Fortnightly Review

Fortnightly Review

Fortnightly Review

Taiwan Navy Reportedly Planning Eight Port Calls in 2018

Among the line items included in the 2018 budget for Taiwan’s Ministry of Defense being reviewed in the Legislative Yuan (LY) is for the Dunmu Fleet (敦睦艦隊). The Fleet’s mission is to engage in long-range exercises, provide humanitarian assistance, and conduct port calls. Like many navies across the world, the Taiwan (ROC) Navy began conducting port visits as early as 1953 and on an annual basis since 1965. According to the Taiwan Navy’s chief of staff, Li Tsung-hsiao (李宗孝), next year’s exercise will reportedly include visiting six countries and eight ports. This is more than the four countries and ports visited by the Fleet this year.

Over the past decade, the number of ports visited in the Fleet’s exercise varied between as few as three to as many as 10. Destinations included ports of allied countries such as the Marshall Islands, Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras, Belize, the Dominican Republic, Palau, Solomon Islands, and Tuvalu, as well as non-allied ports such as Panama (which broke diplomatic relations in 2016), Singapore, Malaysia, and Indonesia, among others. The exercise normally takes place between March and June.

Navies conduct port visits for numerous reasons but they generally serve five requirements. According to the recently confirmed-nominee for Assistant Secretary of Defense for Asia Pacific Security Affairs, the reasons why the US Navy conducts ship visit to foreign ports include 1) morale and welfare of the sailors and marines afloat and to help the Navy with recruitment and retention, 2) replenishment and minor maintenance and repair for ships, 3) contribute to political and diplomatic goals, 4) contribute to specific military and security goals, and 5) because foreign ports can provide safe harbor when ships are in distress. These reasons are just as valid, if not more applicable, in justifying the need of the Taiwan Navy to conduct foreign port visits in part due to the country’s isolation and the critical importance of recruitment and maintaining military morale.

In a meeting with the visiting prime minister of the Soloman Islands in September, President Tsai Ing-wen made a point to highlight how “the very first port call made by the ROC Navy’s Dunmu Fleet this past April was in the Solomon Islands.” After the port visit, the two sides established sister port relationship between the Port of Kaohsiung and the Port of Honiara by signing a memorandum of understanding (MOU) to conduct exchanges of information and personnel related to port development, administration and operations in order to enhance mutual understanding.

Over the years, the Fleet has rotated its exercises between shorter and longer-range exercises. It has reportedly followed a routine of conducting one long-range exercise followed by two shorter-range exercises. In 2016, the Dunmu Fleet visited allied ports in Central and South America, whereas in 2017 it visited allies in the South Pacific: Marshall Islands, Palau, Solomon Islands, and Kiribati. If the Fleet was to follow past practice, the 2018 route should be one of the shorter distance.

Against the backdrop of Panama abruptly breaking diplomatic ties with Taiwan in June 2017, however, local reports suggest that the Fleet’s ports of call in 2018 will likely be those of its Central and South American allies. Indeed, a quarter of Taiwan’s 20 remaining diplomatic allies are in the region. Taiwan’s defense minister travelled to Central America that included stops in Nicaragua, Guatemala, Dominica, Honduras and El Salvador—with transit stops through New York and Los Angeles—to shore up mil-to-mil relations in late August-early September. Afterwards, Defense Minister Feng Shih-kuan (馮世寬) reportedly recommended to President Tsai that in addition to enhancing high-level mil-to-mil relations with allied militaries, the Tsai administration should increase mil-to-mil exchanges through the Dunmu Fleet.

According to a media report, the Taiwan Navy is considering the feasibility of conducting underway replenishment off the coast of Guam during next year’s exercise. Such an operation would necessarily require the approval of the United States. This will be broadly consistent with provisions in the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2018—which the US president signed into law on December 12—expressing the sense of Congress that the Department of Defense shall consider “the advisability and feasibility of the United States to receiving ports of call by the Republic of China navy in Hawaii, Guam and other appropriate locations.” According to a statement from the US Navy in 2015 regarding naval ship visits by the People’s Liberation Army: “Goodwill visits by ships from foreign navies help build trust and foster shared understanding.”

The main point: In light of Panama’s break of diplomatic ties with Taipei in June 2017, some media reports indicate that the Dunmu Fleet will likely conduct ship visits to Central and South American allies for its annual oversea exercise in 2018. Consistent with provisions in the NDAA, the Taiwan Navy may also be considering the feasibility of conducting underway replenishment procedures off the coast of Guam during next year’s exercise.

Desinification and the Culture War across the Taiwan Strait

During a recent visit to the island, the chairman of the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT)—the US agency responsible for conducting relations with Taiwan—Ambassador James Moriarty met with lawmakers at the Legislative Yuan (LY). The issue of “desinification” (去中國化) was raised in the chairman’s discussion with the lawmakers that led to a faux pas causing a stir in the local media, so much so that AIT issued a statement from the chairman clarifying “… that I [James Moriarty] have heard from Chinese academics, officials and others about something they call ‘desinification’.” The obvious point for the clarification was to underscore the fact that the concern expressed was not Washington’s but from the Chinese-side. While the statement did not make any explicit link to specific issues that any party considers “desinification,” the fact that the issue was raised shines a spotlight on the ongoing culture war in the Taiwan Strait.

