- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Taiwan ordered warships and fighter jets into the strait separating the country from China, after China’s sole aircraft carrier steamed through a restricted area in an aggressive show of force by Beijing just days before President-elect Donald Trump takes office in Washington.

Taiwanese forces only surveilled the Russian-built carrier, dubbed the Liaoning, as it traversed a defensive no-fly zone established by Taipei and broke contact once the vessel had departed the area.

China denied the transit was a provocation, but analysts say Beijing is clearly testing the next U.S. leader and how far he will go to back up traditional alliances in the region.

Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin, speaking in Beijing after the release of an official government white paper on Asia-Pacific security, said the issue wouldn’t affect relations with Taiwan.

China’s navy “does not pose a threat to the security of this region or to neighboring countries,” said Mr. Liu, speaking at a news conference to discuss the Cabinet report, according to The Associated Press.

But the incident, two days after independence-leaning Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen passed through the U.S. on a diplomatic trip against Beijing’s wishes, is just the latest flashpoint in the increasingly contentious U.S. relations with China.

Mr. Trump added to that tension with a precedent-shattering direct call with Ms. Tsai shortly after his surprise election victory. The call infuriated China, which considers Taiwan part of its territory. Mr. Trump later faulted China in a tweet for not doing enough to constrain North Korea and its nuclear programs.

China’s goal is quite clear: to drive up tensions in a failed attempt to deter Taiwan and the United States from strengthening ties,” which Beijing now sees as a more imminent threat with the incoming Trump administration, said Harry J. Kazianis, director of defense studies at the Center for the National Interest in Washington. “In fact, only the opposite will happen.”

The Liaoning was returning from a monthlong deployment, conducting naval exercises in the contested waters of the South China Sea, when it entered the Taiwanese no-fly zone along the strait. Although the vessel did not cross into Taiwanese territorial waters, Taipei sent in its air and naval forces to ensure no jets aboard the carrier were launched into the restricted airspace.

Taiwan’s actions were explicitly designed to demonstrate “sufficient capability to protect our national security” against threats from China or other nations, Chang Hsiao-yueh, Taiwanese minister for mainland affairs, said Wednesday.

China’s pass through the restricted area “would not benefit cross-strait ties,” she said, according to the Reuters news agency.

Beijing’s expansive sovereignty claims and aggressive military actions in the region have put China at odds with several of its regional neighbors, including those with long-established military and political ties to the U.S.

The Liaoning naval exercises in those waters was the latest example of China’s leveraging of its expanding military to impose Beijing’s political will in the region. The Obama administration has sharply criticized China’s program of building up artificial, militarized “islands” in the South China Sea in recent years to bolster its territorial claims.

But it would be a strategic mistake for Beijing to employ such strong-arm tactics in its attempts to bring Taiwan under heel, said Mr. Kazianis.

“Such a move is unfortunate and highly escalatory, but also destined to backfire,” he said, adding that such actions would only antagonize a Trump White House.

Sharp critiques of Chinese economic and military policy were staples of Mr. Trump’s campaign speeches.

Tensions heated up in July when the Permanent Court of Arbitration, based in The Hague, ruled against China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea.

In the following months, there were a number of tit-for-tat incidents between American and Chinese fighters and warships around the Spratly Islands, the Scarborough Shoal, the Fiery Cross Reef and other strategic points in the area.

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