Symbols versus Substance: The Case for US Naval Ship Visits to Taiwan

Symbols versus Substance: The Case for US Naval Ship Visits to Taiwan

Symbols versus Substance: The Case for US Naval Ship Visits to Taiwan

David An is a senior research fellow at the Global Taiwan Institute and was previously a political-military officer at the US Department of State.

Referring to the prospect of a resumption in US naval vessel port visits to Taiwan, China’s Academy of Military Science (軍事科學研究院) Fellow Zhou Bo expressed: “[s]uch visits, though symbolic, would substantially damage American interests and would not enhance Taiwan’s defense by any means.” This statement from a researcher with the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) leading think tank should be understood in the proper context, because it was made by a fellow at China’s Academy of Military Science, which reiterates the policies of China’s government. Moreover, it was published by the South China Morning Post, which is pro-PRC government and owned by the company Alibaba, and is closely aligned with China’s political leadership. Indeed, this statement reflects the argument that a cost-benefit analysis of such port visits shows that there are little to no benefits for Taiwan or the United States and thus not worth the major risks of such an endeavor. On the contrary, symbolism has a meaningful impact when it comes to Taiwan, as it would strengthen the resolve of Taiwan’s military, familiarize the US Navy with Taiwan, and affirm the US commitment to Taiwan.

On December 12, 2017, President Trump signed into law the National Defense Authorization Act for 2018, which includes several line items related to Taiwan. In its entirety, the Act sets the budget for the US Department of Defense, which for this year totals $626 billion as the base budget, and an additional $66 billion for operations. The reference to Taiwan in section 1259 of the Act includes regularizing the process of US arms sales to Taiwan, conducting military exercises together, and the possibility of port visits to Taiwan. The last point is the most sensitive issue of them all, since the US Navy has not conducted port visits to Taiwan in decades.

Three days before President Trump signed the Act, China’s senior diplomat Minister Li Kexin (李克新) at the Chinese Embassy in Washington, DC warned and threatened about the repercussions of US port visits to Taiwan through his remarks to a group of 200 students. His exact words were: “[t]he day that a US Navy vessel arrives in Kaohsiung, is the day that our People’s Liberation Army unites Taiwan with military force.” In the preliminary analysis, video recording of his remarks makes his words appear official in the sense that he seemed to look down as if to read from a script rather than commenting off the cuff. However, the message did not echo across various sources throughout the Chinese foreign policy establishment, as policies normally would when they are officially promulgated; yet it is also telling that he was also not publicly reprimanded for the remarks. This makes it an open question whether his warnings and threats were part of an approved Chinese government policy or his own personal opinions. In the latter case, they would carry less authority and consequences.

In addition, Minister Li also stated that US naval port visits to Taiwan would trigger China’s own Anti-Secession Law of 2005. This is questionable since the full text of China’s Anti-Secession Law from PRC Embassy sources mentions nothing about port visits or even the issue of the presence of foreign troops in Taiwan. Furthermore, the United States already holds similar naval port visits to Hong Kong and even to Shanghai. Surely it does not mean Hong Kong or Shanghai are seceding, becoming independent, or seeking to be part of any other country.

To combine Minister Li’s comment with Research Fellow Bo’s statement mentioned earlier, Minister Li is essentially saying that there will be major consequences if the US decides on port visits to Taiwan because the PLA will force unification, and Fellow Bo is saying there is little to gain from the port visits because they are mostly symbolic. This is the way China is trying to influence the United States’ cost-benefit analysis and to disincentivize the US Navy from making any port visits to Taiwan.

Practical aspects of US port visits to Taiwan

Beyond symbolism, there are important practical aspects of port visits, which increase the benefits side of a cost-benefit calculation. Sailors need time to rest and recuperate after long voyages. Ships need to resupply with food and fresh water. Taiwan’s location in the center of the East Asia Pacific makes it an ideal stopping point between Japan and South Korea, en route to and from Southeast Asia.

A US naval vessel visit to Taiwan would also boost the morale of Taiwan troops, which is another tangible effect of these visits beyond symbolism. According to Project 2049 researcher Ian Easton, China wants Taiwan to think that it is isolated and alone. In explaining Taiwan’s situation, Easton gave the analogy of psychological warfare in the movie Dunkirk, which narrated historical events during World War II. In the movie, German airplanes dropped leaflets from the sky to British troops on the ground with information suggesting that the British forces were surrounded, with nowhere to go but surrender to the Germans. For Taiwan, to receive even the gesture of US support and presence through a ship visit would bolster troop morale and could make its military even more effective and resolved against threats. Even an Economist article about Taiwan’s relations was aptly entitled: “Symbolism as Substance.” Of course, this reasoning works against China’s interests, so Beijing would not explicitly mention it.

