A U.S. Navy destroyer conducted a passage through the Taiwan Strait on Wednesday, the first transit through the contested waterway since President Biden took office.
The guided missile destroyer USS John S. McCain transited the 100-mile-wide strait under international law and aimed to countering Chinese maritime claims, said Navy Lt. Joe Keiley, spokesman for the Navy’s 7th Fleet.
“The ship’s transit through the Taiwan Strait demonstrates the U.S. commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific,” he said. “The United States military will continue to fly, sail and operate anywhere international law allows.”
The aircraft carrier strike group headed by the USS Roosevelt recently sailed further south into the South China Sea. China has declared most of the sea as its maritime territory and raised tensions by deploying missiles on disputed islands.
Separately, the Chinese defense ministry announced on Wednesday that its military conducted a high-altitude missile defense intercept test. The ministry said in a statement the land-based, mid-course interception of a target missile was successful.
“The test is defensive in nature and not targeted against any country,” the statement said.
China repeatedly has denounced American missile defense developments as destabilizing.
Passage by the Japan-based McCain was the Navy’s third in the strait since mid-December and comes amid increased U.S.-China tensions, including last week’s mass aerial incursions by Chinese warplanes into Taiwan’s air defense zone.
Beijing denounced the McCain’s passage as a provocation designed to raise tensions in the region.
“The U.S. move is an old trick of manipulating the situation in the straits. It deliberately created tensions to interrupt regional peace and stability and we expressed strong opposition to it,” said Sr. Col. Zhang Chunhui, a spokesman for the People’s Liberation Army eastern theater command.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin told reporters in Beijing that China closely watched the McCain’s transit. “We hope the US side will play a constructive role for regional peace and stability, rather than the opposite.”
Coinciding with the McCain’s operation, China’s military on Wednesday conducted two aerial incursions into Taiwan’s air defense zone on Wednesday, the Taiwan defense ministry said.
Two Chinese Y-8 aircraft, one an electronic warfare plane and the second an intelligence-gathering aircraft, intruded into the zone off the southern end of the island.
The operation this week was the first under the Biden administration, a sign the Pentagon will not scale back warship passages that are designed to counter aggressive Chinese maritime claims. A total of 13 Navy warship passages were conducted last year under the Trump administration’s strategy of stepped up naval and aerial operations aimed at pushing back against what the Pentagon regards as growing Chinese military hegemony in the region.
China claimed in December that its warships “expelled” the McCain from the strait during the Dec. 31 operation, prompting an unusual denial from the Navy.
“The PRC’s statement is the latest in a long string of PRC actions to misrepresent lawful U.S. maritime operations and assert its excessive and illegitimate maritime claims at the expense of its Southeast Asian neighbors in the South China Sea,” Lt. Kelly said at the time.
China regards Taiwan as a breakaway province and the United States views Taipei as an ally.
In the past four years, the U.S. government has offered as much as $13 billion in arms to the island state, including missiles capable of reaching targets across the Taiwan Strait.
Last month, Sr. Col. Wu Qian, a Defense Ministry spokesman, defended stepped-up Chinese military operations in the Taiwan Strait as “necessary actions in response to the current security situation… and the need to maintain national sovereignty and security.”
“We seriously warn those ‘Taiwan independence’ forces that those who play with fire will set themselves on fire,” he said. “Taiwan independence means war.”
The increased U.S.-China tensions followed a warning from the commander of the Strategic Command that the risk of nuclear war with China or Russia is increasing.
Adm. Charles Richard stated in a journal article published this month that deployment of modernized nuclear forces by both Beijing and Moscow has made deterrence more difficult.
“There is a real possibility that a regional crisis with Russia or China could escalate quickly to a conflict involving nuclear weapons, if they perceived a conventional loss would threaten the regime or state,” the four-star admiral said.