The People's Liberation Army-Navy destroyer Qingdao participating in a cooperative search-and-rescue in 2013.
Photo courtesy the U.S. Navy.
Chinese naval ships came within 12 nautical miles of American soil in the Aleutians last week. But the exercise wasn’t really about Alaska; it was arguably about Taiwan.
Not directly, of course. But China’s lawful excursion though U.S. territorial waters was clearly meant to strike a certain tone, sending a message both about U.S.-Chinese naval relations and about China’s role in the world.
It is natural that China should take its place on the world stage as a global power. As the largest economy in Asia and the second-largest globally, as well as the world’s most populous nation, China is justified in taking up this position. As it does, we want to be sure it follows the same rules as everyone else. In that sense, the Chinese navy ships’ passage off Alaska’s shores was a step forward. The rules in question provide for peaceful transit through other nations’ territory when moving between international waters or airspace.
These rules exist for good reason. They help powerful nations avoid dangerous situations such as the midair contact between Chinese and American warplanes that forced a U.S. spy plane to make an emergency landing on China’s Hainan Island in 2001. It is in everyone’s best interest that China, like the rest of us, abide by them.
Of course, as The Wall Street Journal observed, China has not always acknowledged these rules in the past when the situation was reversed. When American naval ships have crossed Chinese territorial waters without first notifying Beijing, China has objected, despite the fact that such notification is not legally required. Given that the Pentagon has made no move to object to China’s vessels this time around, the recent incident may signal a softening of China’s stance in the future.
David Titley, a retired rear admiral who is a professor at Penn State University, told The Washington Post, “This is how mature superpowers operate.” He also suggested that Beijing may react less defensively to foreign presence in Chinese territorial waters in the future, given the outcome of this exercise. While not everyone is quite so optimistic, if Titley’s prediction holds, it will be a welcome development.
There is, however, a less benign dimension to this incident. By transiting American waters, the Chinese are also sending a message that they are capable of reaching our neighborhood, albeit not yet nearly as capable as we are of reaching theirs. When it comes to China’s relations with its Asian neighbors - whether they are allies of ours, such as Japan, or integral parts of Chinese territory, as they view Taiwan - China wants us to keep out. Moreover, Chinese authorities want us to know that they have the military power to enforce that demand - as, in fact, they do.
The idea of American military personnel, or even of substantial hardware, being used to defend Taiwan’s self-governing status is almost entirely devoid of credibility following our failure to provide such assistance to Ukraine against Russian aggression, as well as our reliance on Chinese support to reach a nuclear arms deal with Iran. Our last major gesture of support to Taiwan was an arms sale in 2011 that largely consisted of pilot training and upgrades to aging hardware. A lot has changed in four years.
The only realistic checks on Beijing’s freedom of action in the Taiwan Strait are those of internal politics and economics, since Taiwan may actually be more valuable right now as a source of external capital and know-how. If forcibly reincorporated, Taiwan would likely become mainly a source of internal dissent. That theoretical check is real, but probably not enough to change the long-term outcome.
The truth, if not one that has been publicly acknowledged yet, is that from the standpoint of U.S. and allied military defense, we have already effectively written off Taiwan. Our Asian “red lines” - or this administration’s closet approximation - are restricted to those drawn around Japan and halfway down the Korean peninsula. While technically our strong, if somewhat vague, commitment to Taiwan’s sovereignty outlined in the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act still stands, this administration’s history with Crimea and Syria speaks for itself.
Taiwan has essentially become indefensible, even for a future president whose foreign policy is not best summed up by the word “feckless.” Absent a major change in Beijing’s governance or policy aims, we can expect Taiwan to eventually fall under mainland dominion, probably in much the same manner as Hong Kong. The ship has sailed, quite literally.
Accepting this reality will allow us to coexist with China as a fellow global power, whose rights to transit and operate in the world’s international spaces are both recognized and exercised. It will also require the Chinese to accept the same rules. If China is willing to join the grown-ups of the world, it will need to demonstrate its armed forces are prepared to act accordingly.