(Bloomberg) -- US Navy warships transited through the Taiwan Strait for the first time since House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to the self-ruled island tested ties between Washington and Beijing.
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The Ticonderoga-class guided-missile cruisers USS Antietam and USS Chancellorsville conducted a routine transit through a corridor of the strait Sunday, the Seventh Fleet said in a statement. “The ship’s transit through the Taiwan Strait demonstrates the United States’ commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific,” the fleet said, noting the waters were “beyond the territorial sea of any coastal state.”
China’s military separately said it followed the US cruisers and was on high alert to counter any provocations.
The decision to send two missile-laden cruisers through the strait may have been a calibrated signal by the Biden administration to demonstrate its resolve to maintain a naval presence in the waterway without prompting an additional response from China. While at least a quarter of the transits publicly announced by the US Navy over the past five years have involved two vessels, none have involved two cruisers, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.
Still, that’s less provocative than sending an aircraft carrier battle group through the strait, something the US hasn’t done since 2007. Former President Bill Clinton’s carrier-led show of force in the mid-1990s was credited with helping to resolve the last Taiwan Strait crisis, but has since been blamed for prompting a military buildup that gave China the largest navy in the world in terms of number of ships.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian accused the US of “flexing its muscles” in the name of exercising freedom of navigation at a Monday news briefing. “This is nothing but provocation aimed at freedom of trespassing,” he added. “It constitutes deliberate sabotage of regional peace and stability.”
Since Pelosi’s visit, Taiwan’s defense ministry has reported spotting an average of seven Chinese warships in the “surrounding region” every day, as part of an overall surge in People’s Liberation of Army activity around the island. Bloomberg reported last week that Chinese warships stayed at least 24 nautical miles away from Taiwan’s coast during recent military drills in the wake of the visit, even as it marked off exclusion zones that came well within the island’s territorial waters.
The Biden administration vowed to continue such routine transits after China responded to Pelosi’s landmark trip to Taipei earlier this month by firing ballistic missiles over Taiwan. China considers the self-ruled island its territory and protests diplomatic exchanges with Taipei.
The US has conducted an average of nine annual trips through the strait over the past decade, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. The last known US transit of the strait before Sunday was on July 19, when the destroyer the USS Benfold sailed through the waterway.
China’s ambassador to Washington, Qin Gang, earlier this month called on the US to refrain from sailing naval vessels through the Taiwan Strait, saying Beijing viewed such transits as an escalation by the US and an effort to support the “separatist” government in Taipei.
Hu Xijin, former editor of the Communist Party’s Global Times, wrote on Twitter that Sunday’s transit was the US military’s “new provocation.”
“The US is a very unfriendly force,” he added. “The resolution of Taiwan question should speed up to eliminate a leverage of external forces in undermining China’s rise.”
(Updates with Chinese Foreign Ministry comment.)
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