Friday February 21, 2020


July 16, 2018

Taiwan Strait (source: Wikimedia Commons)

On July 7, amidst trade tensions between China and the U.S., two United States Navy (USN) destroyers sailed through the Taiwan Strait, causing ripples of alarm across the South China Sea.

According to former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for East Asia Abraham Denmark, the passing of the U.S. Navy ships is “both a demonstration of [the U.S.’s] continuing support to Taiwan and of its willingness to exercise its maritime rights on China’s periphery.” From China’s perspective, the act was seen as a “serious and deliberate provocation towards Beijing.” According to China Foreign Affairs University professor Sun Hao, the USN ships crossing the Taiwan Strait was “part of a ‘systematic operation’ by Washington to apply pressure on Beijing over both trade and security.”

Following the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) victory and Kuomingtang (KMT) defeat in the Chinese Civil War of 1949, CCP Chairman Mao Zedong established the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and KMT leader Chiang Kai-shek retreated to Taiwan with his Nationalist forces. Previously a supporter for Chiang’s Nationalist government during WWII, the U.S. continued to back Chiang’s exiled government in Taipei whilst cutting off all official diplomatic ties with Beijing for the coming decades. However, as tensions between Beijing and Moscow heightened by the end of the 1960s, Sino-U.S. relations also began to thaw, highlighted by Nixon’s visit to China in 1972. As a significant product of the visit, the Shanghai Communique outlined the U.S. ’s acknowledgment of Beijing’s “One China” principle.  Five years later, the Carter administration formally recognized the PRC as the government of China under its “One China” policy in 1979. In doing so, official diplomatic ties between Washington and Taipei were broken, however, unofficial ties remained robust as a result of the Taiwan Relations Act passed the very same year. Because of this Act, the U.S. is still Taiwan’s largest supplier of arms and most powerful ally today. Just recently, the American Institute in Taiwan  (AIT) announced its plans to construct a new de-facto office in Taipei with an estimated cost of $240 million.

As a maritime zone under territorial dispute, the Taiwan Strait continues to serve as an important strategic territory for the U.S., China, and Taiwan. Historically, between 1949 and 1972, the Taiwan Strait was a highly strategic maritime buffer regularly patrolled by the USN’s Taiwan Patrol Force. Established for the ultimate purpose of decreasing cross-strait tensions, the Taiwan Patrol Force helped to neutralize relations between Beijing and Taipei after 1949. Moreover, due to its geographical proximity to the mainland, the Patrol Force also played a significant role in assisting the U.S. to exert varying levels of military pressure on the PRC.

From Taiwan’s perspective, the passing of USN ships across the Taiwan Strait on July 7 could be interpreted as “a welcome sign of the Trump administration’s commitment to maintaining the cross-strait status quo.” On the other hand, according to another report, the act can also be seen as a U.S. response to a series of Chinese military drills around Taiwan in 2017 following the rise of China-Taiwan tensions after the election of Tsai Ing-wen as the president of Taiwan in 2016.

The passing of the USN ships through the Taiwan Strait is critical because any U.S. involvement in the Taiwan issue serves as an indirect reflection of U.S. policy towards China. With this incident, the establishment of a second AIT office in Taipei, and the previous Trump-Tsai call,  it seems that while the rest of the world has a tendency to side with Beijing over Taipei—in the last three months Panama, the Dominican Republic, and Burika Faso have switched recognition from Taipei to Beijing and recently, the Vatican (an ally of Taiwan) has also been involved in discussions with the PRC—Washington might be moving in the opposite direction.

For further coverage of  USN ships passing through the Taiwan Strait, please see the following news sources and commentary

Compiled and edited by Margaret Grobowski