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.
In 2016, U.S. Navy freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea prompted Beijing to deny Hong Kong access to the aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis. In 2007, families of sailors aboard the Japan-based aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk flew to Hong Kong to celebrate Thanksgiving with their Navy loved ones — only to have China cancel the port visit and hours before the ship’s arrival.
Sales of weapons to Taiwan was Beijing’s reason back then. In each case, Beijing reinstated Hong Kong port visits months later without obtaining concessions. Washington doesn’t need to play its same cards again — it must play a stronger hand. It’s time for the United States to abandon warship visits to Hong Kong and re-establish warship visits to Taiwan.
The United States Seventh Fleet — ships forward deployed to Asia — conducts an average of 200 port visits throughout the region each year. Despite there being no official policy that prohibits ship visits to Taiwan, none of these port calls include stops at the island’s ports. This was not always the case.
Prior to Washington’s diplomatic switch from Taipei to Beijing in 1979, U.S. Navy ships routinely conducted Taiwan port calls. Now may be an opportune time to re-establish this tradition. The 2018 National Defense Authorization Act states that the United States should “consider the advisability and feasibility of reestablishing port of call exchanges between the United States navy and the Taiwan navy.”
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. Beijing’s reaction to the ongoing protest movement in Hong Kong demonstrates these visits also failed to convince the Chinese Communist Party to respect the island’s autonomy and freedoms.
Although Hong Kong is a nice place to visit, the Navy does not need its ships to visit Hong Kong if it has alternative options such as Taiwan — where exchanges would be robust, relationships would be deepened and American ideals would be embraced.
Great Power Competition with China requires bold actions to reset the strategic balance in Asia. A warship visit to Taiwan improves U.S. Navy tactical and operational training objectives and demonstrates resolve that will earn the respect of both Beijing and the entire region.
China may think it holds a strong hand that will mollify Washington’s China policy, but the United States can play the trump card by permanently taking Hong Kong off the table as a bargaining chip. Coordinating with Taipei for an invitation for a U.S. destroyer or cruiser to visit Taiwan will show China that the United States has a winning hand.
• Christopher Sharman, a U.S. Navy captain, is a national security affairs fellow at the Stanford University Hoover Institution. He previously served as a Navy attache in Vietnam and in China. The views expressed herein are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Navy, U.S. Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.
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