On February 4th, the United States Navy sailed a destroyer through the Taiwan Strait, marking the first time the U.S. has transited the strait separating China and Taiwan since President Joe Biden took office.
The Japan-based guided-missile destroyer, USS John S. McCain, conducted the routine passage dividing China and Taiwan in accordance with international law said Lt. Joe Keiley, a spokesperson for the U.S. Navy’s 7th Fleet, in a statement.
“The ship’s transit through the Taiwan Strait demonstrates the U.S. commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific. The United States military will continue to fly, sail, and operate anywhere international law allows,” Keiley commented. This language is commonly used when conducting transits through the Taiwan Strait and routine freedom-of-navigation operations in the South China Sea.
China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson, Wang Wenbin, stated in a briefing to the media that China had been “closely” monitoring the warship. “China will continue to maintain a high level of alert at all times, respond to all threats and provocations at all times, and resolutely defend national sovereignty and territorial integrity,” he said, adding, “It is hoped that the U.S. will play a constructive role for regional peace and stability, not the other way around.”
Thursday’s transit through the Taiwan Strait comes only a week since the Chinese military flew two large formations of eight bombers, four fighter jets, and one anti-submarine aircraft through Taiwan’s air defense identification zone (ADIZ) and into the South China Sea. The U.S. Navy’s Theodore Roosevelt carrier strike group entered disputed waters at the same time, with the Chinese formations using the carrier as a mock target for conducting an attack run simulation.
The U.S. Indo-Pacific Command stated that the carrier strike group had closely monitored all activity by Chinese People’s Liberation forces, and they did not pose any threat at any time to U.S. Navy ships or sailors. However, they would go on to criticize the actions as “aggressive and destabilizing” as the State Department has done towards Beijing for its efforts in pressuring Taiwan militarily, economically, and diplomatically.
The self-governing island of Taiwan has already become one of U.S. President Joe Biden’s major foreign policy challenges just two weeks into his presidency.
The Chinese government claims full sovereignty over Taiwan, a democracy consisting of a population of nearly 24 million people located off the Chinese mainland’s southeastern coast. Despite the fact that the two have had separate governments for over seven decades, Beijing continues to view Taiwan as a breakaway province. On January 25th, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Zhao Lijian told the U.S. to “refrain from sending any wrong signals to the ‘Taiwan independence’ forces so as to avoid damaging China-U.S. relations and peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait.” A spokesperson from the Chinese Ministry of Defense would later add that Taiwan independence would mean war, a well-known position with Beijing’s One-China principle.
American warships making transit in the Taiwan Strait are viewed by Beijing as provocations threatening regional stability by inspiring Taiwanese independence supporters. According to the U.S. 7th Fleet, the U.S. Navy entered the waterway 13 times in 2020, the most since 2016 with 12 transits by former President Barack Obama’s administration. Under former President Donald Trump’s administration, the U.S. displayed strong commitment to Taiwan through defense arms sales and the sending of high-level envoys.
Statements from the Biden administration suggest there will be no pullback on its commitment to defending Taiwan. However, what must be noted is the difference in approach to both Taiwan and foreign policy the new administration has announced. President Biden’s first foreign policy address since taking office marked a significant shift from the “America First” principle pursued under the Trump administration that caused great strain in relations with many U.S. allies.
“America is Back, diplomacy is back,” Biden announced. Biden spoke about the need to promote democracy around the while simultaneously rebuilding its alliances strained from the previous administration. However, he also stated, “leading with diplomacy must also mean engaging our adversaries and our competitors diplomatically where it is in our interest and advances the security of the American people.”
With Biden’s foreign policy address now public, it can be suggested that the Biden administration will remain strong in its commitment to Taiwan and its allies but pursue the diplomatic routes as a priority. New U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in his confirmation hearing last week that there has always been strong bipartisan support for Taiwan and that “[p]art of that commitment is making sure that Taiwan has the ability to defend itself against aggression. And that is a commitment that will absolutely endure in a Biden administration.”