Chinese state-run media on Monday blasted the U.S. Navy’s dispatch of two warships through the Taiwan Strait over the weekend, calling the move a “psychological game” as tensions between Washington and Beijing grow over trade and relations with Taipei.
The Global Times newspaper, known for its nationalistic stance, said in an editorial that the U.S. was “sending political signals by sending warships through the Taiwan Strait.”
The two warships, the guided-missile destroyers USS Mustin and USS Benfold, which are both home-ported at the U.S. naval base in Yokosuka, Kanagawa Prefecture, passed through the 160-kilometer-wide (100-mile-wide) strait Saturday and were the first to do so since July last year.
In a separate article, the newspaper quoted a Chinese expert as saying that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) “had most likely monitored their movements closely.”
The Chinese government had no immediate comment.
While the sailings are not particularly rare, the public announcement and confirmation of Saturday’s transit, first by Taipei and then Washington, were unusual and came amid ramped-up tensions between Taiwan and China, which has warned that it will defend — by force if necessary — its “One China” principle under which the self-ruling island is seen as part of China’s own territory, awaiting reunification.
The U.S. had signaled that it might send vessels through the strait early last month, and speculation had abounded that it might dispatch an aircraft carrier after China has ramped up its military presence near Taiwan, sailing its sole operating carrier through the strait in January and March and holding large-scale exercises nearby in recent months.
The U.S. Navy has not sailed an aircraft carrier in that area since 2007.
In its editorial, headlined “U.S. psychological game in Taiwan Strait,” the Global Times said that Washington had decided on “a more discreet approach” by sending destroyers and not conducting drills.
Still, it said that the U.S. could in the future send larger warships through the Taiwan Strait, conduct military exercises, “and even collaborate with Taiwan’s military in an attempt to deter the mainland.”
But, the editorial went on, “Washington will not succeed. The mainland’s military strength has improved greatly since the 1996 crisis and is capable of countermeasures to deter Washington and the Taiwan administration from provocations.”
Warplanes from the Chinese People’s Liberation Army, it added “can make adjustments to the distances of their flight paths around Taiwan, cross the ‘middle line’ and even fly over the island if necessary. U.S. warships can pass through the Straits freely, but can also be sandwiched between PLA vessels.”
In 1996, China tested missiles amid talk of independence from the Taiwanese government, a move that was answered by the U.S. sending two aircraft carrier battle groups to the region — one of the biggest displays of American military might in Asia since the Vietnam War.
That crisis forced a reassessment by the Chinese leadership that it was unable to stop U.S. forces from coming to Taiwan’s assistance at the time.
Monday’s editorial, however, warned that times have changed.
“The Taiwan question is among China’s core interests, and Washington will face great risks if it provokes Beijing over Taiwan,” it warned.
Although the U.S. does not have formal diplomatic ties with Taiwan, it is its most powerful ally and top arms supplier.
China’s hostility toward Taiwan has grown since the 2016 election of President Tsai Ing-wen, a member of the island’s pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party.
Beijing suspects Tsai wants to push for formal independence, which would cross a red line for Communist Party leaders in China, although Tsai has said she wants to maintain the status quo and is committed to ensuring peace.
Beijing has also managed to deplete Taipei’s diplomatic allies, luring away four since Tsai came to power and leaving it with only 18 countries worldwide that recognize it over China.
China has also been angered over recent warming relations between the U.S. and Taiwan, after Trump signed legislation paving the way for mutual visits by top American officials and the U.S. government green-lighted a license required to sell cutting-edge submarine technology to Taipei.
The U.S. State Department has also reportedly requested the deployment of a detachment of marines to help safeguard new facilities of the American Institute in Taiwan, Washington’s de facto consulate in lieu of formal diplomatic ties, in Taipei.
U.S. Marines usually guard missions in countries with which Washington has formal diplomatic ties.
Collin Koh, a specialist in regional naval affairs at Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, said the warships’ transit was likely a message from the U.S. that it continues to support Taiwan.
“These days, Taiwan has been under quite a bit of pressure from China— the snatching of multiple countries from Taiwan’s already paltry pool of formal diplomatic allies within a short span of time, regular aerial and naval ‘island patrols,’ even cyberattacks on the island,” Koh said. “It has reached a point where there are rising calls within the U.S. political and defense establishment to help Taiwan stave off this pressure.”
Koh also said the move was unlikely to be a one-off, adding that Beijing would continue to apply pressure on Taipei.
“Taiwan is a key ‘core interest’ of Beijing and recently we see more strident resistance voiced out in Chinese state media against perceived U.S. moves to undermine such interest,” Koh said. “So there’ll be no rolling back by China.”
Taiwan, he added, is at the forefront of key issues for China — perhaps even more important to Beijing than its territorial row with Tokyo in the East China Sea over the Japanese-controlled Senkaku Islands, known in China as the Diaoyus.
“If we need to do a comparison, Taiwan certainly ranks above other topical hot-button issues such as even the East and South China sea disputes,” Koh said. And Taiwan is surely a litmus test for (Chinese President) Xi Jinping’s repeated exhortation to protect China’s national sovereignty and territorial integrity.”