The US made news recently by sending the Arleigh Burke Class Destroyer, the USS Russell, through the Taiwan Straits. The destroyer went through the strait right around the 31st anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre; for its part, China called the action a needless provocation. Yet despite the controversy, maneuvers such as this remain an important tool in America and the world’s arsenal for preserving peace and needs to be examined.
The Key Importance of the Taiwan Strait
The Taiwan Strait, as the name implies, runs between Taiwan and mainland China. It also brings up a host of issues regarding Taiwan relations with mainland China. When their civil war ended in 1949 the losers under Chiang Kai-Shek fled to Taiwan and established what they called the Republic of China (R.O.C.). This would be like the American Civil War ending and South Carolina remaining its own country called the Republic of America. The mainland Chinese government feels like Taiwan was always a part of China and will be again. In pursuit of these goals they have prepared several times to invade Taiwan. But in 1954 and 1958 they were dissuaded by the threats of nuclear force from America, and the sailing of a carrier group through the Taiwan Strait. To the mainland Chinese then, the sailing of the Russell recalls earlier interference from the US. Beijing sees this as outside involvement in an internal conflict with a breakaway province.
Criticism of the US Presence in the Strait
Critics of this policy point to the above example and Chinese protests of this “provocative” action as a needless escalation with China when there is already a great deal of simmering tension in the region. But Freedom of Navigation patrols has the best chance of supporting peace! China has a long history of simmering tension and provocative actions with its neighbors in almost every direction. Right now, they have a simmering border dispute with India with whom they fought a war in 1962.
China thumbed its nose at the world court ruling regarding against the Scarborough shoal in the Spratly Islands. As a response they’ve placed even more weapons systems and missiles on the island even though it was ruled as part of the Philippine’s exclusive economic zone.
Immediately after losing the court case they used their new advanced weapons systems in the East China Sea. Near the disputed Senkaku islands they practiced locating and sinking a ship as an obvious message to Japan, which approved of the ruling. Japan has had to launch their fighter planes almost 1000 times in 2019 in response to mostly Chinese provocation. Japanese fisherman, operating legally in international waters or in their exclusive economic zone, has been harassed by Chinese naval vessels.
China’s Illegal and Aggressive Actions
China has illegally built up islands and placed advanced radar systems, anti-air batteries, shipping docks that can handle blue water ships, submarine bases, and large runways that can support their advanced fighters (which are being built using stolen technology from the F 22 and F 35.) Keep in mind they are doing this in the Spratlys and other islands in the South China Sea that are vigorously disputed.
When the US performs a Freedom of Seas operation, they aren’t suddenly creating tension or another crisis like many drive by analysts would have us believe. They send an important signal of strength and peace. Because many of these areas are disputed, and Taiwan is given de facto recognition by many countries around the world, the US performs these operations to reaffirm the importance and constraints of international law.
These measures then are incredibly important because they prevent the de facto recognition of the disputed territory as China’s. If international law is disregarded it will be a free for all in this region where disputes are settled by force. As the biggest military power in the region this would naturally encourage more assertive action by China. If China aggressively controls the South China sea for example, they could easily cut off shipping in the region, through which almost half of the world’s merchant fleet passes.
Trump is Reasserting Basic International Law
That’s why it is important when Trump says he will stand for the rights to sail in international waters. He is not picking a fight with China as some people have alleged, (though these Freedom of the Seas operations do have some danger), but simply reasserting basic rights of international law that the China is actively threatening. China has threatened every one of its neighbor, aggressively maneuvers near them, and actively builds bases in disputed territory that can project force. And they could pose a threat to basic freedoms of the see such as trade. Supporting international law is something most Republicans are accused of ignoring in favor of their cowboy diplomacy. But this is an example that supports international law as an important mechanism in leading to peace.
It’s important to consider how many of the arguments against Trump and American military policy are based on general disdain for American military power and outspoken foreign policy positions, as well as libertarian articles of faith which are not actually based on a sound knowledge of the region. Unfortunately, criticism of US actions in the Strait of Taiwan is one of those cases.