On April 29, the Chinese government denied the USS John C. Stennis, a Nimitz-class aircraft carrier, access to Hong Kong port. The refusal could have been a matter of simple inconvenience since another ship of the U.S. Navy, a command ship of the Japan-based 7th Fleet USS Blue Ridge, had already been allowed to dock in Hong Kong at the same time (from there, Blue Ridge embarked on a scheduled visit to Shanghai). However, aircraft carriers do not usually come into ports without arrangements made well in advance. The last minute nature of the refusal thus raises reasonable suspicions.

The broader context of the decision and subsequent debates tell us a few things about the military dimension of Sino-US relations, its relative importance for both the U.S. and China, and challenges it presents for stronger U.S.-Taiwan relations.

First, the context: John C. Stennis was en route from Singapore back to its Japan home after conducting a freedom of navigation mission in the hotly disputed South China Sea. Though freedom of navigation missions are intended to challenge all claimants in South China Sea, China is the most visible target, having embarked on extensive artificial island building that is turning barely visible features into military outposts. Further, while conducting operations in the South China Sea, the carrier hosted Defense Secretary Ash, who spoke against unilateral changes to the South China Sea status quo by any of the claimants.

Second, the debate: that the refusal was indeed an issue of inconvenience is hard to believe. China is clearly not happy with US “meddling” in matters it argues should be resolved on a bilateral basis between China and individual claimants — the setting most favourable for Beijing. To refuse a port visit to a ship that just took part in challenging Chinese interests in the South China Sea is in this sense reasonable, if somewhat petty. But, Beijing also provided Washington with a golden opportunity to capitalize on the incident in a fashion that would foster a US relationship with regional partners.

Soon after Beijing’s decision, influential US Congressman Randy Forbes suggested that the U.S. Navy should also consider Taiwan as an alternative to Hong Kong. The best way to start visits on a more regular basis would have been if John C. Stennis re-routed to Taiwan right after the Hong Kong refusal. Granted, it would be a small logistical nightmare for Taiwan to prepare for a visit on such short notice, but surely a manageable one. In response to media queries, Deputy Defense Minister and former ROCN Admiral Hsu confirmed that Kaohsiung port can accommodate an aircraft carrier. Naturally, Beijing would be unhappy, but it is its own decision that would have sent the US aircraft carrier and its escort on a friendly visit of Taiwan. Washington could plausibly argue that port visits are ordinary matters, which they are, and that the visit is not in violation of the long-standing US “One China” policy.

Project 2049’s Randall Schriver, who formerly served as the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, argues in a piece for The Diplomat in favour of switching port visits from Hong Kong to Taiwan. Furthermore, Schriver notes that nothing in post-1979 arrangements between the U.S. and Taiwan prevents port visits:

While it is true that U.S. ship visits were suspended with the break in relations in 1979, it also true that they have never been explicitly prohibited by official guidance or any standing policy. In fact, senior members of the Carter Administration who supported cutting diplomatic ties with Taiwan in 1978 also supported the continuation of U.S. Navy port calls after the change of diplomatic relations. It’s an accident of history rather than policy that such a precedent became locked-in. We failed to make a port call immediately after January 1, 1979, and bureaucratic inertia took over from there.

However, not only did the US aircraft carrier not make a stop in Taiwan, the US has once again confirmed that China will get an invite to the bi-annual multinational exercise RIMPAC 2016. This decision will leave many scratching their heads. Even without the Hong Kong refusal, Washington had more than enough reasons to withhold an invitation to RIMPAC. Two years ago during the first ever RIMPAC participation, Beijing also dispatched an uninvited electronic surveillance ship that watched the exercises from a distance, in addition to the vessels that represented China officially. If that was not sufficient enough, Beijing’s South China Sea island building should be.

Why is Washington not responding in kind? Simple: it is overly anxious about maintaining so-called military-to-military (mil-to-mil) contacts. Contacts between militaries are generally a good thing. They foster communication channels and understanding even between militaries of rival nations. However, both nations must play the same game. In this case//US-China relations?, the US certainly values the continuance of military contacts more than Beijing does. This is not to say that Beijing assigns no value to such military exchanges. But, it also knows how to exploit US eagerness to maintain them when it suits China’s national interests. Beijing has been consistent in suggesting that military contacts will be the first to suffer when the US makes a decision that Beijing does not like. Reactions to the 2007 and 2010 US arms sales to Taiwan are notable examples.

In connection to Taiwan, the U.S. has gradually allowed China to set the bar of potential outrage so low, that basically any U.S. move toward Taiwan can result in termination of mil-to-mil exchanges. At the same time, Beijing is never presented with the same consequence despite engaging in what Washington clearly considers as unacceptable behaviour. Washington may have a long-term strategy to balance China’s regional ambitions but Beijing is becoming increasingly apt at making the right tactical moves to upend Washington’s intent. Failure to re-route John C. Stennis to Taiwan stripped the U.S. of a great chance to make Beijing regret one shortsighted decision and instantly strengthen relations with Taiwan. Perhaps Beijing will offer another opportunity. However, it is more likely that it will be more careful next time.


(Feature photo by US Navy Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Paul J. Perkins, from Wikicommons)


Michal Thim

Michal Thim is a Taiwan defense specialist, a Research Fellow at the Prague-based think-tank Association for International Affairs, a member of CIMSEC, and an Asia-Pacific Desk Contributing Analyst for Wikistrat. Michal tweets @michalthim.