The U.S. Navy has again sent ships through the Taiwan Strait, making transits of the waterway increasingly regular amid growing economic and military acrimony between the United States and China.
The U.S. Navy has ramped up its operations in the strait over the past year, sailing through the 180-km waterway that separates Taiwan from China at least eight times in about nine months. Prior to that, such operations were considered relatively rare, occurring at a pace of about once a year.
The most recent transit was carried out Wednesday by USS Preble guided-missile destroyer and the navy oil tanker Walter S. Diehl, a spokesman for the U.S. Navy’s 7th Fleet told The Japan Times on Thursday.
“The ships’ transit through the Taiwan Strait demonstrates the U.S. commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific,” Cmdr. Clay Doss said in a statement.
Taiwan’s Defense Ministry confirmed the transit, and said it had occurred without incident.
China’s Foreign Ministry said Beijing had “closely observed the situation” and “voiced its concerns to the U.S.”
“The U.S. should cautiously handle Taiwan-related issues, to avoid any harm to bilateral ties, and to maintain regional peace and stability,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said.
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.
Although the strait is regarded as an international waterway, China has long been sensitive about the presence of U.S. military forces there.
Late last month, the U.S. Navy sailed warships through the strait, a move that angered China just days after it marked the 70th anniversary of its navy.
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.
Chinese President Xi Jinping 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.
Wednesday’s U.S. transit of the strait also came as the Taiwan Navy held a major live-fire exercise off the island’s east coast.
The drills were part of the annual Han Kuang exercises that simulate an attack by China, during which navy ships fired cannons and missiles and released depth charges, while fighter jets launched munitions and anti-submarine warfare aircraft released buoys.
Taiwan’s lightly populated east coast is home to a key air base and other important military installations.
“We will conduct military exercises regularly at the location where we think the war could be possibly happening,” media reports quoted navy Capt. Soong Shu-kou as saying.
“The waters off Taiwan’s eastern coast are the important area where we need to conduct military drills often. Because this area could be a significant battleground in the future,” he said.
Defense Ministry spokesman Chen Jung-ji said Taiwan was accelerating the pace of training as a way of deterring Chinese aggression.
“We can only depend on ourselves to defend our own country. We will conduct more training to strengthen our combat capabilities in the face of the ongoing military threats” from China, Chen said.
Just days earlier, the Preble also stoked the ire of Beijing when it sailed near the disputed Scarborough Shoal, which is claimed by China, in the South China Sea. The U.S. “freedom of navigation operation” was the second such sailing near China’s man-made islets in the waterway in a month.
In response to that operation, as well as the ramped-up pace of missions there and in the Taiwan Strait, the state-run China Daily said in an editorial Wednesday that Beijing had shown “utmost restraint in responding to the incitements by the U.S.”
“With tensions between the two countries already rife, there is no guarantee that the presence of U.S. warships on China’s doorstep will not spark direct confrontation between the two militaries,” the editorial said.
In addition to the rising military tensions, Beijing and Washington continue to face off in a protracted trade war in which both sides appear to be unwilling to bend — stances that could have a dramatic effect on the global economy.
But while the U.S. continues to lock horns with China on the trade front, “the dire consequences of a head-on conflict with China would be too costly for it to bear,” the China Daily editorial said.
“To prevent such an all-lose scenario from materializing, the U.S. had better exercise caution and stop its provocative practice” near Taiwan and in the South China Sea.