U.S. media recently reported that the United States is considering sending a warship through the Taiwan Strait in a show of support for Taipei.
The move would essentially be a response to a series of Chinese military drills around the self-ruled island the PRC sees as a “rogue province.” About three weeks ago, China’s air force landed bombers on islands and reefs in the South China Sea as part of a training exercise in the disputed region. An entire division of the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) organized multiple heavy bombers such as the H-6K to conduct take-off and landing training to improve the military’s ability to “reach all territory, conduct strikes at any time and strike in all directions.” The announcement of the exercise on the PLAAF’s site concluded that the drills will prepare PRC’s armed forces for the coming “battle for the South China Sea.”
The U.S. responded by dispatching warships to various disputed areas in the region. “The United States remains committed to a free and open Indo-Pacific...we have seen these same reports and China’s continued militarization of disputed features in the South China Sea only serves to raise tensions and destabilize the region,” was the official statement by Pentagon spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Christopher Logan. Now that these vessels have closed distance with Taiwan, they are in a position to display a more concrete show of support for the disputed territory.
China’s Foreign Ministry urged the U.S. to show maximum restraint on the Taiwan issue to avoid harming bilateral relations. U.S. officials told media sources that the United States had already examined plans for an aircraft carrier passage once this year. The plan was ultimately scrapped out of concern for the Chinese reaction.
As talks with China over ensuing trade wars continue, and with the U.S. not wanting to disrupt its progress on North Korea by upsetting China, Trump has scaled back his gestures toward Taiwan recently, despite having shown them tremendous support in the past.
Indeed, the United States is more constricted in terms of what it can do to prevent Chinese aggression in the strait. This is a significant change from the last Strait Crisis over twenty years ago. The U.S. has to consider the repercussions - in both the diplomatic and economic realms - of pushing China too far.
America might be able to have the best of both worlds, both curbing Chinese aggression in the strait and not provoking Beijing too much. It can do this by sharing the response to China’s activities with other countries. Recent reports have indicated that both France and Britain will sail warships to the South China Sea. In this way, the challenge to China can be framed as the reaction of a broader international base, not simply an American one.
It should be noted that despite its reluctance to risk its interests connected to China, America’s commitment to Taiwan remains firm. Late last week, U.S. Secretary of Defence Jim Mattis warned that Beijing’s militarization of the South China Sea would face “much larger consequences” if it continued.
The strait has been a flashpoint for Sino-American relations for over six decades. With any luck, deterrence alone will be sufficient to hold off another conflict in the South China Sea.