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Mainland China To Taiwan, Via Alaska

The People's Liberation Army-Navy destroyer Qingdao
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.

Larry M. Elkin is the founder and president of Palisades Hudson, and is based out of Palisades Hudson’s Fort Lauderdale, Florida headquarters. He wrote several of the chapters in the firm’s book, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55. His contributions include Chapter 1, “Looking Ahead When Youth Is Behind Us” and Chapter 4, “The Family Business."

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3 Responses to "Mainland China To Taiwan, Via Alaska"

  • Michal Thim
    September 13, 2015 - 8:13 am

    This must be one of the most clueless things I have read in a very long time. I understand that it is difficult to have grasp on every detail but just stating that “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.” is an awful misrepresentation of 2011 arms sales package. And of course, the usual trope about Taiwan being indefensible and inevitability of its falling under Beijing’s control. The less a given authors know about the problem, the more inevitability is in their conclusions.

    Making a conclusion that US has given up on Taiwan because it has not acted on events in Ukraine or Syria (author of course does not care to elaborate what that action might have been) may sound sophisticated but it is really not.

  • Michael Turton
    September 13, 2015 - 10:15 am

    “”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””

    Haha. You’re letting your view of the administration cloud your analytical judgment.

    “””While technically our strong, if somewhat vague, commitment to Taiwan’s sovereignty outlined in the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act””

    We don’t have any commitment to Taiwan’s “sovereignty” and certainly not in the TRA. The US position is that the status of Taiwan is undecided.

    “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.””

    In much the same manner as Hong Kong? You mean Margaret Thatcher is going to stupidly hand it over? Dont think so. Not in any way shape or form like Hong Kong. Everyone in Taiwan watches China in Hong Kong. Everyone here knows what will happen when Beijing comes over.

    Larry, the 1980s were 30 years ago. The ship of terror of Chinese annexation sailed, quite literally. Things are much different now. Maybe you should (1) bone up on the US security treaty system. (2) study social change in Taiwan (start with Cole’s Black Island) and read Thinking Taiwan, the China Policy Institute Blog, my blog the View From Taiwan, New Bloom, Solidarity.tw, Ketagalan Media, and other sites that track and discuss social and political change in Taiwan, as well as bone up on the changing view of China in Washington. It’s cute that you dislike Obama, but we were hardly going to go to war over Crimea/Ukraine which is next door to Russia. Taiwan is totally different. Chinese will have to cross the water to come here.

    You might also bone up geography and China’s expansionist historical discourse, where Taiwan is bound up with Chinese claims to Japanese territory in the Senkakus and Okinawa. Abandoning Taiwan means fighting China over rocks in the ocean, and then over Okinawa, from a much less advantageous position. The US is of course aware of this, as is Japan. And if China grabs Taiwan, it will also put pressure on Manila — which has a security treaty with US. Bottom line: many geostrategic factors auger well for US intervention.

    I won’t say US intervention is certain but since several pro-China advisors left the Obama Administration and given China’s increasing aggression and belligerence in the South China Sea and elsewhere, the US position has shifted slowly, will likely shift further. Of course, Taiwan is bound up with the South China Sea claims as well. O wait, that’s another incentive to intervene.

    Cheer up, Larry. I live in Taiwan, my son goes into the army here soon, and I am hardly as pessimistic as you are.

    Michael Turton
    The View from Taiwan

  • Julian Baum
    September 14, 2015 - 4:55 pm

    This misses the mark in most respects, except that the US does want China to abide by established conventions on law of the sea, freedom of navigation, etc. Taiwan’s defense is not merely a military issue and it’s situation is certainly not comparable to Hongkong – except in Beijing’s fanciful view of its dynasticly inspired national boundaries. Democracy counts for more than something, and Taiwan’s open society and democratic governance may be its most formidable defense besides its island geography. Whatever our view of China’s rise, abandoning 23 million Taiwanese to Chinese autocracy would hardly bring peace and stability to East Asia and would greatly complicate the security of concerned neighbors Japan and Southeast Asia.