Mon, Jan 01, 2018 - Page 6 News List

Stephen M. Young On Taiwan: Port calls and diplomatic outbursts

A recent Congressional bill — the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which was signed into law by President Donald Trump on Dec. 12, 2017, calls for resuming US naval port visits to Kaohsiung Harbor on Taiwan. This is something that has not occurred since the United States broke relations with the island nation nearly forty years ago.

Such visits resonate personally with me. As a young teenager, I lived in Kaohsiung for two years when my father was stationed on the island as a military advisor to the Taiwan Army in the early sixties. I remember riding my bicycle through the city streets to the harbor, where our ships would dock for R&R.

I also remember seeing sailors at play on the streets of Kaohsiung, particularly on what we called “Fleet Street,” where the bars and call girls catered to American sailors. Our youth bus stopped for 15 minutes along this street, as we headed on Friday and Saturday nights to the American teen club in nearby Tsoying (左營). My friends and I would stroll down the street while waiting for the bus to start up again. It was particularly distressing to me back then that many of the young girls offering their charms to American sailors were little older than I was at the time.

The US Navy has moved on, and its ships now dock in ports from the Philippines and Hong Kong to Okinawa and Yokohama, as well as other stops along the shipping routes of the United States Seventh Fleet. Wherever they sail, they are welcomed for the money they spend and the symbolism of American support they convey. As Consul General to Hong Kong from 2010-13, my staff and I looked forward to the regular visits there by US warships. So did the government and merchants of Hong Kong.

The NDAA language on ship visits to Taiwan is only a proposal that the Executive Branch and Defense Department consider resuming such port calls to Taiwan after the long hiatus. Absent a surprising decision by the Pentagon to seriously consider the proposal, nothing will change.

That didn’t seem to deter an ambitious — or reckless — senior PRC diplomat in Washington from publicly declaring that the day such a ship visit occurs, China will launch a military attack on Taiwan. This startlingly provocative statement was issued on December 8 by Li Kexin (李克新), the minister in the Chinese Embassy, during a reception in the US capital.

Mr. Li occupies the number two position in an institution that reports not to the Ministry of Defense in China, but to the much less powerful Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Mr. Li’s outburst therefore seemed totally unprofessional and lacking in any serious policy standing on the part of his government back in Beijing.

As a 33-year veteran of the American diplomatic service, I cannot imagine a number two in one of our overseas missions taking it upon himself to make such a policy pronouncement. Yet I have seen no evidence that Minister Li’s actions were sanctioned any higher up. Even his boss, Ambassador Cui Tiankai (崔天凱), would hardly be expected to publicly inject himself into such a fraught subject without much higher clearance from the Chinese Government in Beijing.

One presumes that State Counselor (and Politburo Member) Yang Jiechi (楊潔篪) — who actually held Mr. Li’s position back in the mid-1990s — would have been much more cautious, and would not have approved of the rash remarks the minister (his functional position is Deputy Chief of Mission in the Washington Embassy) blurted out early last month.

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