Pentagon defends US warships in the Taiwan Strait, shrugs at China’s outcry
A Pentagon spokesman said the passage took place in international waters, and ‘the United States Navy has got the right to transit’
The US Defence Department said on Monday that sending two US warships through the Taiwan Strait this weekend was “legally permissible” after China accused the US of playing the “Taiwan card” as the two countries’ trade dispute heated up.
Colonel Robert Manning, director of the Pentagon’s press operations, said at a briefing that the warships’ passage through the strait was in international waters so that “the United States Navy has got the right to transit”.
Manning declined to comment on the specific timing of the passage. “We can fly, sail and operate where we want,” Manning said. “That’s legally permissible.”
Two destroyers, the USS Mustin and the USS Benfold, carried out the “routine transit through the international waters of the Taiwan Strait on July 7-8”, according to a statement by the US Pacific Fleet.
“The US Navy from time to time will transit from East China Sea to South China Sea through that area for multiple different operational reasons,” Lieutenant Colonel Christopher Logan, a spokesman at the Pentagon, told the South China Morning Post.
Logan did not elaborate on what the “operational reasons” for this passage would be.
On Sunday, China’s top Taiwan affairs official denounced the passage and accused the US of playing the “Taiwan card”.
Liu Jieyi, director of the mainland’s Taiwan Affairs Office and China’s former ambassador to the United Nations, said the US had been using this “card” for some time with a clear purpose, Taiwan’s Central News Agency reported.
“We staunchly oppose any move that harms China’s national interest. We won’t accept that,” Liu was quoted as saying on the sidelines of a forum on cross-strait ties in Hangzhou.
“The Taiwanese public should clearly understand the real purpose behind these US moves and not help them to play the ‘Taiwan card,’” he said.
Tensions across the Taiwan Strait have risen in recent months, with China tightening a pressure campaign against the Taiwanese independence movement by conducting military exercises around the island and continually squeezing its diplomatic allies.
Beijing regards Taiwan as a wayward province, to be brought under its rule by force if necessary.
Washington has no formal ties with the self-ruled island but is bound by US law to help Taiwan defend itself; it is also the island’s main source of arms.
Reuters reported last month that the US has examined plans for sending an aircraft carrier through the strait, but ultimately did not pursue it because of concerns about upsetting China.
The last time an American aircraft carrier made passage through the Taiwan Strait was in 2007, during the administration of US President George W. Bush.
“The US sending military ships through the Taiwan Strait is both a demonstration of its continuing support to Taiwan and of its willingness to exercise its maritime rights in China’s periphery,” said Abraham Denmark, director of the Asia programme at the Wilson Centre.
Lien Chan, an ex-chairman of the Taiwan’s former ruling Nationalist Party, is expected to meet Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing next week – an effort, Lien’s office said, to contribute to peace across the Taiwan Strait.
Additional reporting from Reuters