WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. military said it sent two Navy warships through the Taiwan Strait on Sunday as the Pentagon increases the frequency of movement through the strategic waterway despite opposition from China.
The voyage risks further raising tensions with China but will likely be viewed by self-ruled Taiwan as a sign of support from the Trump administration amid growing friction between Taipei and Beijing.
Taiwan is one of a growing number of flashpoints in the U.S.-China relationship, which also include a trade war, U.S. sanctions and China's increasingly muscular military posture in the South China Sea, where the United States also conducts freedom-of-navigation patrols.
The two destroyers were identified as the William P. Lawrence and Stethem. The 112-mile-wide (180-km) Taiwan Strait separates Taiwan from China.
“The ships' transit through the Taiwan Strait demonstrates the U.S. commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific,” Commander Clay Doss, a spokesman for the U.S. Navy's Seventh Fleet, said in a statement.
Doss said there were no unsafe or unprofessional interactions with other countries' vessels during the transit.
The Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Stethem (DDG 63) steams during a three-carrier strike force photo exercise in the Western Pacific, November 12, 2017.
(U.S. Navy/ Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Kelsey J. Hockenberger)
Taiwan's Ministry of Defense said the U.S. ships had sailed north through the strait.
“U.S. ships freely passing through the Taiwan Strait is part of the mission of carrying out the Indo-Pacific strategy,” it said in a statement.
Taiwan's armed forces monitored the transit and nothing out of the ordinary happened, the ministry said.
In Beijing, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said China had paid close attention to the sailing and had expressed concern to the United States.
“The Taiwan issue is the most important and sensitive issue in Sino-U.S. relations,” he told a daily news briefing.
The United States has no formal ties with Taiwan but is bound by law to help provide the island with the means to defend itself and is its main source of arms.
The Pentagon says Washington has sold Taipei more than $15 billion in weaponry since 2010.
China has been ramping up pressure to assert its sovereignty over the island, which it considers a wayward province of “one China” and sacred Chinese territory.
It said a recent Taiwan Strait passage by a French warship, first reported by Reuters on Wednesday, was illegal.
China's Geng told the same briefing in Beijing that China hoped that France could ensure such an incident did not happen again.
Beijing's concerns about Taiwan are likely to factor into Chinese defense spending this year, following a stern New Year's speech from President Xi Jinping, threatening to attack Taiwan should it not accept Chinese rule.
Last month, Beijing unveiled a target of 7.5 percent rise in defense spending for 2019, a slower rate than last year but still outpacing its economic growth target.
China has repeatedly sent military aircraft and ships to circle Taiwan on exercises in the past few years and worked to isolate it internationally, whittling down its few remaining diplomatic allies.