US naval port visits to Taiwan would improve close contact and coordination between both the United States and Taiwan, which has a valuable and practical outcome. The last records of US port visits to Taiwan show they were held even after the United States withdrew formal diplomatic recognition of Taiwan, and after the Taiwan Relations Act went into effect on January 1, 1979. Port visits occurred during the one year period in 1979 when Taiwan lost diplomatic recognition, but still maintained official US-Republic of China mutual defense military alliance status. US naval vessels continued to call on Taiwan’s ports up through at least May of that year. Renewing port visits will resume familiarity between the two navies after this three-decade gap. However, as this would work against China’s interests, Beijing does not explicitly recognize this practical factor that runs counter to the symbolism narrative.

To take China as an example, there was talk of symbolism when the PLA Navy made its first port visit to the continental United States in March 1997. For China’s three warships to make the journey across the Pacific and to be welcomed into the US Navy port in San Diego corresponded to an increase in its naval force projection. At the time, Ralph Cossa at the Pacific Forum said about the PLA naval visits to the United States, “[t]he Chinese are very conscious of symbolism, and this visit is their way of telling the world that they are truly a global power.” However, symbolism does not drive naval vessels thousands of miles across the Pacific. Political will, raw military capabilities, and logistics chains enable a distant port visit. By stopping in California, China extended its Navy’s forward presence, and the crew also had an opportunity to rest and relax after a long voyage. Even in the case of China’s visit two decades ago, there were more tangible benefits to docking in San Diego than mere symbols.

Yet a US Naval port visit to Taiwan is far from certain

Even if US naval visits to Taiwan are practical as well as symbolic, to be clear, the NDAA 2018 does not explicitly make it mandatory for the United States to hold port visits with Taiwan. The specific wording in the Act in reference to US naval port visits to Taiwan is to “consider the advisability and feasibility of reestablishing port of call exchanges between the United States Navy and the Taiwan Navy.” “Advisability and feasibility” do not necessitate implementation. This leaves much space for the Executive Branch to decide on next steps, which also leaves room for China to try to influence the US decision through threats.

Furthermore, the wording at the introduction of the section on Taiwan is that “[i]t is the sense of Congress that the United States should […].” In legislative parlance, the term “sense of Congress” is far less forceful than stating that the Executive “shall” perform a task. Brookings expert Richard Bush further elaborates that in the NDAA 2018 “everything offered is a sense of Congress,” suggests that President Trump is not obligated to execute the provisions.

In addition, Congress has an easier time preventing the Executive from taking certain foreign policy action, but has a more difficult time compelling the Executive to take specific action. Preventing the Executive branch from taking action can be achieved simply by eliminating Executive branch line item budgets for such action. However, it is difficult to compel the President to take an action, since foreign policy decisions are traditionally considered under the purview of the President, and with Congress typically focused more on domestic matters or in areas where international affairs affect domestic constituents. On this point, Doug Paal at Carnegie Endowment mentions the “[e]xecutive branch’s jealous regard for its constitutionally exclusive right to manage foreign relations” in reference to US naval port visits to Taiwan.

Though US naval port visits to Taiwan are not yet a foregone conclusion, this issue reveals strong Congressional support for Taiwan. An indicator is that the bipartisan Senate Armed Services Committee voted 21-6 in favor of establishing, “regular ports of call by the US Navy at Kaohsiung or any other suitable ports in Taiwan and permits US Pacific Command to receive ports of call by Taiwan.” Taiwan’s Tamkang University Professor Alexander Huang explains that this committee vote shows that Taiwan “still has many friends in the US and on Capitol Hill.”

Beyond the decision of whether to make a visit, my next article on the prospect of port visits will include policy and legal considerations for both the United States and Taiwan in planning for port visits in Taiwan. It will especially reflect on public safety, duration, timing, and local culture components.

Though certain officials in China, such as Minister Li, are reacting strongly against the prospect of US Navy port visits to Taiwan, Taipei knows that the issue is a delicate one. Rather than weighing in heavily on the issue, former Taiwan Foreign Minister David Lee has stated that Taiwan would respect the US decision on port calls. As for US decision making on whether to make a US naval port visit to Taiwan—though China is trying to manipulate the US’ cost-benefit analysis, and Taiwan aims to stay neutral on the matter—the final word is still entirely with the Trump Administration on whether and when to make the move.

The main point: Critics claim that new US naval port visits to Taiwan would have little substantive benefit, though the risk of upsetting China is great. However, symbolism has substantive value when it comes to Taiwan, since it would strengthen the resolve of Taiwan’s military, familiarize the US Navy with Taiwan, and affirm the US commitment to Taiwan.