Written by J. Michael Cole.
Li Kexin, speaking at the embassy of the People’s Republic of China in Washington last week told hundreds of people assembled at an embassy event, that calls by U.S. Navy vessels at ports in Taiwan would violate China’s “Anti-Secession Law” of 2005 and automatically spark a military response.
The blunt messaging delivered on U.S. soil was ostensibly in response to the passage, on November 30th, of the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act by Congress, which contains language authorizing the U.S. to evaluate the possibility of re-establishing “regular ports of call by the U.S. Navy at Kaohsiung or any other suitable ports in Taiwan” and allowing Taiwanese vessels to make port calls at U.S. Pacific Command (PACOM) yards.
“The day that a U.S. Navy vessel arrives in Kaohsiung is the day that our People’s Liberation Army unites Taiwan with military force,” the Chinese-language Liberty Times quoted Li, the No. 2 at the Chinese embassy, as saying.
Though alarming, Minister Li’s remarks should be understood in their proper context. For one thing, we do not know if Li, whose curriculum vitae does not suggest any military experience, was speaking on behalf of the Central Military Commission (CMC) — or President Xi Jinping himself — or that he was being hyperbolic, as many Chinese diplomats abroad have become in recent years. What we do know is that it is not the remit of a Chinese envoy to make decisions on how and when to activate the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).
The message was no doubt aimed at the U.S. Congress, where Chinese influence is rather limited (and support for Taiwan solid). It was also directed at the various executive branches of the U.S. government (and the Oval Office) that will be evaluating the possibility of re-establishing port calls by the U.S. Pacific Fleet to Taiwan. It was a warning, one that should be taken seriously and prepared against. But we should avoid inflating its significance or allowing such headline-grabbing bluster to affect how two democracies and longstanding allies conduct their affairs. Chinese envoys have gotten into the unfortunate habit of issuing threats on foreign soil. The reason they do so is that far too often we have allowed them to succeed by backing off whenever they raise their voice, without first asking ourselves if Beijing would indeed act on such a threat (provided it gave permission to an envoy to issue such a threat to begin with).
As with most of the vitriol that has been spewed by Chinese officials regarding Taiwan, the principal audience of this outburst was largely domestic. For years now the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has reinforced the idea that it is succeeding in pushing the U.S. military out from the Taiwan Strait. Renewed port calls by U.S. Navy vessels (and presumably not just at Zuoying) would be an embarrassment for the CCP. They would also punch holes in Beijing’s claim that the U.S. should “abandon” (or is abandoning) Taiwan, a notion that it has tirelessly sought to reinforce through propaganda and political warfare.
It is difficult to imagine that the People’s Liberation Army would be called upon to invade Taiwan over a development whose significance would, it must be said, be largely symbolic.
Even if regular port calls by the U.S. Navy occurred, it would not have a major direct impact on Taiwan’s security or the balance of power in the Taiwan Strait. At most their presence at Taiwanese ports would act as a deterrent against Chinese attack, lest the (accidental) sinking of a U.S. vessel draw a retaliatory response by the 7th Fleet based in Japan.
Symbolically, this would normalize Taiwan as a logical transit route for American vessels conducting patrols in the first island chain and a staging point between the East China Sea and South China Sea, two areas where the People’s Liberation Army Navy has been very active in recent years in asserting Beijing’s territorial ambitions. (I would argue that U.S. Navy port calls in Taiwan should be presented by the U.S. not so much as a measure to benefit Taiwan than as a necessary response to the increasingly aggressive behavior of the PLA in the region.)
Nevertheless, while it is unlikely President Xi would order a hugely risky PLA invasion of Taiwan over a decision that amounts to little more than symbolism, there is no doubt that Beijing would retaliate, in one form or another, against the move. In such an event, the likely target would be Taiwan, not the United States. Thus, as Taipei and Washington discuss the possibility of resuming port visits, the pros of doing so will have to be weighed against the negative repercussions that will inevitably occur. In other words, Taipei will need to ask itself whether symbolic gains are important enough that it can afford to suffer non-symbolic acts of retaliation by Beijing (e.g., the loss of an official diplomatic ally or other measures meant to further isolate Taiwan).
Though this would be a welcome development, the resumption of U.S. Navy port calls should be calibrated in a such a way that the benefits to Taiwan, symbolic and tangible, outweigh the expected costs.
J. Michael Cole is a Taipei-based Editor in Chief of Taiwan Sentinel and a Senior Non Resident Fellow with the China Policy Institute, University of Nottingham. This article was first published on Taiwan Sentinel and has been republished with the permission of the author. Image credit: CC by Office of the President, Republic of China (Taiwan)/Flickr.