- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 28, 2022

Two American warships sailed through the Taiwan Strait on Sunday for the first time since House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s controversial trip to Taiwan earlier this month, sparking an angry warning from the Chinese military and further ratcheting up tensions between Washington and Beijing.

China claims the self-ruled island as part of its sovereign territory, but U.S. Navy ships regularly traverse the waterway separating Taiwan from the mainland to reinforce U.S. claims that the strait is open to all international traffic. Those voyages became more frequent under President Trump and have continued under President Biden.

The Pentagon had not authorized a transit since Mrs. Pelosi and two other U.S. congressional delegations made high-profile stops in Taipei this month and met with senior Taiwanese officials.

The Navy’s 7th Fleet said the USS Antietam and USS Chancellorsville conducted the mission “through waters where high seas freedoms of navigation and overflight apply in accordance with international law.” 

The Ticonderoga-class guided-missile cruisers “transited through a corridor in the Strait that is beyond the territorial sea of any coastal state,” the 7th Fleet said in a statement. “The ships’ transit through the Taiwan Strait demonstrates the United States’ commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific. The United States military flies, sails, and operates anywhere international law allows.”

White House officials stressed Sunday that the U.S. won’t accept Chinese claims over international waters, including portions of the Taiwan Strait or the South China Sea.

The 100-mile-wide strait, which separates the island of Taiwan from China, is of particular strategic importance.

The mission Sunday sent a “very clear message, very consistent message … that the United States Navy, the United States military will sail, fly and operate wherever international law permits us to do so,” White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said during an interview with CNN.

The transit was especially noteworthy because it came just weeks after Mrs. Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan. The House speaker was the highest-ranking U.S. official to visit the island in a quarter century. Chinese officials furiously accuse the U.S. of trying to undermine the decades-old “One China” policy by encouraging Taipei to move closer to independent status.

The U.S. takes no formal position on Taiwan’s status as an independent nation but retains informal relations with the island and is required by federal law to help ensure its defense against any attack. The Biden administration has repeatedly said China is “overreacting” to the recent visits.

In the days and weeks after Mrs. Pelosi’s visit, China’s People’s Liberation Army ramped up its military drills near Taiwan, a move clearly designed to express Beijing’s outrage that top U.S. officials are in essence recognizing Taiwan’s status as an independent, self-governing nation.

The Chinese military reacted angrily again to Sunday’s mission and delivered a not-so-subtle warning to the Navy.

Chinese forces “are on high alert and ready to foil any provocation at any time,” said senior Col. Shi Yi, spokesperson for the People’s Liberation Army Eastern Theater Command.

Chinese officials in recent days also have blasted the visits by other American lawmakers who have followed Mrs. Pelosi’s lead in visiting Taiwan. Earlier this month, a bipartisan delegation of lawmakers flew to Taiwan and met with Taiwanese officials.

Sen. Marsha Blackburn, Tennessee Republican, visited Taipei and spoke at the Taiwanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs last week.

“One of the reasons I’ve come to Taipei to have these conversations with Taiwan’s leaders is because we can’t afford to let the Chinese Communist Party write the world’s foreign policy,” Mrs. Blackburn said. “For decades, any nation with enough power to challenge Beijing has begged somebody else to jump in and help do that job.

“The only way we can stop and reverse the rise of authoritarianism around the globe is to do everything we possibly can to make sure the authoritarians fail,” she said.

Chinese officials on Friday blasted that visit and seemed to suggest that the trips could eventually lead to violence.

“The U.S. lawmaker’s visit to China’s Taiwan region … goes against the U.S.’s commitment of maintaining only non-official ties with the Taiwan region. The Chinese side deplores and firmly rejects this,” a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson said.

“There is only one China in the world and Taiwan is an inalienable part of China’s territory,” the spokesperson said. “The government of the People’s Republic of China is the sole legal government representing the whole of China. We will not waver in opposing ‘Taiwan independence’ separatist activities and external interference. … We urge the relevant U.S. politician to abide by the one-China principle … and immediately stop sending wrong signals to ‘Taiwan independence’ separatist forces.”

The visits by Mrs. Pelosi and subsequent American lawmakers marked something of a game-changer in how U.S. officials handle the delicate China-Taiwan dynamic. Those visits may also have sparked major changes in the PLA’s messaging in the region.

Last week, PLA fighter jets reportedly flew across the Taiwan Strait “median line,” an unofficial barrier running through the strait that China previously respected. On the heels of Mrs. Pelosi’s visit, Chinese officials indicated that they would begin military drills on the eastern side of that line. 

“They want to increase pressure on us with the end goal of us giving up the median line,” an anonymous Taiwanese official told Reuters late last week. “They want to make that a fact.”

Mr. Biden faces pressure to stand up to China, but Chinese President Xi Jinping, who has vowed to bring Taiwan under the mainland’s control by whatever means necessary, faces pressures of his own. The ruling Chinese Communist Party is preparing for its 20th party congress in October or November, and Mr. Xi hopes to secure an unprecedented third five-year term as party general secretary and president of the country.

Analysts say Mr. Xi cannot afford to show weakness on the Taiwan question in the sensitive weeks heading up to the party gathering.

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.

• Ben Wolfgang can be reached at bwolfgang@washingtontimes.com.

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