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The U.S. sent an aircraft carrier strike group into the disputed South China Sea the same day China dispatched a fleet of 13 warplanes — including nuclear-capable bombers — into the southwestern corner of Taiwan’s air defense identification zone (ADIZ).

The dispatch of the USS Theodore Roosevelt strike group to the waterway on Saturday was seen as an implicit message to China just days after the inauguration of U.S. President Joe Biden amid a lowpoint in Sino-American ties.

It was unclear if the timing of the Chinese moves near Taiwan and the Roosevelt entering the South China Sea were related, but satellite imagery and tracking websites appeared to show that the carrier had transited the Bashi Channel between Taiwan and the Philippines the same day. The distance between the bombers and the carrier group would have put it within striking distance of Chinese YJ-12 anti-ship missiles, which some of the warplanes have reportedly been outfitted with.

The U.S. Indo-Pacific Command said in a statement Sunday that the carrier strike group was “on a scheduled deployment to the U.S. 7th Fleet to ensure freedom of the seas.”

The strike group was conducting “maritime security operations, which include flight operations with fixed and rotary-wing aircraft, maritime strike exercises, and coordinated tactical training between surface and air units,” the statement added.

Earlier, Taiwan’s Defense Ministry said that eight Chinese H-6K bombers, four J-16 fighter jets and a Y-8 anti-submarine aircraft had entered the ADIZ. China, which claims Taiwan as an inherent part of its territory, has conducted almost daily flights near the island in recent months, usually involving surveillance aircraft. But the large size of Saturday’s contingent — and presence of the bombers — was unusual.

Taiwan’s Defense Ministry said its military had warned away the Chinese aircraft and deployed missiles to monitor them, the ministry said.

“Airborne alert sorties had been tasked, radio warnings issued and air defence missile systems deployed to monitor the activity,” it said in a brief statement on its website.

A People's Liberation Army H-6K bomber flies on a mission near the median line in the Taiwan Strait, which serves as an unofficial buffer between China and Taiwan, in September. | TAIWAN DEFENSE MINISTRY / VIA REUTERS
A People’s Liberation Army H-6K bomber flies on a mission near the median line in the Taiwan Strait, which serves as an unofficial buffer between China and Taiwan, in September. | TAIWAN DEFENSE MINISTRY / VIA REUTERS

Washington slammed Beijing over the move, criticizing “ongoing PRC attempts to intimidate its neighbors,” using an acronym for the People’s Republic of China.

“We urge Beijing to cease its military, diplomatic, and economic pressure against Taiwan and instead engage in meaningful dialogue with Taiwan’s democratically elected representatives,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said in a statement.

“We will continue to assist Taiwan in maintaining a sufficient self-defense capability.”

The statement could indicate that the Biden administration will continue to engage Taiwan, much to the chagrin of China. The administration of Donald Trump, Biden’s predecessor, had ramped up engagement with Taipei, publicizing a handful of high-level visits and sealing a number of arms deals with the island.

The State Department also said the U.S. “will continue to support a peaceful resolution of cross-strait issues, consistent with the wishes and best interests of the people of Taiwan,” adding that Washington’s commitment to Taipei is “rock solid” and contributes to the maintenance of peace and stability in Asia.

Indeed, Biden’s nominee for secretary of state, Antony Blinken, said last week during a confirmation hearing that he was in favor of greater engagement with Taiwan.

Still, some of the language in the statement was markedly toned down from the fiery rhetoric of the Trump administration, including a pledge to stand by communiques agreed to with China on the political status of Taiwan.

The growing rancor and competition between China and the U.S. have stoked fears that a full-scale conflict could break out — with Taiwan caught in the middle.

Beijing views Taiwan as an inherent part of its territory and sees it as a renegade province that must be brought back into the fold — by force if necessary.

Washington, which switched diplomatic recognition to Beijing from Taipei in 1979, considers the self-ruled island a key partner and crucial line of defense as the Chinese military continues to punch further into the Western Pacific.

Although it no longer formally recognizes Taiwan, the United States is required by law to provide Taipei with the means to defend itself, according to the Taiwan Relations Act.

In recent months, Chinese warplanes and vessels have routinely conducted operations in the vicinity of Taiwan, stoking fears of possible preparations for invasion.

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