Asia Pacific

U.S. sends warships through Taiwan Strait amid rows with China

by Jesse Johnson

Staff Writer

The United States Navy has sent a warship through the Taiwan Strait, the U.S. Pacific Fleet told The Japan Times, as military and trade tensions continue to fester between Beijing and Washington.

The guided-missile destroyer USS McCampbell, which is based in Yokosuka, Kanagawa Prefecture, and the fleet replenishment oiler USNS Walter S. Diehl conducted “a routine Taiwan Strait Transit” on Thursday “in accordance with international law,” U.S. Pacific Fleet spokesman Lt. Cmdr. Tim Gorman said in a written statement.

“The ships’ transit through the Taiwan Strait demonstrates the U.S. commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific,” Gorman said. “The U.S. Navy will continue to fly, sail and operate anywhere international law allows.”

Taiwan’s Defense Ministry also confirmed that the two U.S. vessels did sail through the strait. Separately, the ministry said that the Chinese Air Force had on Thursday also sent military aircraft, including H-6 heavy bombers and KJ-500 early-warning aircraft, through the Bashi Channel between Taiwan’s southern tip and the Philippines, into the western Pacific.

The 180-km-wide Taiwan Strait separates communist China from self-governed and democratic Taiwan, which Beijing views as a renegade province that must be brought back into the fold — by force if necessary. Although the waterway is regarded as international waters, China has long been sensitive about the presence of U.S. military forces there.

That presence has grown since last year, with Thursday’s operation being the fourth known transit in less than six months. The U.S. Navy also sailed two ships through the strait in October and November, operations that were shadowed by multiple Chinese warships, and conducted a similar operation in July. Prior to that, the operations were believed to occur only about once a year.

The top U.S. naval officer, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson, has refused to back down on the transits, discussing Taiwan with his Chinese counterparts earlier this month.

At least one Chinese military officer raised the issue during the talks, state-run media reported. “If someone tries to split Taiwan from China, the Chinese military will do whatever it takes to safeguard national reunification, national sovereignty and territorial integrity,” Gen. Li Zuocheng, a member of China’s Central Military Commission, reportedly told Richardson.

Following his visit to China, Richardson telegraphed Thursday’s sailing, noting that the U.S. would continue to send warships wherever international law allows.

“We see the Taiwan Straits as another (set of) international waters, and so that’s why we do the transits- through the straits,” Richardson said in Tokyo on Jan. 18. “We don’t see any kind of limitation on whatever type of ship could pass through those waters.”

In a report released earlier this month, the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency noted that China continues to undertake ambitious steps to modernize and better equip its military — steps that are driven primarily by “Beijing’s longstanding interest to eventually compel Taiwan’s reunification with the mainland and deter any attempt by Taiwan to declare independence.”

“Beijing’s anticipation that foreign forces would intervene in a Taiwan scenario led the (People’s Liberation Army) to develop a range of systems to deter and deny foreign regional force projection,” the report added.

Thursday’s transit also comes at a time when Beijing and Washington remain embroiled in a protracted trade war that could do serious damage to both economies unless negotiators from both sides can reach an agreement before a 90-day deadline called in December to resolve their differences expires on March 1.