Pentagon sends two US warships through Taiwan Strait, risking fury from Beijing as tensions remain high

  • Taiwan’s defence ministry and the Pentagon say the warships passed through international waters on Monday
  • The Pentagon says the passage demonstrated a commitment to ‘a free and open Indo-Pacific’, but was ‘certainly not’ intended to raise tensions
PUBLISHED : Monday, 22 October, 2018, 10:19pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 23 October, 2018, 9:33am

Two US Navy vessels sailed through the Taiwan Strait on Monday, in a move that is likely to exacerbate the already high tensions between Washington and Beijing.

Both the island’s defence ministry and the Pentagon confirmed the passage, with the former saying in a statement that it was aware of the “routine” operation, and warning that the island is capable of defending its maritime territory and airspace security.

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The operation, which Taiwan says took place in international waters, is expected to trigger a strong reaction from Beijing, which has repeatedly demanded that Washington cut all military ties with the self-ruled island. Beijing regards Taiwan as a breakaway province to be taken back, by force if necessary.

The US Department of Defence later confirmed the transit. Pentagon spokesman Colonel Rob Manning told reporters on Monday during a press briefing that “in the Taiwan Strait, earlier today, USS Curtis Wilbur and USS Antietam conducted a routine Taiwan Strait transit in accordance with international law”.

The US Navy will continue to fly, sail and operate anywhere international law permits
US Colonel Rob Manning

Monday’s passage is the second transit through the Taiwan Strait by US warships in less than four months after two destroyers, the USS Mustin and the USS Benfold, passed through the strait in July. The USS Curtis Wilbur is a guided-missile destroyer and the USS Antietam a guided-missile cruiser.

“The ships’ transit through the Taiwan Strait demonstrates the US commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific,” Manning said. “The US Navy will continue to fly, sail and operate anywhere international law permits.”

Manning added that in conducting the transit, the US “maintained coordination and contact with the appropriate nations, authorities and parties”. It was “certainly not the Department [of Defence]’s intention to raise tensions or any kind of escalation” across the Taiwan Strait, the spokesman said.

The Pentagon had not received “any information talking about unsafe and unprofessional encounters with any Chinese vessels” during the transit, said another Pentagon spokesman, Lieutenant Colonel Christopher Logan.

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The move is likely to infuriate Beijing which recently expressed anger at America’s continued communications with Taiwan.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang told press in Beijing last week that the US should “correct its mistakes, stop any official contact, military ties and arms sales to the Taiwan region”.

Lu also said that the US should hold back “Taiwan independence” forces in case it further harmed China-US relations or peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait.

The latest transit comes after US Secretary of Defence James Mattis’ meeting last Thursday with his Chinese counterpart, Wei Fenghe, in Singapore on the sidelines of an Asian security forum.

Mattis reportedly had tried to explain to Wei that US policies toward Taiwan were unchanged. At that point, the Chinese defence chief raised the Taiwan issue.

“Minister Wei raised Taiwan and concerns about our policy. The secretary reassured Minister Wei that we haven’t changed our Taiwan policy, our One China policy,” Randall Schriver, a US assistant secretary of defence for Asian and Pacific security affairs, was quoted by Reuters.

Washington has no formal ties with Taiwan but is bound by law to help it defend itself; it is the island’s main source of arms. The Pentagon says the US has sold Taiwan more than US$15 billion in weaponry since 2010.

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Mattis told Wei on Thursday that the world’s two largest economies needed to deepen their military ties to navigate tensions and reduce the risk of inadvertent conflict.

During the meeting, Mattis also repeated that Wei was invited to visit the US within the year, The New York Times reported, citing an anonymous senior Defence Department official who was in the meeting.

Wei had already accepted an invitation made by Mattis in June. But the two sides’ current rocky military relations have cast uncertainty on the trip.

Washington disinvited the Chinese navy from taking part in a Pacific multinational military exercise, 2018 RIMPAC, in May. The US also imposed sanctions on a Chinese military equipment unit and its director in September, and has conducted “freedom of navigation operations” in the South China Sea.

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Manning said Beijing and Washington were still coordinating on Wei’s visit to Washington.

“I have not heard it [the trip] is off the table yet,” the Pentagon spokesman said, “I have not heard [of] any changes in the status of the plan.”