Asia Pacific

U.S. Navy sends ships through Taiwan Strait in move likely to anger China

by Jesse Johnson

Staff Writer

The U.S. Navy has sent ships through the Taiwan Strait, as Washington ramps up naval activities in the waterway stoking criticism from Beijing on Tuesday after a similar sailing just a month ago.

The move, likely to be interpreted by China as implicit support for self-ruled Taiwan, saw the U.S. Navy send the Yokosuka, Kanagawa Prefecture-based USS Stethem destroyer and the cargo and ammunition ship USNS Cesar Chavez, through the strait on Monday and Tuesday, a U.S. 7th Fleet spokesman said.

The two vessels “conducted a routine Taiwan Strait Transit on Feb. 25-26, in accordance with international law,” U.S. 7th Fleet spokesman Lt. Joe Keiley told The Japan Times. “This routine transit demonstrates the U.S. commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific. The U.S. Navy will continue to fly, sail and operate anywhere international law allows.”

China expressed anger at the move.

“We resolutely oppose the United States taking provocative actions that are not conducive to peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang told a news briefing Tuesday.

The dispatch, which comes amid military and trade tensions between Beijing and Washington, is the second such sailing since Jan. 24, when the guided-missile destroyer USS McCampbell, which is also based in Yokosuka, and the USNS Walter S. Diehl conducted what the U.S. Navy also called “a routine” Taiwan Strait transit.

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 the most recent operation being the fifth known transit in about 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 U.S. has no formal ties with Taiwan but is bound by law to help it defend itself and is the island’s main source of arms. The Pentagon says Washington has sold Taipei more than $15 billion in weaponry since 2010.

Beijing has called Taiwan “the most important and sensitive issue in the China-U.S. relations” and has bolstered its military presence near the island nation in recent months, sailing its sole operating aircraft carrier through the Taiwan Strait in January and March last year and holding large-scale “encirclement” exercises and bomber training throughout 2018.

In a report released last 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.

This week’s transit also comes just after Beijing and Washington agreed to a truce in a protracted trade war that could do serious damage to both economies unless negotiators from both sides can reach an agreement.

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