Media reports indicate that at the end of last month, the Straits Exchange Foundation (SEF) was informed by its Chinese counterpart, the Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Strait, that if Taiwanese merchant vessels need Chinese warships as escorts for protection, they may apply through the SEF.
The Mainland Affairs Council has yet to authorize the SEF to handle such requests, but has indicated that it is assessing the possibility of sending Taiwanese navy vessels to the Gulf of Aden to protect the nation’s ships from pirates.
China’s offer to protect Taiwanese ships is an expression of its concern for and willingness to protect the lives and property of Taiwanese people under the “one China” principle and is in line with a softer approach to Taiwan. On the other hand, some people no doubt worry that China intends to use the offer to undermine Taiwan’s sovereignty.
But such concerns are not a good reason to send our warships. If we want to avoid directly accepting China’s offer, we can instead say we accept help from any and all countries participating in the patrol mission, as we would in any emergency in international waters.
Neither the Ministry of National Defense nor the navy is empowered to make a decision on sending vessels to escort cargo ships. The navy is capable of carrying out such a mission; it has many years’ experience of sending ships on long voyages to promote relations with other countries. But sending ships to escort merchant vessels and attack pirates is a different matter and differs from conventional naval warfare.
It would require special training for the officers and seamen of the vessels and it would require the ships to carry special forces personnel, helicopters and so on.
It is also unclear whether we would get help from nearby countries or other navies in a situation that our ships could not handle alone — such as if pirates hit one of our helicopters with a shoulder-launched missile. Such a scenario is possible and the navy cannot afford to ignore the risks.
East and South Asian countries that have sent naval forces to combat Somali pirates include China, Pakistan, Malaysia, India and Japan. There is a real need to protect shipping lanes from the Middle East to East Asia via the Malacca Strait.
Additionally, the anti-piracy mission provides a justification for some countries to show their ambition to extend their naval power.
Participating in the international drive to combat piracy by dispatching warships would, of course, benefit Taiwan in some respects.
It would provide training opportunities and demonstrate Taiwan’s willingness to cooperate with international organizations on military matters.
However, the possible reactions of the US, Japan and China must be considered.
The US Fifth Fleet has appointed Rear Admiral Terence McKnight to take command of the newly established multinational force patrolling the Gulf of Aden — Combined Task Force 151.
The next step may be to expand the anti-pirate force to include more than 20 countries, so as to effectively enforce security in sea lanes extending southward and eastward from the Suez Canal.
It is uncertain whether other participants in the mission would agree to let Taiwan participate. China might welcome Taiwanese ships to take part in joint escort, logistical and beach rescue efforts under the title of “Taiwan, China.”