Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on telegram
Share on whatsapp
Share on linkedin
Share on print
Share on email

Two US Carriers Through the Taiwan Strait in 48 Years — Time for More

◎ The Nimitz and Ronald Reagan strike groups are on station in the South China Sea carrying out Freedom of Navigation Operations.

The U.S. Navy’s aircraft carrier battle groups are the most dramatic symbol of American military and geopolitical power. They were critical to winning World War II in the Pacific and they have since been deployed in the Indo-Pacific to communicate U.S. resolve against potential adversaries.

The presence or absence of the Seventh Fleet — the configuration of Navy ships and aircraft in the Indo-Pacific built around the carriers — generally determines whether war or peace prevails in the region. In the immediate post-war period, Washington’s strategic planners in the Truman administration shockingly determined that America’s Pacific security perimeter could exclude Taiwan and South Korea.

Washington’s civilian and military leaders then — Secretary of State Dean Acheson and Gen. Douglas MacArthur — conveyed that lack of strategic concern by pointing out lines on a map and backing up the perverse decision by withdrawing the Navy from the Taiwan Strait and the immediate environs. The communist dictators in Moscow, Beijing and Pyongyang welcomed what they saw as a green light for aggression, and the Korean War was on.

President Harry Truman, rueing his administration’s grievous mistake, announced, “[T]he occupation of Formosa by Communist forces would be a direct threat to the security of the Pacific area and to United States forces performing their lawful and necessary functions in that area. Accordingly, I have ordered the 7th Fleet to prevent any attack on Formosa. As a corollary of this action, I am calling upon the Chinese Government on Formosa to cease all air and sea operations against the mainland. The 7th Fleet will see that this is done.”

Henry Kissinger wrote of the reciprocal strategic miscalculations that precipitated the war: “We didn’t expect the invasion; China did not expect our reply.”

After the “Korean Conflict” ended with an armistice, President Dwight Eisenhower dispelled further confusion over America’s security commitment to both South Korea and Taiwan. In 1954, his administration executed identical Mutual Defense Treaties with the Republic of Korea and the Republic of China. The Navy carriers and their supporting complements were, again, the designated enforcers.

Almost two decades later, President Richard Nixon, who had been Eisenhower’s vice president, decided to shake things up. The lifelong anti-communist would open relations with a hostile “Red China” because “[w]e simply cannot afford to leave China forever outside the family of nations, there to nurture its fantasies, cherish its hates and threaten its neighbors. … China must change.”

Nixon and his national security adviser, Kissinger, decided that preemptive concessions were the way to win Mao Zedong’s trust. Since Mao understood the strategic significance of the Seventh Fleet and those carrier strike groups, he demanded their removal from the Taiwan Strait before talks could begin. Nixon complied, setting the stage for his historic trip.

The carriers stayed out of the Strait for 23 years. In 1995, China showed its displeasure at then-President Lee Teng-hui’s reunion visit to Cornell by firing missiles toward Taiwan. President Bill Clinton dispatched the USS Nimitz through the Taiwan Strait. Beijing protested the incursion into “Chinese waters” and the Clinton administration  “explained” the transit as a “weather diversion.”

Months later, as Taiwan’s first direct presidential election approached, China again fired missiles across the Strait. Clinton sent two carriers this time, the Nimitz and the Independence. Beijing said they would face “a sea of fire” if they entered the Strait. They stayed out.

The carriers avoided the Strait for another dozen years, as did all other Navy ships. In 2005, President George W. Bush’s defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, learned of the self-imposed Strait aversion and directed the Navy to resume normal operational transits.

But it was not until two years later that a carrier battle group made the passage, after Beijing abruptly cancelled a Thanksgiving port visit to Hong Kong by the Kitty Hawk. The rejected ships turned around and returned to home port in Yokosuka, Japan, by passing through the Strait.

Beijing voiced its predictable protest. Initially, the Navy again cited weather as the operational reason for the transit, but Beijing was not satisfied with the explanation. Adm. Timothy Keating, head of the U.S. Pacific Command, then gave a less ambiguous response: “We don’t need China’s permission to go through the Taiwan Strait. We will exercise our free right of passage whenever we need to — correct that — whenever we choose to.”

The White House spokesperson, however, took a more conciliatory tone: “[T]he president believes we have good relations with China. We work cooperatively with China on so many different issues. This is one small incident. And in the big picture, in the big scheme of things, we have very good relations.”

For the rest of the Bush administration, then through eight Obama years, and so far during the Trump term, the Navy apparently has felt neither the need nor the desire to send a carrier strike group through the Strait — though single ships have been transiting at an increasing pace under President Trump.

Reports suggest the administration has contemplated sending the carriers but has been reluctant to “provoke” Beijing while the trade deal remains unconsummated. During that same period, China has been less inhibited about asserting its growing naval power, twice sailing its own newly-minted carrier, Liaoning, through the Strait, and its planes frequently have violated Taiwan’s airspace. In the past seven years, China has made more carrier Strait transits than the U.S. has in half a century.

While the Navy reinforces the principle of free navigation, and the U.S. commitment to Taiwan, every time an individual cruiser or destroyer traverses the Strait, nothing will reinforce that dual message more than the transit of a carrier strike force or two. China measures the depth of an adversary’s resolve in millimeters, and may question Washington’s will to confront it in a potential conflict situation when it is manifestly reluctant to make a perfectly legal passage in peacetime.

As it happens, the Nimitz and Ronald Reagan strike groups are on station in the South China Sea carrying out Freedom of Navigation Operations. They also support Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s recent warning to China that its illegal claims and aggressive actions in that sea no longer will be accepted by the United States and the international community. But only two U.S. carrier passages in 48 years could help explain why China believes it can succeed with its aggression against Taiwan.

