WASHINGTON (REUTERS, AFP) - Two US Navy warships are sailing through international waters in the Taiwan Strait, three United States officials told Reuters, the first such operation since heightened tensions with China over House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan.
In a statement, the US Navy said the transit “demonstrates the United States’ commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific”.
China’s military said on Sunday (Aug 28) it was monitoring the US Navy vessels sailing through the Taiwan Strait, maintaining a high alert and ready to defeat any provocations, adding that the US had “openly hyped up” the ships’ passage through the Strait.
“The PLA Eastern Theatre Command is following and warning the US vessels throughout their entire journey, and is aware of all movements,” spokesman Senior Colonel Shi Yi said.
“Troops in the (eastern) theatre remain on high alert and are prepared at all times to foil any provocations.”
The US Seventh Fleet said the pair of Ticonderoga-class guided-missile cruisers – the USS Antietam and the USS Chancellorsville – conducted the “routine” transit on Sunday (Aug 28) “through waters where high seas freedoms of navigation and overflight apply in accordance with international law”.
“These ships transited through a corridor in the Strait that is beyond the territorial sea of any coastal State,” a statement said.
“The United States military flies, sails, and operates anywhere international law allows.”
In recent years, US warships, and on occasion those from allied nations such as Britain and Canada, have routinely sailed through the strait, drawing Beijing’s anger.
China, which sees Taiwan as a renegade province to be reunited, by force if necessary, launched military drills near the island after Mrs Pelosi visited in early August, and those exercises have continued.
The trip infuriated Beijing, which saw it as a US attempt to interfere in China’s internal affairs.
The officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, on Saturday said US Navy cruisers Chancellorsville and Antietam were carrying out the “routine Taiwan Strait transit”, which was still underway, in accordance with international law.
Such operations usually take between eight and 12 hours to complete and are closely monitored by the Chinese military.
Taiwan’s defense ministry confirmed a pair of warships sailed from north to south through the channel.
“During their southward journey through the Taiwan Strait, the military is fully monitoring relevant movements in our surrounding sea and airspace, and the situation is normal.”
The narrow Taiwan Strait has been a frequent source of military tension since the defeated Republic of China government fled to Taiwan in 1949 after losing a civil war with the communists, who established the People’s Republic of China.
Mrs Pelosi’s visit was followed around a week later by a group of five other US lawmakers, with China’s military responding by carrying out more exercises near Taiwan.
Senator Marsha Blackburn, a US lawmaker on the Senate Commerce and Armed Services committees, arrived in Taiwan on Thursday on the third visit by a US dignitary this month since Mrs Pelosi's visit, defying pressure from Beijing to halt the trips.
The Biden administration has sought to keep tension between Washington and Beijing, inflamed by the visits, from boiling over into conflict, reiterating that such congressional trips are routine.
The US has no formal diplomatic relations with Taiwan but is bound by law to provide the island with the means to defend itself.
China has never ruled out using force to bring Taiwan under its control.
Taiwan’s government says the People’s Republic of China has never ruled the island and so has no right to claim it, and that only its 23 million people can decide its future.