The Trump administration is stepping up pressure on China with the unprecedented visit to Taiwan by a senior military intelligence officer and the transit of a guided missile destroyer through the Taiwan Strait.
U.S. officials said Rear Adm. Michael Studeman, director of intelligence for the Pentagon’s Indo-Pacific Command, arrived unannounced in Taipei on Sunday for intelligence-sharing talks with the island’s government, which has been a major target of Chinese military intimidation attempts in recent months.
In the past senior military officers were blocked from visiting Taiwan over concerns the visits might upset relations with Beijing, which considered Taiwan a renegade province that will eventually join the mainland.
A Pentagon spokesman declined to comment on the visit that was first reported by Taiwan news media based on the arrival of a charter aircraft at Taipei’s Songshan Airport on Sunday evening.
A day earlier, a Navy guided-missile destroyer sailed through the disputed Taiwan Strait.
“The Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Barry conducted a routine Taiwan Strait transit Nov. 21 in accordance with international law,” said Navy Lt. Joe Keiley, 7th Fleet spokesman.
“The ship’s transit through the Taiwan Strait demonstrates the U.S. commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific. The U.S. Navy will continue to fly, sail and operate anywhere international law allows.”
Asked if the warship was shadowed by Chinese ships or aircraft, a military official said the passage was not disrupted.
The visit by Adm. Studeman and the passage by the Barry comes at a time of political uncertainty in the United States over the still-disputed presidential election.
Last weekend’s moves by the administration appear designed to avoid any miscalculation by China.
China in recent months has stepped up both naval and air force activities near Taiwan as part of a what U.S. officials have called military coercion. Large-scale military exercises were held near the island in September in what Chinese officials said could be used as a prelude for an invasion of the island.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Nov. 11 that “Taiwan has not been a part of China,” a comment that also angered Beijing.
Additionally, the administration has arranged for more than $5 billion in arms sales to Taiwan to bolster its defenses. The sales include F-16 jets and long-range land-attack missiles.
“All of these things are designed to live up to the promises that have been made between, frankly, China and the Taiwanese people,” Mr. Pompeo said in a radio interview.
China’s government voiced anger at the admiral’s visit and promised an unspecified response.
“China firmly opposes any form of official exchange and military contact between the U.S. and the Taiwan region,” said Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian.
“China will make legitimate and necessary responses in light of the developments,” he added.
Retired Navy Capt. Jim Fanell said the visit is a breakthrough, reversing the past policy of limiting visits to Taiwan by senior military officers.
Adm. Studeman’s visit to Taiwan “reflects the seriousness of the PRC’s military threat to Taiwan,” Capt. Fanell said.
If the visit is confirmed officially, it would be “unprecedented and would highlight the importance of intelligence-sharing between the U.S. and Taiwan as Beijing has dramatically increased its military operations and threats to Taiwan,” he said.
Defending the status quo
Strategically, a visit by such a senior military official would reconfirm the importance of maintaining the status quo in the cross-strait standoff given 20 years of Chinese military modernization and operations against Taiwan, he said.
“Such a visit is testament to the correctness of this administration’s China strategy, something previous administrations never articulated and have certainly never had the intellectual capacity to formulate,” Capt. Fanell said.
The visit by Adm. Studeman highlights the U.S. strategic and moral interests in bolstering Taiwan, which is facing the threat of a Chinese military invasion for the first time in five decades, said Rick Fisher, a China affairs analyst.
“Sending high military and intelligence officials like Rear Adm. Studeman to Taipei to confer with counterparts would be consistent with the defense of those interests,” said Mr. Fisher with the International Assessment and Strategy Center. “Signaling American willingness to help defend Taiwan from a Chinese invasion by sending U.S. Navy warships through the Taiwan Strait is also consistent with the defense of American high interests.”
Mr. Fisher said the Trump administration has succeeded in elevating the strategy dialogue with Taiwan. “It helps to assure the people of Taiwan as it serves to demonstrate to China’s Communist Party leadership that its threats against Taiwan will only serve to further strengthen the U.S.-Taiwan relationship,” he said.
The Studeman visit was disclosed after Taiwan media initially reported that the visit included CIA Director Gina Haspel. That report was later corrected to state that Adm. Studeman was the visitor.
The Taiwan Foreign Ministry denied Ms. Haspel had come and said in a statement that it would not comment on the reported visit, noting that the schedule for a “senior U.S. official” would not be made public. The ministry added that interaction and exchanges between the two countries are common and that U.S. officials’ visits are welcome.
The Studeman visit is the first by a senior military officer following two earlier visits by high-ranking Trump administration officials. In September, Keith Krach, undersecretary of state for economic growth, traveled to Taiwan, and in August, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex M. Azar II visited the island.
Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Andrew Wheeler is expected to visit Taiwan next month.
The visits and warship passages are designed to warn China against taking any action against Taiwan while the U.S. is distracted over the election outcome and a possible transfer of power in the White House, a U.S. official said.
China regards Taiwan as a breakaway province and has stepped up threatening military maneuvers near the island in recent months.
China’s Communist Party-affiliated Global Times outlet denounced the visit as part of “ramped-up collusion” between Washington and Taipei. The outlet reported that the Trump administration is seeking to lock in policies toward Taiwan before a Biden administration takes office.
“Trump has less than two months in his term,” Global Times stated. “How bold would the U.S. and Taiwan be to perform the ‘final madness’?”
Both the U.S. and Taiwan fear China will resort to military action against Taiwan, Global Times said.
“The Chinese mainland’s air force and navy have normalized their flight and navigation around the island,” it stated. “Fighter jets of the Chinese mainland have crossed the ‘median line’ of the Taiwan Straits multiple times. Fighter jets of the Chinese mainland flying over the island may take place at any time.”
Mainland military drills by China’s armed forces “are no longer merely a warning, but a combat exercise,” the Global Times wrote. “All these have produced actual deterrence. Neither the U.S. nor Taiwan can afford to take [them] lightly.”