A US Navy research vessel sailed into Taiwan waters at the end of August, giving further substance to the defense cooperation between the two unofficial allies, on top of the enactment of the Taiwan Travel Act and the upcoming sale of F-16 fighter jets.

The Sally Ride, the US’s newest research ship commissioned in 2014, is anchored off the Port of Keelung in northern Taiwan.

The 3,043-tonne vessel with both the Stars and Stripes and the Taiwanese flags flying on its bow, set sail for the island from the Bay of Bengal last month and will return to Keelung for R&R at the end of this month, after a voyage to the international waters near Palau.

The ship is under the Pentagon’s US Office of Naval Research and is operated by the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego.

The Sally Ride, the newest research vessel in service with the US Navy, docks at Taiwan’s Keelung Port. Photo: Central News Agency, Taiwan

Taiwan’s defense officials and US diplomats from the American Institute in Taiwan, Washington’s quasi-embassy on the self-ruled island, were among the selected guests to go onboard the vessel for a ceremony.

Taiwan’s defense ministry noted in a press release that the port call by a ship in active service with the US Navy was a landmark event “heralding many more visits to come,” though the ship’s capital Ian Lawrence and naval scientists said the main reason for calling at Taiwan was due to its unique position to observe typhoons and ocean turbulence in the western Pacific.

Officials with the AIT said the island could establish itself as the best relay station for visiting research vessels from the US and its allies, especially those from Japan, South Korea, Australia, the Philippines, etc, given its advantages in geographical position, harbor infrastructure and logistics.

Another researcher aboard the ship told Taiwan’s Central News Agency that the island’s location was ideal for the replenishment of supplies and replacement of instruments for research vessels that conduct studies in the western Pacific, the Philippine Sea and the South China Sea.

The Sally Ride is capable of both coastal and deep ocean operations and is equipped with cranes and winches for over-the-side loading of research equipment. Its state of the art oceanographic equipment onboard allows deep ocean mapping.

In addition, the vessel is also installed with SEA-POL radar, which can gather oceanic and atmospheric data within a radius of 100 kilometers, covering part of China’s Fujian province when it is berthed at Keelung.

Taiwanese papers noted that the crew onboard the US ship could have conducted mapping of the seabed and marine environment in the island’s littoral waters, especially when it sailed along the Taiwan Strait before reaching Keelung.

Observers say the port call may pave the way for more such visits by non-combatant ships of the US Navy, which may still carry equipment for military or paramilitary purposes. Taiwan’s own research vessels also took part in patrols and drills with US ships in the western Pacific in 2018.

In October last year, another US research vessel, the Thomas G. Thompson, stopped at the Port of Kaohsiung, with some media linking the port call to a US Navy drill a month later in the western Pacific.