High-level interactions between US and Taiwan officials have increased since the start of the Donald J. Trump Administration in January 2017. This is a sign of the growing importance that the two governments place in one another. A number of legal acts and pronouncements has facilitated these developments, including the Taiwan Travel Act of 2018 (passed unanimously by Congress) and the introduction of the Taiwan Assurance Act of 2019. Yet, there is still far to go and much to do. What should take place next—at the minimum—is the routinization of port calls by the US Navy (and Marines), which has taken on a new importance since access to Hong Kong was again recently denied by the People’s Republic China (PRC) in light of its violent crackdown there in 2019. The failure to conduct even one port call, when it is clearly necessary, is all the more odd since there is a law that called for the US government to “consider the advisability and feasibility” of such a port call—the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) of 2018.
Port Calls are Long Overdue
Port calls to Taiwan, which have not been conducted in more than 40 years out of diplomatic consideration—misplaced in this writer’s opinion—of the PRC, are long overdue. The issue of port calls to Taiwan has gotten increasingly high political attention in recent years in the United States, although the Barack H. Obama administration did not respond to suggestions for port calls whatsoever and Donald J. Trump administration has been still slow to.
The most recent suspension of US military port calls by China in early December 2019 was clearly done in retaliation for President Trump’s signing into law S. 1838 “The Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act of 2019” on November 27. While it was the amphibious transport dock ship, the USS Green Bay (LPD), and the cruiser, USS Lake Erie (CG-70), that were unable to go into port at the time, the new policy suspended indefinitely all visits, and thus was a violation of a Sino-US agreement on ship visits (to be handled on a case-by-case basis) following Hong Kong’s handover in 1997. Had visits to Taiwanese ports been routine affairs, these ships could have diverted to Taiwan and thus not significantly alter 7th Fleet scheduling. Alas, such was not the case and there were ripple effects on follow-on Fleet operations.
Unfortunately, denials of port calls have happened previously, on short notice, and out of displeasure about one US action or another, or when bilateral tensions were high. US displeasure, which should have been immediate, has appeared to be slow in coming.
In late May 2001, the PRC announced it was denying some port calls later that summer including the USS Inchon (MCS-12), a mine countermeasures command-and-control ship. This cancellation followed the mid-air collision of a People’s Liberation Army Navy interceptor fighter jet with an Okinawa-based US Navy EP-3E ARIES II signals intelligence aircraft causing the latter aircraft to land on Hainan Island in April (and its crew mishandled).
In 2016, belated US freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea prompted China to cancel a visit by the aircraft carrier, USS John C. Stennis (CVN-74). In late November 2007, China again cancelled a port call by the aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk (CV-63) based in Yokosuka, Japan, just hours before the aircraft carrier was scheduled to arrive. The reason: US arms sales to Taiwan, which it is legally allowed (and obligated) to do. A week before this, the USS Guardian and USS Patriot, both minesweepers, were similarly denied access, as was the frigate, USS Reuben James (FFG-57), the following month. Again, in October 2018, the amphibious assault ship USS Wasp (LHD-1) was denied entry due to the China-US trade war and the announced sale of military equipment to Taiwan.
While the actual value of port calls to Hong Kong can be questioned, the operational chaos and diplomatic frictions short notice cancellations cause cannot be ignored. With the increase in the number of US Navy ships transiting the Taiwan Strait—at least nine last year alone and one so far this year—the case for a more reliable location for refueling, replenishing of supplies, and recreation is particularly strong.
From Calls to Legislation
It was after the 2016 denial of the Stennis in April that then-Representative Randy Forbes (R-VA), chairman of the House Armed Services Seapower and Projection Forces Subcommittee, immediately issued a statement on May 2 that said “China has repeatedly politicized the long-standing use of Hong Kong for carrier port calls, inconveniencing the families of thousands of US sailors and continuing a pattern of unnecessary and disruptive behavior. […] Many US allies and partners, including Taiwan, would no doubt welcome our carriers and their crews with open arms. The time has come to consider these alternate locations going forward.”
Prior to 1979, when the US government switched diplomatic recognition from the Republic of China (ROC) to the PRC, ships of the US Navy routinely visited Taiwan. There is no known official policy today that prohibits ship visits to Taiwan, and indeed, such ships continued to visit into the first half of that year (such as a May 1979 visit). Moreover, Navy-owned research ships, such as the RV Thomas G. Thompson in mid-October 2018 called at the Port of Kaohsiung in October 2018 and the Sally Ride visited Keelung in late August 2019.
Yet, as former Assistant Secretary of Defense for Indo-Pacific Security Affairs Randall Schriver, who was then-President/CEO of the Project 2049 Institute, wrote in mid-2016: “It’s an accident of history rather than policy that such a precedent [of non-visits by warships] became locked-in. […] The bureaucratic reflex is always to default against new precedence if there is any perceived risk.” As such, it is probably more correct to describe port calls to Taiwan as not a new policy, but rather a resumption of previous policy.
In any case, US Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX), who attended national day celebrations for the ROC last year, was another one who supported the idea in 2016 of alternate locations, including Taiwan, being considered for port calls, including by the John C. Stennis. (At the time, Ministry of National Defense officials in Taiwan stated that Kaohsiung was deep enough to accommodate the aircraft carrier but lacked facilities for the ship to dock.)
A year later, in June 2017, the Armed Services Committee of the US Senate approved several provisions in the 2018 National Defense Authorization Bill including the support for mutual port calls, and after both houses of Congress passed it in mid-November, President Trump signed it into law on December 12, the day after PRC jets reportedly carried out island-encirclement patrols around Taiwan. (The Act also calls for the US Navy to involve Taiwan in more military exercises, humanitarian assistance/disaster relief training, and other cooperation, including defense equipment.)
Immediately prior to Trump’s signing of the NDAA, China set off a firestorm when Li Kexin, the no. 2 official at its embassy in Washington, DC, stated in front of hundreds of people that port calls by US Navy ships to Taiwan would constitute a violation of the 2005 Anti-Secession Law and would lead to a military response: “The day that a US Navy vessel arrives in Kaohsiung is that the day that our People’s Liberation Army unites Taiwan with military force.” Trump certainly heard about the undiplomatic remarks but signed anyway, to the relief of many who believe in freedom of the seas and the need to protect a democratic Taiwan whose people see themselves as Taiwanese and not Chinese, against unilateral PRC declarations of “red lines.”
Make the Port Calls Happen Soon
Mutual visits have yet to occur, however, even though Taiwanese officials were reportedly actively preparing to propose port calls, with the new US legislation having gone into effect. Upgrades on ports, such as the aforementioned Kaohsiung, are also needed, but as one local editorial pointed out, the “payoff would be worth the investment.”
The recent re-election of President Tsai Ing-wen provides just the opportunity to further this coordination and keep the momentum going. I look forward to seeing, preferably shortly, US Navy vessels in Taiwanese harbors and those of the Taiwan Navy in our ports. So do many others.
Sadly, the emerging coronavirus pandemic that started in Wuhan and has been mishandled by authorities there and has spread to other parts of China and neighboring countries may make such a visit for humanitarian reasons urgently necessary. Let us hope the plans are in place to make such an operation successful.
The main point: Increased US naval activity in the Western Pacific, including the Taiwan Strait, necessitates flexible options for port calls. As there is no law that prevents US Navy port calls to Taiwan, and a new law requiring the study of the feasibility of mutual port calls between the United States and Taiwan, efforts should be made to realize a port call to Taiwan soon. The coronavirus pandemic may make a port call for humanitarian reasons essential soon.