Desinification (or desinicization) is not a new term of art. It has been used both within the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and Taiwan in association with cultural policies or activities within the island that are labeled—by mostly supporters of cross-Strait unification—as promoting a distinct Taiwanese identity and accordingly, in their view, independence. While the Nationalist Party (Kuomintang) has traditionally been viewed as embracing a more Chinese-centered party identification, both major political parties in Taiwan have pursued a general policy of “indigenization” (本土化) with respect to their cultural policies as Taiwan’s political system democratized from the 1980s onward. Former President Ma Ying-jeou (KMT) even embraced the concept of being a “New Taiwanese” (新台灣人).

Beijing opposes desinification on Taiwan as a matter of national policy. Indeed, at a press conference following the passage of the Act on Promoting Transitional Justice (促進轉型正義條例) in Taiwan, which is directed at removing authoritarian-era symbols and rectifying grievances, the PRC State Council Taiwan Affairs Office (TAO) spokesperson, An Fengshan (安峰山), stated: “We resolutely oppose any form of Taiwan secessionist activities, including ‘desinification’ activities of any kind and by any name.” The spokesman’s remarks closely followed sharper comments made earlier by TAO Director Zhang Zhijun (張志軍) stating:

Recently, the Taiwan independence forces on the island have been frequently and constantly changing their tricks to carry out “desinification” in various fields such as culture, education and society in an attempt to cut off the historical link between Taiwan and the mainland [sic], wipe out the national consciousness of Taiwan compatriots and the influence of traditional Chinese culture. In particular, some forces are promoting the so-called revision of law and even advocating for the amendment of Taiwan’s constitution.

By associating desinification with secession activities, Beijing is defining culture in starkly political terms. This is consistent with the Chinese view that culture is inherently political and should be determinative of national identity. By extension, this linkage raises a troubling legal, if not military, implication: Due to the PRC’s vaguely worded Anti-Secession Law (反分裂国家法), it could plausibly provide legal justification for Beijing’s leaders to utilize non-peaceful means to prevent desinification on Taiwan. In a sense, there could literally be a culture war in the Taiwan Strait.

That Beijing could justify going to war to prevent desinification also underscores the political-military nature of Beijing’s stratagem towards Taiwan. To be sure, a competition over culture across the Taiwan Strait has been going for decades. Indeed, Beijing’s effort to suppress desinification on Taiwan may be seen as part of a larger political warfare and influence operation campaign for the explicit purpose of unifying Taiwan with the PRC under the latter’s terms.

From the 1950s through the 1970s, the competition centered on which side of the Strait was the champion of Chinese culture to now becoming a unilateral effort to suppress the emergence of a distinct Taiwanese identity on the island. Towards that latter goal, China has been waging a comprehensive United Front operation that includes the cultivation of political (cultural) allies while dividing Taiwanese society, most importantly, by utilizing elements of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) political warfare apparatuses and the broader United Front system.

According to a 2013 study by the Project 2049 Institute:

Chinese political warfare … has attempted to engineer the final political resolution of the Chinese civil war on CCP terms. The Republic of China (ROC; Taiwan) remains the primary target of PLA political warfare. Taiwan’s democratic system of government – an alternative to mainland China’s authoritarian model – presents an existential challenge to CCP political authority.

As noted by TAO Director Zhang, Beijing’s concerns about desinification also extends to education and the academic curriculum on Taiwan. For over two decades, there has been an ongoing debate on the island about the need to update and reform the academic curriculum to more accurately reflect the island’s history and its diversity. The former curriculum was perceived by many Taiwanese people as being too “China-centric.” This debate flared up again 2015 when students across the country protested the former administration’s effort to revise the curriculum to make it more China-focused. More recently, a researcher from a PRC government-run research institute published an analysis criticizing a draft recommendation that is being circulated by the National Academy for Educational Research under Taiwan’s Ministry of Education that will update the curriculum and further delineate Taiwan history (台灣史) from China history (中國史).

While some experts observed that the influence of the PLA’s political work portfolio has diminished in recent years, its function as an agency for PRC’s Taiwan policy remains intact albeit somewhat obscure. Indeed, a well-known Taiwan-hand, PLA Major General Xi Qi (辛旗; b. 1961), revealed that he had recommended through high-level intermediaries back in 2008 that the former Ma administration revise the academic curriculum in order to neutralize the tide of “natural independence” (天然獨) sentiments among the youths. It is worth noting that Xin Qi has served as deputy director of what was formerly known as the General Political Department Liaison Department. In addition, he is a senior director of the PLA’s principle platform for unofficial cross-Strait exchanges, the China Association for Promotion of Chinese Culture (CAPCC) and the deputy director of China Association for International Friendly Contact (CAIFC).

The main point: Beijing associates desinification with secession activities and sees culture as inherently political. China has been waging a comprehensive united front operation that includes the cultivation of political (cultural) allies while dividing Taiwanese society, most importantly, by utilizing elements of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) political warfare apparatuses and the broader United Front system.