The Taipei Times tersely summarized the good news this week:
President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) is slated to visit NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, today — a visit of political significance, as it would be the first time a president from Taiwan has entered a US federal building in their official capacity after US President Donald Trump signed the Taiwan Travel Act in March.
The report connects Tsai’s visit with the Taiwan Travel Act. It has been several months, so there may be no direct relationship. But it is clear that the Act, which permits high level official exchanges between the US and Taiwan, underpins growing US official support for Taiwan. As many have observed, when the US moves farther from China, it moves closer to Taiwan.
The visit to the NASA facility may also signal another interesting shift in US policy, though it is too soon to tell: “salami slicing”. That term is used to describe China’s steady pressure, in tiny steps, on nationals whose territory it wants to steal. China rarely makes huge leaps toward policy goals, because these will cause instant opposition and stiffen resolve in foreign capitals. Instead, it makes tiny moves that taken by themselves, will not trigger a response, because a strong response to a tiny move will seem unreasonable.
The US is now engaging in moves that mirror that strategy. If China objects to Tsai’s visit to the NASA facility, a tiny but meaningful promotion of her status in the US, it looks even more petty than usual. Moreover, it makes her the victim, increasing her status at home. Finally, it will show the US that the policy is successfully trolling China, and that there is no exchange between the US and Taiwan that will not anger China. Paradoxically, by becoming angered at everything, China devalues the effect of its own anger and desensitizes officials in other countries to it.
The recent moves on defense budgets also signal incoming salami slicing tactics on the part of the US. It appears that the US will no longer bundle arms sales into enormous packages that are often depicted as needless provocations of China. Instead, arms deliveries will be spread into smaller packages that, if China objects, will make it look petty and easily trolled.
Congress recently passed the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which has several Taiwan-related provisions. It authorizes bilateral exchanges of military officials between the two nations, and it permits port visits to Taiwan by US vessels.
Recall that China objected even to the posting of US Marine Corps guards at th US representative office in Taiwan, the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT). This suggests that the port visits encouraged in the NDAA might “anger” Beijing further. Readers should also recall that for all the bluster, China has never inflicted serious punishment on the US for any of its pro-Taiwan actions.
In 2016 Randall Schriver argued in The Diplomat for US port visits to Taiwan. Schriver is now Assistant Secretary of Defense for Asian and Pacific Security Affairs, a key Pentagon Asian policy post.
Are quiet port visits by US navy ships in the offing? Quite possibly. Consider that the US navy does not have to send a warship — it possesses many different kinds of vessels that are utterly unwarlike, from research vessels to hospital ships to repair vessels to ordinary cargo vessels. A smart salami slicing style move would be to send one of those, then gasp in mock astonishment when China goes into paroxysms of rage: “it’s not even a warship.” Or the US could send the USS Blue Ridge, a command ship which visited Shanghai in 2016, which would enable Washington to piously claim it is engaged in displays of evenhandedness.
Let’s hope we get a port visit, and let’s hope Washington has the good sense to time it to help out the pro-US side in the next election cycle.
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