to Vietnam, docking some 3km from Danang, a key Vietnamese city that was the first big prize that fell to North Vietnam in the spring of 1975 en route to capturing Saigon itself, the capital of the former Republic of South Vietnam. The Vinson visit was aimed at letting China know the United States would oppose China’s efforts to take control of the South China Sea.

The South China Sea area is strategically important, as it controls the vital sea lines of communication stretching all the way back to India and the Persian Gulf, but Taiwan is even more important as China attempts to open a new front in its territorial dispute with Japan.

If Japan is wise, it will seriously strengthen its defenses and build more effective alliances – including with Taiwan – to counter the military and political moves by China. Already, Japan is planning to move anti-ship missiles to Okinawa, especially since China sent a flotilla of military ships and fishing boats to demonstrate power to the Japanese.

China certainly is testing how the United States will respond to an escalating series of provocations. It is probable that China’s leaders think the Americans are preoccupied with North Korea, which is not regarded highly by China’s leaders, and absorbed in domestic issues that threaten the presidency of Donald Trump. It is precisely this kind of logic that may have encouraged Russian President Vladimir Putin and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (not to mention their Iranian colleagues) to launch a chemical weapons attack in Douma, not expecting any response from the United States.

Perhaps the Chinese also think that Trump is a wounded president, or maybe they believe he is so indebted to China for its help with Kim Jong-un that any meaningful response from the US is unlikely. In fact, it could well be that the Chinese think that the recent US freedom-of-navigation exercise in the South China Sea and the aircraft-carrier visit to Vietnam were mostly for show and to save face, and not a serious challenge either to China’s occupation of crucial South China Sea islands, which it continues to militarize, nor to support either Taiwan or Japan. It is no wonder that Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe scurried to the United States to meet with Trump.

The real problem is that Taiwan’s purposeful international isolation is harmful not only to Taiwan, but to Japan and the United States.  Instead of a Japanese emperor waving his arms 108km from Taiwan’s coast, real protective alliances are needed in the region to hold off pressure from China. This means the US has to coordinate its allies in the region in a defensive alliance that can fill the huge gaps that growing Chinese power is filling.

Likewise, the US has to move quickly to strengthen Taiwan’s air and naval capability. The agreement to support technology transfers for submarines is truly a step in the right direction, but any domestically built submarine for Taiwan is a decade or more away – while China is getting serious help from Europe, which is delivering quiet diesel engines and other military technology to China without any pushback from the United States. It is terribly dangerous that Washington has not intervened with its allies.

It would be a lot easier if Japan provided modern submarine technology to Taiwan, something only the US can make happen by supporting Japan from the inevitable fierce reaction from China. Japan has submarine technology that is at least a match for the best products coming from Europe, maybe even better.

But for now the quickest way to send a clear message for China is for a US aircraft carrier task force to circle Taiwan as a protective shield.  China’s national-security establishment, its intelligence agencies and its military will certainly understand what this means.

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Stephen Bryen

Dr Stephen Bryen has 40 years of leadership in government and industry. He has served as a senior staff director of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee, as the deputy under secretary of defense for trade security policy, as the founder and first director of the Defense Technology Security Administration, as the president of Delta Tech Inc, as the president of Finmeccanica North America, and as a commissioner of the US China Security Review Commission.

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