RIP Naval Attaché Association: We Hardly Knew You

RIP Naval Attaché Association: We Hardly Knew You

RIP Naval Attaché Association: We Hardly Knew You

Global Taiwan Institute members and fans no doubt noticed the contretemps over the inclusion of TECRO officials in activities of the semi-official Naval Attachés’ Association (NAA). These networking organizations exist in various capitals around the world. There are even naval attaché spouses’ organizations. The clear purpose is to establish support networks to enhance information gathering and share cultural knowledge and customs across the representatives of many countries. This makes sense. Attachés live for information. International bonds made over shared service last a lifetime and remain exceedingly valuable.  

A quick backgrounder may add some perspective. Attachés are ‘intelligence collectors.’ Our US officers posted around the world as attachés report to our Defense Intelligence Agency. They are “overt” collectors, and hardly clandestine. James Bond types and those given to visions of accomplishing “Mission Impossible” are not welcome. Attaché’s uniforms are an unmistakable clue to their status and duties. It’s customary for attachés to wear various forms of gold or silver braid, lots of it, to further announce their presence and role. They purposefully stand out at various functions. Their duties also involve attending ceremonies, meetings, briefings, showing visiting dignitaries around, and anything else their ambassador or chief of mission desires. But ‘collection’ is the big thing. Open source, unclassified observations, including softer things like perspective, attitudes, and morale of serving officials, national characteristics, technological efforts, industrial capability, and other matters are valuable. All interesting and important things are not behind the classification barriers.  

Most valuable intelligence is in plain sight. The Ardennes Forest was considered impassable to armored vehicles, acting as a natural extension of the Maginot Line in 1940, until German forces proved otherwise. Closer to home, each of the component parts of the 9/11 attack were visible in events well before the attack, including the simultaneous hijacking, or attempted hijacking, of multiple aircraft. The “vision thing” failed in Europe in 1940, and in the United States in 2001. Attachés can help prevent recurrence.  

It is common in the United States for our government agencies to support tours and visits of members of the attaché corps accredited to posts here. The NAA, among other things, acted as an organizer and sponsor of visits to officials and approvals to visit various places on behalf of all its members. The United States, in turn, is more than happy to support this. In the Cold War, we even hosted Soviet officers aboard our aircraft carriers, and demonstrated the junior sailors doing all the fueling, arming, repositioning, launching and recovery of aircraft. Such tours are part of our influence efforts. 

Access is a key objective for the attachés, individually and collectively. That access is now at least greatly attenuated for the Chinese and the remaining members of the Naval Attachés Association. According to reports, China’s attaché in the United States, People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Senior Captain Meng Zhang, threatened the Association’s leadership with repercussions against fellow officers in Beijing unless the invitation to Taiwanese officials to attend an association breakfast, and their Association memberships, were rescinded. According to the Financial Times of January 13, Captain Meng Zhang said: 

“Should the Taiwan personnel not be delisted off the NAA list and the invitation not be revoked, there is no doubt that your military personnel in Beijing will be adversely affected.”  

Examine that threat statement again. It was made by the senior naval representative at the Chinese embassy, not the ambassador. Senior Chinese officers are hardly known leading on policy. This was a deliberate attack, no doubt sanctioned.   

After initial resistance, the Association’s leadership reversed course, cancelling the breakfast invitations and even memberships for Taiwan officials. It seems that wolf warrior diplomacy now extends through the attaché corps. And why not? This gambit resembles Chinese coercion of the Chinese diaspora around the world: “We know where your family is. It would be a shame if something were to happen.”  

In turn, again according to the Financial Times

“The US navy has banned officers from attending NAA events. Carlos Del Toro, navy secretary, last month said it did not support China’s ‘coercive tactics’ and opposed efforts to ‘manipulate independent organisations [sic].’”  

It is worth the time to look at the precise language of the “ALNAV” (for All Navy message) signed out by the secretary. ALNAVs, like most such directives, are most often known for their sleep-inducing qualities. This one breaks from that tradition. After a quick reference to the importance of engagement with naval representatives of foreign powers represented here, it then seizes the moral high ground.  

That engagement must be conducted in accordance with overarching US interests and values, and must not provide advantage to our strategic competitors or allow those competitors to disadvantage the appropriate engagement of foreign partners with the DON leadership.

Naming names, the ALNAV continues:

Accordingly, effective until further notice, unless specifically authorized by the Secretary of the Navy, the members of the Department will no longer participate in NAA-sponsored or hosted events. The Department WILL continue to engage with the entire Corps of Foreign Naval Attaches, and looks forward to hosting inclusive opportunities to continue fostering open dialogue and understanding with our valued naval attaché colleagues. 

The citation of “overarching US interests and values” as the foundation for our actions is powerful. Appealing to the better moral angels of democratic, allied countries is “realpolitik,” not some so-called “woke” fad. Values are also one of the best parts of our national “brand.” Moreover, the mention of “appropriate engagement for foreign partners” should be encouraging for our Taiwanese friends.  

The Association will apparently continue to exist in Washington, but without its TECRO and US members, and without the previously extended robust access to US officials and events so necessary for attaché duty. The NAA officials who reversed their original principled stand, perhaps following the sentiment of many members, will now have to be content with talking to each other. It remains to be seen how long other nation’s attachés will wish to continue paying dues for NAA membership to have access to Chinese officials.  

Does all this matter? Does writing about it give the story more legs than it deserves? Valid questions. It does matter, as this is yet another attempt by China to marginalize and intimidate Taiwan. This manifest threat to retaliate against those posted to Beijing from the United States and other nations deserves attention. China, always quick to take offense over the most benign actions, turns a blind eye to its own international transgressions. Do as we say, not as we do. Most notably, China repeatedly violates its own “One-China Principle.”  In 1979, a Chinese commitment to a peaceful resolution of disputes with the Republic of China (ROC) paved the way for normalization of Sino-American relations. That was, and remains, the foundation, the fundamental agreement, that enabled all that followed. Yet China refuses to renounce the use of force and continues its sharp coercion of Taiwan, most recently with large and frequent aerial intrusions and militant demonstrations. We are a long way from peaceful resolution.    

Informal attaché networks and connections among like-minded national contingents here in Washington will no doubt arise, acknowledged and unacknowledged. One such alternative is the posting of two retired officers, a major general and a Navy captain, to the United States last month to oversee US-Taiwan Veterans Affairs cooperation. Presumably they will have a staff. Those who have served their nations in such positions never lose their passion for service, their prestige, and their interest, just because they have taken off the uniform. Observations, information, experiences, and impressions will continue to be passed among friends. The NAA may continue to exist, and collect dues from its remaining members, but the overt, announced, and sponsored access to officials, briefings, tours, and social (meaning business) functions, will not. It is hard to see its purpose under these conditions. Perhaps this is one more “decoupling.”  

The main point: Beijing’s pressure forcing the Naval Attaché Association to rescind TECRO’s participation is yet another attempt by China to marginalize and intimidate Taiwan. The more coercive Beijing becomes, the more likely the United States and China will decouple.