On December 30, the U.S. Navy announced that it had conducted its second transit of the Taiwan Strait in the past two weeks by Japan-based U.S. Naval warships. A spokesperson for China’s Ministry of National Defense once again chided the United States for “provocative actions” that “sent erroneous signals” to what Beijing labels “Taiwanese Independence” forces, jeopardizing “peace and stability” across the Taiwan Strait. These comments, while more forceful than previous statements on the issue, have become part of a consistent pattern in recent years where the U.S. Navy publicizes its routine passages through the Taiwan Strait and is promptly rebuked by China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs or Ministry of National Defense.
The U.S. Navy has consistently framed its transits through the Taiwan Strait as routine exercises of “freedom of navigation,” stating that it will “continue to fly, sail, and operate wherever international law allows.” The reality is more complex. In fact, frequent U.S. transits of the strait are a relatively recent development, beginning about 15 years ago as the result of a deliberate policy change by the U.S. Department of Defense. Between 1972-2005, the U.S. rarely transited the strait, largely reserving such operations for occasions when it intended to send a clear signal to China. For example, in 1995 during the “Third Taiwan Strait Crisis,” the passage conducted by the USS Nimitz carrier battle group sent a clearly implied message of reassurance to Taiwan and deterrence to China, even without much media amplification. During the George W. Bush administration, the Defense Department instituted a policy change to conduct regular transits of the Taiwan Strait. These continued steadily throughout the Obama administration, during which the U.S. Navy transited the strait 68 times, but attracted little fanfare from U.S. or Chinese officials. Even as strait transits occurred on a near monthly basis, the Chinese government did not comment on any of the Obama administration’s strait transits.
However, under the Trump administration, these routine transits have been regularly publicized by the Navy, politicizing them in a manner that has prompted more strenuous public complaints from China. While the U.S. Navy has good reason to continue these operations at regular intervals, widely publicizing the details of every operation risks undermining their most important (implicit) function: maintaining peace and security and deterring Chinese aggression across the strait. As the Trump administration has blurred the lines between routine activities like Taiwan Strait transits, more tailored FONOP missions that challenge China’s extra-legal maritime claims, and shows of force intended to enhance deterrence, it has needlessly helped exacerbate U.S.-China military tensions in the strait.
The Trump administration has, on average, conducted fewer strait transits per year compared to the prior administration, and the record-breaking 13 transits conducted in 2020 barely surpassed the 12 transits conducted during President Barack Obama’s final year in office. Yet, media reports have frequently touted the Trump administration’s use of strait transits as a response to escalating tensions in and across the Taiwan Strait. The critical change is that in July 2018, U.S. officials apparently made a decision to begin publicizing strait transits as a means of “sending a message to China” in an implied show of support for Taiwan following targeted PLA drills towards the island in April 2018. This was initially a good example of the way in which military signals and public messaging can and should work in concert. However, since then, nearly every transit of the Taiwan Strait has been accompanied by press releases or public statements from Indo-Pacific Command. This marked increase in public messaging, coupled with the sharp escalation of diplomatic rhetoric from the administration, have reinforced China’s inclination to view each transit announcement as a deliberate provocation.
China’s recent condemnations of U.S. transits through the Taiwan Strait demonstrate that the fundamental issue is not the presence of U.S. military vessels per se, but rather their public amplification. While China and the United States differ on their interpretations of the legal requirements for foreign vessels conducting routine surveillance and reconnaissance in an exclusive economic zone (EEZ), disputes have rarely emerged over the passage of military vessels in or near an EEZ. The PLA Navy itself increasingly relies on freedom of navigation in foreign EEZs, and a Ministry of National Defense spokesperson’s 2019 statement that a French transit was “illegal” was later scrubbed from the official transcript, suggesting that he misspoke. In response to a 2019 Canadian transit, a spokesperson for the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated that “the Chinese side does not oppose normal passage by foreign military vessels through the Taiwan Strait. But why… deliberately make a high-profile announcement of it?” The question is rhetorical, but the answer is clear: Make a statement when you have something to say; otherwise, don’t say anything.
The United States needs to decide if its transits through the Taiwan Strait are benign demonstrations of its navigational rights, or if they are intentional signals of deterrence – any given transit may be one or the other, but they can’t all be both. When there is in fact no political-military significance to the transits, as the U.S. Navy regularly claims, then the added publicity only elevates routine logistical decisions to a level of diplomatic significance that is not necessarily appropriate or intended, and can thus inadvertently contribute to heightened U.S.-China military tensions. When transits are indeed meant as a show of force or a show of support in response to increasingly coercive actions taken against Taiwan, the regular monthly announcements risk burying U.S. military signals under the static of normal operations. While analysts commonly describe the passage of one or two U.S. guided missile destroyers as a “signal of support” to Taiwan, the Taiwan Ministry of National Defense now views them for what they usually are: an ordinary activity.
This is not to say that the United States should acquiesce to China by stopping transits of the Taiwan Strait – it should not. Rather, the public messaging around transits of the strait should be calibrated to match their intended meaning. While the majority of passages may indeed hold no particular meaning, to pretend as though such transits have no political significance is simply dishonest and ahistorical – in fact, the U.S. has relied on transits to serve as a signal of deterrence and reassurance in the past. When China threatens Taiwan, or impedes foreign military vessels lawfully navigating the strait, as it did with Australian warships in 2001, it must be called out. Amplifying a small show of force, such as a strait transit, may be ideally suited to this purpose. But as U.S.-China tensions continue to escalate, accompanied by heightened military activity, it is increasingly important to avoid needlessly politicizing strait transits without clear strategic intention and purpose.
The decision to promote public messaging around truly routine strait transits has clearly not deterred China from pressuring Taiwan, as Chinese military activity has only increased around the island in the last two years. Nor has it stopped China from challenging U.S. freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. Publicizing virtually every Taiwan Strait transit since mid-2018 has contributed to the growing noise of military signals in the Indo-Pacific and has diluted what might otherwise be a powerful tool at a time when clear communication to prevent and avoid war is vitally important.
Ely Ratner, President-elect Joe Biden’s likely choice for the top Indo-Pacific position at the Pentagon, wrote in 2017 that the United States “ought to be regularly experimenting” with the full toolkit of diplomatic, economic, and military policy innovations to counter Chinese activity in the South China Sea. The publicization of routine strait transits ought to be seen as an experiment that has failed to bolster American deterrence and served as an ambiguous signal of U.S. intentions. The incoming Biden administration would be wise to experiment with a return to the more muted conduct of routine strait transits, with the goal of guiding the U.S.-China military relationship back to safer waters. In doing so, it will hopefully allow the United States to restore a meaningful relationship between messages and actions, and allow it to raise tensions only when it intends to.
James A. Siebens is a fellow with the Defense Strategy and Planning program at the non-partisan Stimson Center, and an editor of “Military Coercion and U.S. Foreign Policy: The Use of Force Short of War” (Routledge 2020). He is currently working on a study of China’s use of military coercion in the 21st century.
Ryan Lucas is a research assistant with the Defense Strategy and Planning program at the Stimson Center. His research focuses on the use of the armed forces in Chinese foreign policy.