The United States Navy sent a warship through the sensitive Taiwan Strait on Tuesday – the fifth such transit since President Joe Biden took office in January – prompting an angry protest from the People’s Liberation Army.
Analysts said US Navy transits through the waterway were becoming the norm, as were warnings from the PLA in response, and they were raising the risk of conflict given the tensions and lack of communications between the two sides.
The US Navy’s 7th Fleet said the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Curtis Wilbur had conducted a “routine Taiwan Strait transit” on Tuesday, in accordance with international law.
“The ship’s transit through the Taiwan Strait demonstrates the US commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific,” the statement said. “The US military will continue to fly, sail and operate anywhere international law allows.”
PLA Eastern Theatre Command spokesman Senior Colonel Zhang Chunhui on Wednesday called the latest passage through the strait “a provocation”.
“The US move sends the wrong signals to Taiwanese independence-leaning forces, deliberately disrupting and sabotaging the regional situation and endangering peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait,” he said.
Beijing sees self-ruled Taiwan as part of its territory and has not renounced the use of force to bring it under mainland control.
While the warship was transiting the strait, US anti-submarine patrol and reconnaissance aircraft and a spy plane were flying over the South China Sea, according to the South China Sea Strategic Situation Probing Initiative. The Beijing-based think tank, which monitors military activity in the region, tweeted that the aircraft were “probably providing the intelligence support for the warship”.
Shi Yinhong, a professor of international relations at Renmin University of China in Beijing, said both the PLA and the US military recognised that the Taiwan Strait could become “a dangerous place” if tensions continued to rise.
“The risk is intensifying, as almost all communication channels have been stuck since that first phone call between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Biden [in February] and the China-US meeting in Anchorage, Alaska,” he said, referring to heated talks between officials in March.
“But it seems like the two militaries are using another approach … with routine transits and warnings becoming the norm since then.”
Shi said the fact the response came from the PLA rather than the Chinese defence ministry meant “the situation is not so bad”.
The PLA’s Eastern Theatre Command – which is responsible for the east coast and the strait that separates mainland China from Taiwan – made a similar statement after the US sent the USS John Finn guided-missile destroyer through the waterway in March.
Taipei-based defence expert and media commentator Chi Le-yi said the warship’s passage could be seen as a message that Washington would keep its promise to maintain peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait.
“The US transit aims to warn the Chinese Communist Party not to miscalculate the current situation, and it’s also an exhortation to the PLA not to be rash,” Chi said.
He noted that the US warship had avoided crossing over the median line of the strait, the unofficial boundary between Taiwan and mainland China.
“If US warships pass that midline, the PLA would have an excuse to make a critical response,” Chi said.