China suspended U.S. Navy access to Hong Kong last week following President Trump signing the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act into law. Once again, Beijing is using U.S. Navy access to Hong Kong as diplomatic leverage to signal irritation over a bilateral policy dispute. We have seen China play these cards before.
A U.S. Navy warship to Taiwan achieves several objectives. At the basic level, it allows sailors from the United States and Taiwan navies to exchange ideas, best practices and tactics — important building blocks in the event the United States comes to Taiwan’s defense against future Chinese aggression.
From an operational perspective, navy-to-navy cooperation builds trust and confidence between the services. Strategically, the presence of a cruiser or destroyer advances America’s national interests by demonstrating support for a free and open Indo-Pacific and a commitment to support allies and partners in the region.
A warship visit would undermine China’s claim that the United States is not committed to the Indo-Pacific and would force Beijing to recalculate its military options against Taiwan. No doubt, China’s response would be shrill. Beijing may lash out with a large military exercise, convey terse diplomatic demarches or even employ economic coercion against Washington to dissuade visits.
One Chinese diplomat stated, “The day that a U.S. Navy vessel arrives in Kaohsiung is the day that our People’s Liberation Army unifies Taiwan with military force.” Washington needs to remain dispassionate in the face of bombastic Chinese rhetoric. Beijing’s long-term interests, however, are to cooperate with the United States. This mitigates risk a ship visit would invite a violent response.
Although China has options to convey its displeasure, Washington need not fold its cards at the first sign of Beijing’s irritation. Instead, the United States needs to demonstrate firm resolve when confronted with China’s brinksmanship. When Washington stands up to Beijing’s bullying, it earns China’s respect.
While I’ve enjoyed Hong Kong culture, cuisine and sightseeing during my numerous ship visits over the last two-and-a-half decades in the Navy, these port calls did not enhance bilateral military cooperation or build trust with my Chinese navy counterparts.
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