The US Navy has announced one of its destroyers transited the Taiwan Strait, separating autonomous Taiwan from mainland China – the sixth such transit this year.
This one, however, comes amid media reports of Chinese plans to seize islands controlled by Taipei, and a week before Taiwanese President Tsai Ing Wen is sworn in for a second term.
Sixth Transit This Year
Early on Thursday, the US Pacific Fleet announced via its Facebook page that a US warship had sailed through the 180-mile-wide waterway separating Taiwan from the Chinese mainland. The autonomously governed island is preparing to inaugurate its anti-reunification president for a second term; meanwhile, the US is making moves to win Taipei’s admission to the World Health Organization (WHO) at Beijing’s expense.
“The Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS McCampbell (DDG-85) conducted a Taiwan Strait transit May 13 (local time), in accordance with international law,” Lt. Anthony Junco, a US 7th Fleet spokesperson, told USNI News. “The ship’s transit through the Taiwan Strait demonstrates the U.S. commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific. The US Navy will continue to fly, sail and operate anywhere international law allows.”
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian told Reuters that Beijing “paid close attention” to the transit, adding, “We hope the US side can appropriately handle the relevant issue, and play a constructive role in regional peace and stability, not the opposite.”
The last US transit of the strait was three weeks ago, when the destroyer USS Barry sailed through the waterway. As Sputnik reported, the warship then returned to the South China Sea, where it again challenged China’s territorial claims by sailing near the Paracel Islands, prompting People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy forces to converge and expel the Barry.
Washington calls such maneuvers “Freedom of Navigation Operations” (FONOPs), sailing through waters claimed by China as if they were international waters. Last month’s confrontation was far from the first; in October 2018, the Chinese destroyer Luyang sailed to within 45 yards of the US destroyer USS Decatur as the latter ship engaged in a FONOP near the Spratly Islands, also in the South China Sea.
Tsai’s Upcoming Inauguration
However, the May 13 transit comes amid a slew of Taiwan-related news.
Tsai, whose inauguration is scheduled for May 20, is a fierce opponent of reunification with the People’s Republic of China. Taiwan is the last surviving territory of the Republic of China, the government that ruled all of China between 1912 and 1949, when the communist Red Army conquered the mainland and declared the PRC’s foundation. Both governments claim to be the sole legitimate representative of the Chinese people, but while nearly every country has since switched its recognition from Taipei to Beijing over the last 71 years, Washington has continued to funnel military aid to Taipei as well as be its advocate on the international stage.
While the Nationalist Party has called for closer relations with Beijing and strongly maintains its status as the rightful Chinese ruler, Tsai’s Democratic Progressive Party has a strong independence streak, and observers have feared since her 2016 election to the presidency that a declaration of independence could follow. Beijing has promised that if Taipei seeks independence, there will be war.
US Pushes for Taiwan in WHO
In its latest ploy, the US Congress’ US-China Economic and Security Review Commission has pushed the WHO to admit Taiwan as a member. The group’s report given to the WHO on Tuesday claims Taipei’s omission from the body caused unnecessary deaths from COVID-19, but the island of 23 million has recorded just 440 cases and seven deaths from the virus.
Moreover, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has said he cannot invite Taiwan to be an observer without the approval of all member states.
Beijing has blasted the suggestion as “nonsense,” with China Daily noting that Beijing had notified Taipei of the new virus on January 3 – just days after the crisis began – and that a Taiwanese delegation arrived in Wuhan on January 13 to “evaluate the situation first hand.”
The US move comes amid a barrage of claims by the Trump administration that the WHO has been delinquent in its duties, accusing the agency of complacency with ostensible Chinese mismanagement of the outbreak and causing it to spread to the rest of the world. US President Donald Trump has threatened to end Washington’s funding of the WHO, calling the agency “China-centric.”
Rumors of a Chinese Invasion
The transit also comes two days after Japanese media reports sparked worries that China was preparing to hold large amphibious drills near Hainan Island in order to prepare for an invasion of the Taipei-controlled Pratas Islands, which Beijing calls the Dongsha Islands. According to the Beijing publication Global Times, the rumors began with the Kyodo News Agency on Tuesday.
The following day, Taiwan’s coast guard announced its Pratas Island Garrison would train in live-fire exercises next month.
Shanghai-based military commentator Ni Lexiong told the South China Morning Post that both Taipei and Beijing are “bluffing. It’s a fake crisis … these islets alone are not worth a military campaign and all the consequences of that. The only target valuable enough for the PLA is Taiwan.”
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