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US-China relations

Beijing tells Washington to abide by ‘one China’ principle after US Navy’s Taiwan passage

  • Chinese government asks US to act ‘responsibly’ as both sides take increasingly confrontational stance on self-ruled island
  • Beijing maintains Taiwan is a breakaway province that must be reunited with mainland
PUBLISHED : Friday, 25 January, 2019, 10:42pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 26 January, 2019, 6:20am

The Chinese foreign ministry on Friday urged Washington to abide by its “one China” principle after two US warships passed through the Taiwan Strait the previous day.

It was the first such operation this year and analysts said that while the coming year may see increasing confrontation over the self-ruled island, the two sides would both be very cautious about taking things too far.

The two sides are also embroiled in a trade war that could seriously damage both economies if things escalate further, while a number of other diplomatic and strategic disagreements have further strained relations.

On the same day the US warships sailed through the sensitive waterway east of Taiwan, the mainland Chinese military also staged separate air and sea exercises on the opposite side of the island.

Beijing regards Taiwan as a breakaway province that must be reunited with the mainland and has never ruled out the use of force.

For its part, the US accepted the “one China” principle when it normalised relations with Beijing, but has avoided giving a precise definition as to what this would mean.

On Friday, a spokeswoman from the Chinese foreign ministry reminded the US of this principle and urged it to act “prudently”.

“Please put yourself in our shoes,” Hua Chunying told reporters in Beijing. “There’s a family that has a big yard and a small yard and between them there’s a passageway that others can use.

US warships sail through closely watched Taiwan Strait

“But when others use the passageway and say or do something provocative – or even threaten the safety and comfort of the family – how would you feel?”

In Taipei, Taiwanese defence ministry spokesman Chen Chun-chi confirmed that the US guided missile destroyer USS McCampbell and the USNS Walter S Diehl, a fuel ship, had passed through the Taiwan Strait on Thursday, adding that the whole voyage had been closely watched.

Separately, Taiwan confirmed that on the same day the People’s Liberation Army Air Force had sent military aircraft through the Bashi Channel, which separates the island’s southern tip and the Philippines, into the West Pacific.

But Chen said the situation in the Taiwan Strait was under control and that fears about sabre-rattling by mainland China and the US were overblown.

“The [Taiwan] military is in full control of the waters around Taiwan and its skies every day,” Chen said, according to Taiwan’s Central News Agency.

This is an example of the Trump administration playing the Taiwan card
Zhu Songling, Beijing Union University professor

Observers in Beijing said that military confrontations are expected to escalate this year as US and China have both hardened their positions.

US President Donald Trump signed the Asian Reassurance Initiative of 2018 into law on December 31. This allows the US to make regular transfers of defence equipment to Taiwan to meet the threat from Beijing and allows high-level US officials to travel to the island.

“This is an example of the Trump administration playing the Taiwan card,” said Zhu Songling, a professor at the Institute of Taiwan Studies in Beijing Union University.

Shi Yinhong, a China-US affairs expert with Renmin University in Beijing, said that the US and China would see increasing confrontation over the issue as the Trump administration takes an increasingly pro-Taiwan stance while the PLA steps up its combat readiness.

“This is also in line with the general relationship between China and the US – there will be ups and downs in the short term but in the long run bilateral relations will become more confrontational and intense over Taiwanese issues,” Shi said.

But Shi and Zhu agreed that the two sides would want to avoid anything that increased the risk of war.

‘Don’t panic’, Taiwan told, as China conducts military aircraft drill

“Avoiding armed clashes or any conflict triggered by accidents is the top priority for both China and the US,” said Shi.

“The more intense the confrontation, the more careful they are.”

US Pacific Fleet spokesman Lieutenant Commander Tim Gorman told CNN on Thursday that the patrol was a “routine operation”.

“The ships’ transit through the Taiwan Strait demonstrates the US commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific,” Gorman said.

“The US Navy will continue to fly, sail and operate anywhere international law allows.”