For the fifth time in eight months, the US has sent two navy ships through the Taiwan Strait. Earlier this week, the US sent the destroyer USS Stethem and the cargo and ammunition carrier USNS Cesar Chavez through the 80-mile-wide waterway that separates Taiwan from mainland China. The two vessels were shadowed closely by Chinese warships as they passed through. The Taiwan Strait physically separates the democratic island of Taiwan from communist mainland China. Although Taiwan is not recognized as an independent state by the United Nations, it operates independently of China, with its own currency, flag, and government. Taiwan and China have been ruled separately since the end of the Chinese Civil War in 1949. Since then, China has sought to impose control over what it considers to be a rogue province, by routinely conducting military drills, flying and sailing around Taiwan. China has also sought to isolate Taiwan diplomatically, with very few countries maintaining an official embassy on the island. Additionally, Chinese President Xi Jinping, threatens to attack Taiwan directly if it were to oppose Chinese rule. Unofficially an ally of Taiwan, the US challenges China’s growing assertion with naval exercises passing through the Taiwan Strait as well as the surrounding South China Sea.
The US has ramped up its naval presence in the Pacific and other areas of the world, carrying out Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOP) worldwide. FONOPs are intended to exercise international law, which limits territorial claims to 12 nautical miles from a nation’s coastline. Territorial claims exceeding 12 nautical miles will likely see the US Navy pass through on an FONOP. China’s growing presence as a maritime power and claims over the international waters that flow through the Taiwan Strait has led the US to respond with increased regional naval activity. Beyond the Taiwan Strait, China and the US have had many encounters including one incident near the Spratly islands in the South China Sea, where a Chinese ship came within 45 yards of a US vessel forcing it to take evasive action. China has remained silent thus far on the US’s most recent FONOP through the Taiwan Strait. Historically, China has responded to such action with sharp criticism. In response to similar events, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman, Geng Shuang, urged the US to use caution when dealing with Taiwan to ensure peace and stability in the region and to maintain strong Chinese-US relations. In justification of their naval exercises and recent FONOP, the US Pacific Fleet said its actions were to show US commitment to a free and open Pacific region.
With the number of encounters between the two superpowers increasing, there is a greater likelihood the Taiwan Strait and the greater South China Sea region will become a flashpoint of a wider conflict. China fears that continued US naval exercises will encourage pro-independence movements in Taiwan, which would disrupt China’s ambitions to control the island. In response, China will likely ramp up military activity surrounding the island, ensuring its presence is known. With greater Chinese assertion, the US will likely increase exercises and even conduct joint missions with allies, as earlier this month the UK sent the HMS Queen Elizabeth Aircraft Carrier to the South China Sea. More military activity by both the US and China will likely result in close calls like last year’s Spratly islands incident. With each close encounter, the hostility and tension between China and the US will only escalate.