China-US relations: USS Curtis Wilbur sails through Taiwan Strait

·3-min read

A United States warship sailed through the sensitive Taiwan Strait over Beijing’s protests, in the sixth such transit near the self-ruled island under US President Joe Biden’s administration.

The USS Curtis Wilbur, an Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer, conducted a “routine transit” through the strategic waterway that separates Taiwan from mainland China on Tuesday to “demonstrate the US commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific”, according to a US Navy statement.

“The United States military flies, sails, and operates anywhere international law allows,” it said.

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It was the sixth transit by the US Navy since Biden took office. Washington has made clear its focus on the Indo-Pacific region, including the use of freedom of navigation exercises in the Taiwan Strait and South China Sea to counter Beijing’s growing maritime presence.

But there have been increasing concerns that the strait could become a flashpoint in the heightened strategic rivalry between Beijing and Washington.

As Taiwan has faced growing political and military pressure from Beijing, the US has ramped up its support, including last week’s shipment of 2.5 million Covid-19 vaccine doses to the island, and Taiwan-friendly statements with its allies at the G7.

The US Navy’s latest transit was fully monitored by China’s military, Zhang Chunhui, a spokesman for China’s Eastern Theatre Command, said on Wednesday.

“The US has repeated its old tricks to create disruption in the Taiwan Strait, deliberately sabotaging regional security and seriously damaging the peace and stability of the Taiwan Strait,” he said.

Taiwan’s defence ministry said the US destroyer had sailed northward through the strait, and that the Taiwanese military had a full grasp of relevant activities in its sea and airspace.

The USS Curtis Wilbur previously sailed through the Taiwan Strait in mid-May, prompting condemnation from Beijing that it was sending the “wrong signals” to Taiwanese independence forces. Beijing claims democratic Taiwan as its own, and has made it a priority to bring the island under its rule, by force if necessary.

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On that occasion, the US destroyer then headed into the disputed South China Sea – the vast majority of which is claimed by Beijing – for a week of joint operations with the Australian Navy. China’s foreign ministry commented that the US and Australia should “do more to promote regional peace and stability rather than flex muscles”.

Taiwan’s defence ministry has also reported a steady stream of sorties by PLA air force warplanes into the island’s air defence identification zone in recent months, in what observers have termed “grey zone warfare” tactics.

Last week, the PLA sent its largest force yet – 28 aircraft – into the identification zone, one day after the USS Ronald Reagan carried out exercises in the South China Sea as part of the US’ efforts to ensure a “free and open Indo-Pacific region”.

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