FEATURE | US naval research ship visits Taiwan – a hint of things to come?

Photo: University of Washington
Photo: University of Washington

On October 15 the 3,300-tonne US oceanographic research vessel Thomas G Thompson docked in Kaohsiung, Taiwan. According to official Taiwanese sources the ship is taking part in a joint oceanic research project with Australian and Philippines’ vessels, and the visit was undertaken to facilitate refuelling and crew change.

China, though, expressed “solemn concern”, with China Foreign Ministry representative Lu Kang stating that his government, “objects to all governmental and military contact between the US and Taiwan.”

There is speculation among some commentators that the port call by Thomas G Thompson could be a long-awaited precursor to Taiwan supplanting Hong Kong as the favoured Asian location for rest and recreation visits by US Navy Battle Groups – a prospective move which has some support in US Congress, but which would be certain to infuriate Beijing.

Washington is believed to be tiring of Beijing’s periodic vetoing of visits to Hong Kong by US Navy warships (Japan-based amphibious warfare ship Wasp being the latest target for such a ban).

According to some reports, Washington is planning for a major show of force in the South China Sea and Taiwan Strait during November 2018, and analysts are watching carefully for indications that port calls in Taiwan might be on the agenda for participating warships.

“Civilian” oceanographic survey ships of Washington’s Military Sealift Command are widely believed to be very active in monitoring, recording and analysing PLA Navy underwater activity in the South China Sea; there have been incidents involving such ships, and Chinese naval and paramilitary vessels.

There have, though, been no reports connecting Thomas G Thompson, which is owned by the US Office of Naval Research, and operated under charter party arrangement by the School of Oceanography at the University of Washington, with such operations.

Trevor Hollingsbee

Maritime security expert and columnist, Trevor Hollingsbee was a Lieutenant in the Royal Navy, Senior Superintendent with the Hong Kong Marine Police, Assistant Secretary for Security in the British Hong Kong Government Security Branch, and Intelligence Analyst in the UK Ministry of Defence. As an independent defence and security analyst he has had some 1,500 articles on maritime security, and geopolitical topics, published in a range of international journals and newspapers. He is an Associate Fellow of the Nautical Institute, and a past Vice-Chairman of the Institute’s Hong Kong branch.