The U.S. Navy sailed warships through the Taiwan Strait on Sunday and Monday, a move that angered China just days after it marked the 70th anniversary of its navy.
The guided-missile destroyers USS Stethem and USS William P. Lawrence “conducted a routine Taiwan Strait transit on April 28-29,” U.S. 7th Fleet spokesman Cmdr. Clay Doss told The Japan Times, adding that the sailing has been done “in accordance with international law.”
“The ships’ transit through the Taiwan Strait demonstrates the U.S. commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific,” Doss said. “The U.S. Navy will continue to fly, sail and operate anywhere international law allows.”
In Beijing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said China had paid close attention to the sailing and had expressed concern to the United States.
“The Taiwan issue is the most important and sensitive issue in Sino-U.S. relations,” the state-run Xinhua News Agency quoted him as saying.
Taiwan’s Defense Ministry confirmed the sailing, saying in a statement Monday that the U.S. ships were free to sail through the strait as part of their “strategic Indo-Pacific tasks.”
The U.S. has ramped up its transits of the strait over the past year, sailing through the 180-km waterway that separates Taiwan from China at least seven times in about eight months. Prior to that, such operations were considered relatively rare, occurring at a pace of about once a year.
Although the strait is regarded as an international waterway, China has long been sensitive about the presence of U.S. military forces there.
This week’s transit also comes just days after China celebrated the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Liberation Army Navy with a massive parade and international fleet review overseen by President Xi Jinping on Tuesday.
Last week’s celebrations wrapped up under a cloud after it was revealed last week that a French Navy warship also passed through the Taiwan Strait on April 6. That rare move by a European country, which the Chinese Defense Ministry reportedly blasted as “illegal,” was believed to have cost France its invitation to the fleet review.
The U.S. did not send warships or senior military officers to the celebrations, an apparent snub by Washington even as U.S. allies Japan and South Korea sent their own vessels and officials.
This year also saw an extremely rare flight by two Chinese fighter jets across the so-called median line of the strait, prompting Taiwan to protest the move as “reckless” and “provocative.”
The Taiwan Strait separates mainland 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.
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.
China has grown suspicious of Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen and her pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party, along with any push for the island’s formal independence.
Xi said in January that Beijing reserves the right to use force to bring Taiwan under its control, but would strive to achieve peaceful “reunification.”
Beijing has called Taiwan “the most important and sensitive issue in China-U.S. relations” and has bolstered its military presence near the island, sailing its sole operating aircraft carrier through the Taiwan Strait in January and March of last year and holding large-scale “encirclement” exercises and bomber training throughout last year and into this year.
In an editorial published late Sunday, ahead of the U.S. warships’ passage through the strait, the state-run Global Times even urged a build-up of China’s nuclear arsenal as a means of deterring the United States from conducting operations near Taiwan and in the disputed South China Sea. Washington and Beijing have frequently jousted over the militarization of the South China Sea, where China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines all have competing claims.
“Chinese people should be clear that US’ arrogant strategy toward China mainly lies in the difference of magnitude between US’ and China’s strategic nuclear force,” the nationalist tabloid wrote in the editorial. “If China’s nuclear warheads were in the thousands, the US will never conduct such frivolous ‘free navigation’ in the South China Sea and its moves in the Taiwan Straits would be more restrained.
“We believe China should boost its scale and quality of its strategic nuclear force,” it went on. “The more urgent security situation of China allows of no delay of such a mission and other considerations should give way.”
Experts say that while the tabloid is not an authoritative mouthpiece of the ruling Communist Party, it is often seen as a testing ground for possible future debates.