On Tuesday last week, US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper published a map of Southeast Asia on the US Department of Defense’s official Twitter account.
Beneath the map, Esper wrote: “Partnerships: we continue to build closer relationships with Japan, South Korea, New Zealand, Thailand, Australia, the Philippines, Timor-Leste, Papua New Guinea, Fiji, Tonga and other Pacific Island nations. We remain committed to a democratic Taiwan.”
From the Pentagon’s perspective, within the context of the joint defense of Indo-Pacific nations, Taiwan is a vital strategic location as well as a key area of conflict.
Taiwan occupies a core position within the first island chain,which prevents China from gaining control over the second island chain.
A 2017 report by US think tank RAND Corp concluded that the Taiwan Strait, South China Sea and Korean Peninsula are three possible future theaters of conflict between the US and China. Two out of these three flashpoints involve Taiwan.
In the past six months, Chinese People’s Liberation Army ships and aircraft, and the US Navy and Air Force have encircled Taiwan proper on numerous occasions. Reminiscent of the now-defunct Sino-American Mutual Defense Treaty, on June 9, US military aircraft even crossed into Taiwan’s airspace off the coast of Tainan.
The US National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2018 allows US Navy vessels to make regular calls in Kaohsiung. Since US warships can make port calls in Taiwan, why should US military aircraft not be able to enter its airspace?
Taking this one step further, the draft Taiwan Defense Act, introduced to the US Senate by Senator Josh Hawley on June 11, would invest the US military with the legal authorization needed to “deny a fait accompli by the People’s Republic of China against Taiwan.” The bill also requires the US government to assess bringing Taiwan under the US nuclear umbrella.
The bill should be seen in the context of several acts passed by the US Senate in the past few years, including the Taiwan Travel Act, the Taiwan Allies International Protection and Enhancement Initiative Act and the Taiwan Assurance Act of 2019, all of which are designed to plug gaps in the Taiwan Relations Act, which was designed to create “strategic ambiguity” over the US’ willingness to defend Taiwan.
In the context of the above, is it possible that the US will once again station troops in Taiwan? Instead of establishing main operating bases — entailing the long-term garrisoning of military personnel and their families — the Pentagon’s planning over the past few years has favored the adoption of the less personnel-intensive cooperative security location (CSL) and forward operating location (FOL) when operating with partner nations.
The former could be used to supplement local forces, provide training, conduct exercises and act as a hub for interactions with regional partner militaries. Comparable examples are Subic Bay in the Philippines and Cam Ranh Bay in Vietnam, which the US military is preparing return to.
The latter is more suited to intelligence-gathering, electronic and cyberactivities, and would involve establishing special garrisons on Taiwan’s eastern outlying islands and islets.
Since the US Navy can no longer make port calls in Hong Kong, taking into account geographical considerations, it would likely establish a CSL out of the Port of Kaohsiung.
This would compliment its existing and planned CSL operations in the Philippines, Vietnam and Singapore, and would establish a cordon around the four exit points from the South China Sea to the north, south, east and west.
Operating out of the Port of Kaohsiung, Subic Bay and newly established FOLs in the area would also allow the US military to triangulate surveillance of the strategically important Bashi Channel.
Retired South Korean four-star general Paik Sun-yup, who served during the Korean War, in his memoirs said: “If the UN forces had been familiar with the history of the First Sino-Japanese War, the situation on the Korean Peninsula as we see it today would be completely different.”
Correspondingly, the Pentagon must heed the lessons of World War II and the Korean War when assessing whether to once again garrison forces in Taiwan.
Ou Wei-chun is the chief legal officer of a private company.
Translated by Edward Jones
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