BEIJING • China said yesterday that it had lodged a protest with Washington after two United States warships sailed through the Taiwan Strait, amid rising tensions between the two powers.
The US Navy said the USS Preble, a destroyer, and USNS Walter S. Diehl, a supply ship, conducted a routine transit "in accordance with international law" on Wednesday, Agence France-Presse reported.
"The ships' transit through the Taiwan Strait demonstrates the US commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific," the navy said.
"The US Navy will continue to fly, sail and operate anywhere international law allows."
US warships periodically conduct "freedom of navigation" exercises in the narrow waterway separating the Chinese mainland and Taiwan, triggering angry responses from Beijing.
China views any ships passing through the strait as essentially breaching its sovereignty, while the US and many other nations view the route as international waters open to all. "We have lodged solemn representations with the US," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said at a regular press briefing in Beijing.
The sail-by comes amid tensions between the US and China over trade and American efforts to thwart Chinese telecoms giant Huawei over security concerns.
Taiwan is one of a growing number of flashpoints in the US-China relationship, Reuters reported. China sees Taiwan as part of its territory to be reunified, despite the two sides being ruled separately since the end of a civil war on the mainland in 1949.
The US diplomatically recognises China over Taiwan, but remains the island's chief military ally and arms supplier.
Another flashpoint is China's increasingly muscular military posture in the South China Sea, where the US also conducts freedom-of-navigation patrols.
According to Hong Kong's South China Morning Post, US senators from both Republican and Democratic parties were yesterday expected to reintroduce legislation committing the government to punish Chinese individuals and entities involved in what they call Beijing's "illegal and dangerous" activities in the South and East China seas.
If it becomes law, the "South China Sea and East China Sea Sanctions Act" would require the government to seize US-based financial assets and revoke or deny US visas of anyone engaged in "actions or policies that threaten the peace, security or stability" of areas in the South China Sea that are contested by one or more members of Asean.
China claims almost all of the strategic South China Sea, through which passes about a third of global seaborne trade. Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam have competing claims to the waterway.
"This bipartisan Bill strengthens efforts by the US and our allies to counter Beijing's illegal and dangerous militarisation of disputed territory that it has seized in the South China Sea," Senator Marco Rubio, a Republican who is leading the legislation with Democratic Senator Benjamin Cardin, told the South China Morning Post.
The transit of the US warships on Wednesday took place as the US, Japan, South Korea and Australia kicked off operation Pacific Vanguard near the US island of Guam. The drill, which involves more than 3,000 participants, is taking place ahead of US President Donald Trump's visit to Japan this weekend, as Washington looks to allies in Asia to help counter China's military might in the region.
The six-day exercise involves two Japanese destroyers, two Australian frigates and a destroyer from South Korea.