A recent Congressional bill — the National Defense Authorization Act （NDAA）, which was signed into law by President Donald Trump on Dec. 12, 2017, calls for resuming US naval port visits to Kaohsiung Harbor on Taiwan. This is something that has not occurred since the United States broke relations with the island nation nearly forty years ago.
Such visits resonate personally with me. As a young teenager, I lived in Kaohsiung for two years when my father was stationed on the island as a military advisor to the Taiwan Army in the early sixties. I remember riding my bicycle through the city streets to the harbor, where our ships would dock for R&R.
I also remember seeing sailors at play on the streets of Kaohsiung, particularly on what we called “Fleet Street,” where the bars and call girls catered to American sailors. Our youth bus stopped for 15 minutes along this street, as we headed on Friday and Saturday nights to the American teen club in nearby Tsoying （左營）. My friends and I would stroll down the street while waiting for the bus to start up again. It was particularly distressing to me back then that many of the young girls offering their charms to American sailors were little older than I was at the time.
The US Navy has moved on, and its ships now dock in ports from the Philippines and Hong Kong to Okinawa and Yokohama, as well as other stops along the shipping routes of the United States Seventh Fleet. Wherever they sail, they are welcomed for the money they spend and the symbolism of American support they convey. As Consul General to Hong Kong from 2010-13, my staff and I looked forward to the regular visits there by US warships. So did the government and merchants of Hong Kong.
The NDAA language on ship visits to Taiwan is only a proposal that the Executive Branch and Defense Department consider resuming such port calls to Taiwan after the long hiatus. Absent a surprising decision by the Pentagon to seriously consider the proposal, nothing will change.
That didn’t seem to deter an ambitious — or reckless — senior PRC diplomat in Washington from publicly declaring that the day such a ship visit occurs, China will launch a military attack on Taiwan. This startlingly provocative statement was issued on December 8 by Li Kexin （李克新）, the minister in the Chinese Embassy, during a reception in the US capital.
Mr. Li occupies the number two position in an institution that reports not to the Ministry of Defense in China, but to the much less powerful Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Mr. Li’s outburst therefore seemed totally unprofessional and lacking in any serious policy standing on the part of his government back in Beijing.
As a 33-year veteran of the American diplomatic service, I cannot imagine a number two in one of our overseas missions taking it upon himself to make such a policy pronouncement. Yet I have seen no evidence that Minister Li’s actions were sanctioned any higher up. Even his boss, Ambassador Cui Tiankai （崔天凱）, would hardly be expected to publicly inject himself into such a fraught subject without much higher clearance from the Chinese Government in Beijing.
One presumes that State Counselor （and Politburo Member） Yang Jiechi （楊潔篪） — who actually held Mr. Li’s position back in the mid-1990s — would have been much more cautious, and would not have approved of the rash remarks the minister （his functional position is Deputy Chief of Mission in the Washington Embassy） blurted out early last month.
Yet it comes at the same time that we read recent reports of PRC surveillance and military planes flying close to Taiwan’s airspace to the north and south of the island. These can only be characterized as provocative gestures designed to threaten and intimidate the government and people of Taiwan.
One has to ask if this is a realistic policy designed to influence internal politics on the island. If so, I suspect it serves only to heighten suspicion on the part of Taiwan’s more than 23 million citizens that China means them no good. It also comes at a time when President Tsai Ing-wen （蔡英文） and her government have been extraordinarily cautious in avoiding any actions that might provoke or alarm the Chinese government and the Communist Party that runs it.
President Trump has gotten off to a good start with China, beginning with his early April meeting in Florida with Chinese President Xi Jinping （習近平）, and more recently his “State-Plus” visit to Beijing in the fall. Mr. Xi has been clever in playing to our president’s ego. Thus far candidate Trump’s bombastic complaints about China have not been transformed into actual policy, now that he is sitting in the Oval Office. It was also a relief that Mr. Trump’s trip to Beijing did not — as far as we know — result in any new concessions on Taiwan.
I understand why Beijing doesn’t particularly like democracy, given that the institution substitutes the wisdom of the voting public in place of the dictate of a small coterie of unelected mandarins in the CCP Politburo. But why China hasn’t made more of an effort to deal with the Tsai government that took office a year ago in May is still rather puzzling. There has been little effort to actually engage Taipei on a variety of important economic, commercial and political issues. Ultimatums and threats — and now military shows of force — have substituted for diplomacy.
Trade between the two sides of the Taiwan Strait has also declined, which harms both economies. Tourism too has dropped, despite the many benefits of Chinese citizens learning more about Taiwan and even trying to diminish tensions across the Strait.
Could it be that the leaders in Beijing fear what exposure to Taiwan’s open and democratic society might do to their own citizens? I have read anecdotal accounts that PRC visitors to Taiwan are fascinated by the bare-knuckle evening political talk shows on Taiwan television, something their own state-controlled broadcasts studiously avoid.
Back to the outspoken Mr. Li. Other than a brief story in the bombastic Global Times （環球時報）, I am unaware of any higher level echoes of the diplomat’s threats in PRC media. At the same time, we have not seen anything suggesting Mr. Li was called on the carpet for taking upon himself to publicly announce what could be taken as a new “red line” toward Taiwan. One wonders what his next job might be.
The 1979 Taiwan Relations Act （TRA） was purposely general in delineating American defense commitments to Taiwan after the break in relations. But the view among experts in the US government and Congress is that any outright military threat to the island would likely trigger a major American military reaction.
I certainly know firsthand that defense planners in Washington and at Pacific Fleet Headquarters in Honolulu have long maintained specific operational plans to respond to a direct threat to Taiwan. We can also recall then president Bill Clinton’s decision to twice deploy US aircraft carriers to the region in 1995 and again 1996. This occurred first in reaction to China decision to launch missiles off Taiwan’s shores in late 1995, following then president Lee Teng-hui’s （李登輝） visit to his alma mater Cornell University. Clinton again deployed two aircraft carriers to the Taiwan Strait region in spring, 1996, as Lee was running for re-election in the first democratically contested presidential elections in the island’s history.
Much has changed over the past two decades. But the commitment of American leaders in the Congress and Executive Branch to prevent any threat to Taiwan’s security remains an important facet of overall US policy toward the region. This is also extremely important to our close allies the Japanese, who understand Taiwan and its strategic position well.
Therefore one must wonder what to make of a second-tier Chinese diplomat’s intemperate outburst in Washington earlier this month. Does it reflect largely the views of a rather outspoken individual speaking out of turn? For now, this seems the most plausible explanation. But the issue bears watching.
Stephen M. Young was director of the American Institute in Taiwan from 2006 to 2009 and served as US ambassador to Kyrgyzstan and consul general in Hong Kong.