U.S. President Joe Biden has a message for China: Don’t expect any easing up of military operations in the South China Sea or Taiwan Strait.
That appears to be the word coming out of Washington after the U.S. Navy conducted its first “freedom of navigation operation” (FONOP) in the disputed South China Sea on Friday and, a day earlier, its first transit of the Taiwan Strait.
During Friday’s operation, the USS John S. McCain destroyer “asserted navigational rights and freedoms” near the Paracel Islands, which are claimed by China, Taiwan and Vietnam, while also “challenging China’s claim to straight baselines” that enclose the Paracels and effectively expand its claimed territorial waters.
China’s Defense Ministry said it “organized naval and air forces to track, monitor and warn off” the warship.
A day earlier, the McCain sailed through the Taiwan Strait in what the Navy called a demonstration of “the U.S. commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific.” China’s military blasted that move, saying the United States was deliberately “creating tensions.”
The moves show the Biden administration may be looking to maintain some of the strategies employed by the previous administration. Under President Donald Trump, the U.S. ramped up the number of FONOPS in the South China Sea over the last two years, conducting at least 19 known operations there, according to a tally by The Japan Times. It conducted at least six in 2018 and just four in 2017.
Under Trump, the U.S. Navy also sent warships through the Taiwan Strait at least 15 times in 2020 — a level unseen in recent years as Beijing heaped military pressure on Taipei.
China, which claims Taiwan as an inherent part of its territory and has vowed to bring it back into the fold — by force if necessary — has conducted almost daily flights near the island in recent months, usually involving surveillance aircraft.
Thursday and Friday’s operations came on the heels of a reported simulated strike by 13 Chinese warplanes, including nuclear-capable bombers, on the USS Theodore Roosevelt aircraft carrier strike group as it entered the South China Sea near Taiwan on Jan. 23. The U.S. military did not confirm the reported simulation, but said its vessels were never at risk.
Beijing claims some 90% of the South China Sea, through which trillions of dollars in trade flow every year, despite overlapping claims by others in the region, including Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Brunei. It has reclaimed and militarized a number of islands in the waters despite protests from other claimants and the United States.
The U.S. and Japan fear the Chinese-held outposts, some of which boast military-grade airfields and advanced weaponry, could be used to restrict free movement in an area that includes vital sea lanes.
Collin Koh, a research fellow and maritime security expert at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, said all three of the recent U.S. operations appear designed to send signals to both China and American allies and partners in the region.
“These back up the Biden administration’s earlier public pronouncements of countering China, especially when it comes to Beijing’s use of coercion in the Taiwan Strait and South China Sea,” Koh said.
They were also meant to reassure U.S. allies and partners nervous about Washington’s commitment to the region. Biden and his team have said they are willing to work with Beijing on certain issues, a shift from the Trump administration’s hard-line approach.
The U.S. military operations “should also be seen in the light of earlier comments made in Washington that contentious issues with China, such as the South China Sea, will not be traded for cooperation on climate change despite the Biden administration’s expressed willingness to work with Beijing in areas where there are mutual, converging interests,” Koh said.
But amid the growing assertiveness by Beijing, concerns have grown of an accidental military conflict in the South China Sea or a misreading of the situation over Taiwan.
U.S. and Chinese vessels routinely operate in the South China Sea, and have had numerous reported close encounters. As for Taiwan, the tug-of-war between the U.S. and China over the island’s fate took on a new dimension under Trump, who sealed multiple arms deals between the two partners and dispatched high-level officials for heavily publicized visits there.
Despite having only been in office for just over two weeks, the Biden administration has already voiced support for Taipei, criticizing Beijing’s “attempts to intimidate its neighbors,” including Taipei, and calling the U.S.-Taiwan relationship “rock-solid.”
That move prompted a flurry of fiery remarks from government officials and angry editorials in state-run media.
One editorial published Thursday in the China Daily newspaper warned Washington that, when it comes to Taiwan, Beijing “will never permit its bottom line to be crossed.”
“Any attempt to challenge China’s red line on the Taiwan question, as the previous administration threatened to do, will not only take a heavy toll on China-U.S. relations but also ratchet up tensions in the Taiwan Straits to a dangerous degree,” it said.
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