National Security & Defense

China Mistakenly Challenges Andrew Jackson to a Duel

USS Ronald Reagan and ships of Carrier Strike Group 5 transit the Pacific Ocean in June 2017. (Photo: US Navy)
A Chinese diplomat’s insulting words invite a vigorous response from the U.S.

The United States Navy will be making a port call in Taiwan in the near future. The only questions that remain are where, when, and how many ships of what type will drop anchor or tie up at Taiwanese piers. Of course, this may cause a war to break out in Asia, but it won’t be one of the United States’ making.

We owe this troubling possibility to a China whose rising sense of anticipatory greatness is at odds with its capacity to execute a successful war. Hubris stimulated a Chinese official, Li Kexin, who is attached to its embassy in Washington, D.C., to threaten war against the United States. Li was responding to fairly normal language within the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act that allowed for mutual port visits between American and Taiwan naval vessels. In response, Li stated: “The day that a U.S. Navy vessel arrives in Kaohsiung [Taiwan’s main deep-water port] is the day that our People’s Liberation Army unifies Taiwan with military force.” This non-diplomatic démarche represents a break in precedent, as the United States Navy has made port calls in Taiwan, and it also directly challenges U.S. law in the form of the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979, which unequivocally states that the United States will “consider any effort to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means, including by boycotts or embargoes, a threat to the peace and security of the Western Pacific area and of grave concern to the United States.”

Under these conditions, the United States has no choice but to send the United States Navy to Taiwan for a port visit, and to do so in a big way. The USS Ronald Reagan, a Nimitz-class super carrier based in Japan, with its entire embarked air wing of 65 strike fighters and reconnaissance aircraft and its accompanying escort strike group of Ticonderoga-class Aegis cruisers and Arleigh Burke-class ballistic-missile-defense destroyers, should quickly sortie to Taiwan. They should divide up, with one portion of the strike group transiting down the strait that separates the island from China and the other coming down the eastern coast, meeting up at the southern tip to escort the Reagan into port at Kaohsiung.

At that point, the other strike-group ships should either take up station north and south of Taiwan, with their Aegis radars at full alert given the nature of Mr. Li’s threat, or rotationally enter other ports in Taiwan for friendly port visits. The Ohio-class guided-missile submarine Michigan, carrying 154 Tomahawk missiles, should also make an appearance, before quietly disappearing into the depths to continue its lonely patrols. Such a move would be an effective demonstration of American naval coercive diplomacy worthy of Theodore Roosevelt.

Additionally, the United States should consider a robust, healthy defensive-arms sale package for Taiwan in the coming year. Surface ships and fighter aircraft, top-of-the-line fifth-generation stealth fighters, should be part of the package, but over the last year the United States has quietly been encouraging Taiwan to invest in small diesel-electric submarines that would allow the island nation to better protect its maritime territorial waters. Recently parties from within the U.S. defense industry have apparently partnered with the Swedish shipbuilder SAAB to integrate missile-payload modules into SAAB’s submarine designs. The U.S. should make a similar offer of this technology to Taiwan so it can have a conventional second-strike capability from beneath the seas, and China should be informed, despite all its protesting, that it asked for this.

All of this will be viewed by China as escalatory, and it should be, but the Chinese must be reminded that it was their intemperate language that started the upwards climb. China often warns other nations, when discussing their escalatory moves, that they have domestic nationalist movements that they have to struggle to contain. They should be reminded that the United States has certain nationalist tendencies as well, and insulting challenges on American soil, such as the one offered by Li Kexin, are not helpful to the maintenance of relations between the United States and Communist China.

All of this will be viewed by China as escalatory, and it should be, but the Chinese must be reminded that it was their intemperate language that started the upwards climb.

Some years ago the noted geo-strategist Walter Russell Mead identified four schools of U.S. foreign policy; the pro-business Hamiltonians, the liberal-order Wilsonians, the realist Jeffersonians, and the mercurial, exceptionalist Jacksonians. The election of President Donald Trump signaled the return of the Jacksonian impulse for the first time in a generation, and China should take heed. With regard to Donald Trump’s election, Mead said, “Jacksonian America felt itself to be under siege, with its values under attack and its future under threat. Trump — flawed as many Jacksonians themselves believed him to be — seemed the only candidate willing to help fight for its survival.” By and large, Jacksonians are not interested in externalities. They are not much interested in government, for that matter, largely preferring to be left alone, but when threatened, they react with hair-trigger responses.

And when it comes to war? Mead states that “when an enemy attacks, Jacksonians spring to the country’s defense” viscerally, and Jacksonians, like their namesake Andrew Jackson, will not stop until honor is satisfied. It is a dangerous impulse to stimulate, as China’s Li Kexin has done. China owes the United States a public apology. It now needs to accept a U.S. Navy port visit to Taiwan with a minimum of protests, and it needs to understand that it faces someone who is willing to climb the ladder of escalation in the person of President Donald Trump and his policy of strategic ambiguity. Lastly, China needs to call its diplomat home or face the humiliation of his being declared persona non grata.


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— Jerry Hendrix is a retired U.S. Navy captain, an award-winning naval historian, and a senior fellow and director of the Defense Strategies and Assessments Program at the Center for a New American Security.


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