Department of Navy personnel are no longer banned from attending events put on by the nonprofit Naval Attachés Association, according to a fleetwide message issued by Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro late last month.
Del Toro, on Dec. 28, 2021, had banned any interaction with the group after Chinese officials became enraged over Taiwanese military officers being invited to a Beltway breakfast hosted by the group a few months earlier.
The fraternal society brings together international naval attachés for breakfasts, talks and networking.
In his July 28 message to the fleet, Del Toro wrote that the association “has re-asserted its ability to function as an autonomous and apolitical organization, even in the face of continued coercive tactics by representatives of the People’s Republic of China.”
What this means precisely remains unclear.
Del Toro’s office declined to explain what actions the association had specifically taken that prompted the lifting of the ban.
Association officials did not respond to requests for comment sent through the group’s website.
The secretary’s message notes that “active and informed engagement by (Department of the Navy) leadership with foreign naval representatives is expected and encouraged.”
The association’s website appears to have gone through a makeover since Navy Times first reported on Del Toro’s ban in early 2022, but little else exists on that site reflecting the group’s mission or purported reforms.
While China contends that the independent and democratic Taiwan is part of the country, U.S. presidents have walked a fine line of not formally recognizing Taiwan as an independent state while concurrently selling weapons to the island.
China regularly expresses outrage over any Western outreach to Taiwan, and President Xi Jinping has dubbed his country’s quest to take control of Taiwan an “historic mission.”
Navy Times previously reported that, after a September 2021 breakfast attended by Taiwanese military officials, Chinese military officers warned Pentagon counterparts about such practices.
It was another reflection of just how prickly the Chinese government can be where there is any hint of treating Taiwan like an independent nation, and not adhering to the Chinese Communist Party’s position that the island belongs to Beijing.
In one email after the event, a Chinese military officer warned a Pentagon official that it was “dangerous and could lead to many consequences, intended or not,” if U.S. officials didn’t step in and get the three Taiwanese officers disinvited from the event, according to messages reviewed by Navy Times in early 2022.
Another Chinese email sent to association leadership, with several association members cc’d, warned that “there is no doubt that your military personnel in Beijing will be adversely affected” if Taiwanese officers attended the breakfast.
“It is outrageous to note that three Taiwan military personnel are invited and their names appear on the (association) list,” Chinese Senior Capt. Meng Zhang wrote to the head of the association, Spanish Capt. Pablo Murga Gomez, in a Sept. 2, 2021, email that had other association members cc’d. “It is known that there is only one China in the world and Taiwan is part of China.”
“The incident has been reported back to Beijing, and your Embassies will be approached through diplomatic channels,” the senior captain wrote.
Gomez pushed back in an email the following day, writing that the group is a “private association that fosters relationships between its members with U.S. Department of Defense sea services,” and that it welcomes “any foreign officer” assigned to the Washington, D.C., area.
On Sept. 6, Chinese Senior Col. Ge Zhang emailed a senior U.S. Pentagon official, who is not identified in the emails reviewed by Navy Times, stating that “the U.S. has no official contact of any form with Taiwan and there are not official representatives from Taiwan whatsoever in the U.S.”
Meng pinged Gomez the following day and wrote that his absence from the Sept. 8 breakfast would be “a strong protest” against the presence of the Taiwanese officials there, calling it “a blunt violation for One-China principle.”
Ge emailed the senior Pentagon official on the same day, Sept. 7, and called the Taiwanese invite “a gross interference in China’s internal affairs, a severe violation of related international laws and norms, and a blunt political provocation against China.”
Ge argued that the association is an official organization because U.S. Navy officers attend in an official capacity.
“The U.S. side keeps a blind eye on or even encourages the participation by Taiwan military personnel in the event exclusively open to military attachés from sovereign states,” Ge wrote. “This is absolutely double-faced and in violation of the basic norms of international relationship.”
Geoff is a senior staff reporter for Military Times, focusing on the Navy. He covered Iraq and Afghanistan extensively and was most recently a reporter at the Chicago Tribune. He welcomes any and all kinds of tips at email@example.com.