The Nimitz would be an appropriate candidate to complete the deterrent mission a spooked Clinton administration aborted in 1996. (One former official called the incident “our own Cuban missile crisis; we had stared into the abyss.”) And a warship carrying the name of Ronald Reagan has special meaning in the new cold war against a hostile communist power.

First published in The Hill.

Joseph Bosco served as China country director for the Secretary of Defense from 2005 to 2006 and as Asia-Pacific director of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief from 2009 to 2010. He is a nonresident fellow at the Institute for Corean-American Studies and the Institute for Taiwan-American Studies, and has held nonresident appointments in the Asia-Pacific program at the Atlantic Council and the Southeast Asia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Views expressed by contributors are their own and do not necessarily reflect the views of SinoInsider.

Search past entries by date
“The breadth of SinoInsider’s insights—from economics through the military to governance, all underpinned by unparalleled reporting on the people in charge—is stunning. In my over fifty years of in-depth reading on the PRC, unclassified and classified, SinoInsider is in a class all by itself.”
James Newman, Former U.S. Navy cryptologist
“Unique insights are available frequently from the reports of Sinoinsider.”
Michael Pillsbury, Senior Fellow for China Strategy, The Heritage Foundation
“Thank you for your information and analysis. Very useful.”
Prof. Ravni Thakur, University of Delhi, India
“SinoInsider’s research has helped me with investing in or getting out of Chinese companies.”
Charles Nelson, Managing Director, Murdock Capital Partners
“I value SinoInsider because of its always brilliant articles touching on, to name just a few, CCP history, current trends, and factional politics. Its concise and incisive analysis — absent the cliches that dominate China policy discussions in DC and U.S. corporate boardrooms — also represents a major contribution to the history of our era by clearly defining the threat the CCP poses to American peace and prosperity and global stability. I am grateful to SinoInsider — long may it thrive!”
Lee Smith, Author and journalist
“Your publication insights tremendously help us complete our regular analysis on in-depth issues of major importance. ”
Ms. Nicoleta Buracinschi, Embassy of Romania to the People’s Republic of China
"I’m a very happy, satisfied subscriber to your service and all the deep information it provides to increase our understanding. SinoInsider is profoundly helping to alter the public landscape when it comes to the PRC."
James Newman, Former U.S. Navy cryptologist
“Prof. Ming’s information about the Sino-U.S. trade war is invaluable for us in Taiwan’s technology industry. Our company basically acted on Prof. Ming’s predictions and enlarged our scale and enriched our product lines. That allowed us to deal capably with larger orders from China in 2019. ”
Mr. Chiu, Realtek R&D Center
“I am following China’s growing involvement in the Middle East, seeking to gain a better understanding of China itself and the impact of domestic constraints on its foreign policy. I have found SinoInsider quite helpful in expanding my knowledge and enriching my understanding of the issues at stake.”
Ehud Yaari, Lafer International Fellow, The Washington Institute
“SinoInsider’s research on the CCP examines every detail in great depth and is a very valuable reference. Foreign researchers will find SinoInsider’s research helpful in understanding what is really going on with the CCP and China. ”
Baterdene, Researcher, The National Institute for Security Studies (Mongolian)
“The forecasts of Prof. Chu-cheng Ming and the SinoInsider team are an invaluable resource in guiding our news reporting direction and anticipating the next moves of the Chinese and Hong Kong governments.”
Chan Miu-ling, Radio Television Hong Kong China Team Deputy Leader
“SinoInsider always publishes interesting and provocative work on Chinese elite politics. It is very worthwhile to follow the work of SinoInsider to get their take on factional struggles in particular.”
Lee Jones, Reader in International Politics, Queen Mary University of London
“[SinoInsider has] been very useful in my class on American foreign policy because it contradicts the widely accepted argument that the U.S. should work cooperatively with China. And the whole point of the course is to expose students to conflicting approaches to contemporary major problems.”
Roy Licklider, Adjunct Professor of Political Science, Columbia University
“As a China-based journalist, SinoInsider is to me a very reliable source of information to understand deeply how the CCP works and learn more about the factional struggle and challenges that Xi Jinping may face. ”
Sebastien Ricci, AFP correspondent for China & Mongolia
“SinoInsider offers an interesting perspective on the Sino-U.S. trade war and North Korea. Their predictions are often accurate, which is definitely very helpful.”
Sebastien Ricci, AFP correspondent for China & Mongolia
“I have found SinoInsider to provide much greater depth and breadth of coverage with regard to developments in China. The subtlety of the descriptions of China's policy/political processes is absent from traditional media channels.”
John Lipsky, Peter G. Peterson Distinguished Scholar, Kissinger Center for Global Affairs
“My teaching at Cambridge and policy analysis for the UK audience have been informed by insights from your analyzes. ”
Dr Kun-Chin Lin, University Lecturer in Politics,
Deputy Director of the Centre for Geopolitics, Cambridge University
" SinoInsider's in-depth and nuanced analysis of Party dynamics is an excellent template to train future Sinologists with a clear understanding that what happens in the Party matters."
Stephen Nagy, Senior Associate Professor, International Christian University
“ I find Sinoinsider particularly helpful in instructing students about the complexities of Chinese politics and what elite competition means for the future of the US-China relationship.”
Howard Sanborn, Professor, Virginia Military Institute
“SinoInsider has been one of my most useful (and enjoyable) resources”
James Newman, Former U.S. Navy cryptologist
“Professor Ming and his team’s analyses of current affairs are very far-sighted and directionally accurate. In the present media environment where it is harder to distinguish between real and fake information, SinoInsider’s professional perspectives are much needed to make sense of a perilous and unpredictable world. ”
Liu Cheng-chuan, Professor Emeritus, National Chiayi University