The U.S. Navy ended the year by sending a pair of warships steaming through an area China claims as part of its nautical backyard even as the country was boasting of its military prowess in the pages of a state-run newspaper.
The USS John S. McCain and the USS Curtis Wilbur on Dec. 31 conducted what Navy officials said was a “routine transit” through the disputed Taiwan Strait — known as a Freedom of Navigation Operation — designed to reinforce internationally recognized rights by challenging excessive maritime claims.
China claims Taiwan as part of its territory but the Taiwan Strait is considered an international waterway. Beijing has threatened to annex its neighbor by force if necessary and bitterly opposes any U.S. military or diplomatic support for Taiwan.
Disclosure of the sail-through came just a day after a remarkable article in the Global Times, the state-linked newspaper known to be close to the leadership of the ruling Communist Party, previewing the modernization and expansion of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army is expected to continue into the next year.
According to the article, China’s third aircraft carrier, a newly developed frigate with an upgraded propulsion system and stealth fighters capable of operating on an aircraft carrier are all expected to make their first appearance in 2021, part of a rapid military modernization that has drawn the close attention of U.S. military planners.
China currently has two aircraft carriers in its fleet. The Liaoning was commissioned in September 2012 while the Shandong became operational in December 2019. The country’s as-yet unnamed third carrier is expected to be larger than its predecessors and feature a more advanced electromagnetic catapult system. Global Times said it could be launched in 2021.
“China’s military modernization has achieved significant breakthroughs in 2020 and China is already at a world-class level in terms of main battle weapons and equipment,” Wei Dongxu, a military analyst based in Beijing, told Global Times.
The Shandong aircraft carrier went through the Taiwan Strait in route to the South China Sea on Dec. 20, 2020, a day after the USS Mustin — another Japan-based guided missile destroyer — made its own passage, U.S. officials said.
Global Times said China also is readying a variety of surface warfare ships — including frigates, destroyers and amphibious landing vessels — for launch in the next year. The Chinese Aeronautical Establishment told the newspaper the country’s next-generation fighter jet is scheduled to make its maiden flight in 2021.
The Navy in July sent two carrier strike groups — the USS Ronald Reagan and the USS Nimitz carriers along with their escorting destroyers and cruisers — to the South China Sea. A month later, China reportedly launched multiple anti-ship missiles, dubbed “aircraft carrier killers,” during an exercise in the region.
The Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard on Dec. 17 a combined maritime strategy blueprint that primarily focuses on countering threats from China and to a lesser extent, Russia, due to their aggressiveness and demonstrated intent to dominate key international waters and remake the international order in their favor, military officials said.
“As sailors, we are on the leading edge of great power competition each and every day,” said Adm. Mike Gilday, the Chief of Naval Operations. “Sea control, power projection and the capability to dominate the oceans must be our primary focus. Our forces must be ready today and ready tomorrow to defend our nation’s interests against potential adversaries at any time.”
The USS John McCain and USS Curtis Wilbur, the ships involved in the most recent Taiwan Strait passage, are Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyers deployed to the Yokosuka Naval Base in Japan.
“The ships’ transit through the Taiwan Strait demonstrates the U.S. commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific,” officials with the U.S. Navy’s 7th Fleet said in a statement. “The United States military will continue to fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows.”
China’s defense ministry called the two-ship passage a provocation that could endanger peace and stability in the region and send the “wrong signal” to Taiwan independence supporters.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin told a daily press briefing Thursday that China had been “closely following” the passage of the warships through “their entire journey.”
“China will continue to be on high alert, stand ready to deal with all threats and provocations, and resolutely safeguard national sovereignty and territorial integrity,” Mr. Wang said.
Chinese political observers said the passage marked a final warning shot from the Trump administration, amid uncertainty over whether President-elect Joseph R. Biden will continue Mr. Trump’s aggressive stance against Beijing.