Taiwan Strait: Beijing downplays US warship transit as tensions calm

Chinese warplanes have swarmed across the Taiwan Strait, and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has even fired missiles over Taiwan, the democratically ruled island that the Chinese Communist Party claims as its sovereign territory although it has never controlled it.

These Chinese military drills led to what some analysts and officials feared could be a “new normal” across the straits: a more permanent PLA presence ever closer to Taiwan.

US officials, meanwhile, vowed Washington would stay the course and question Chinese intimidation tactics.

On Sunday, the US Navy sent two guided missile cruisers through the straits, which China now refers to as its “inner waters”. The United States and others consider the Strait to be international waters under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

It was the first time the US Navy had sent two cruisers through the straits in at least four years, said Collin Koh, a research fellow at Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, who has maintained a database on the transits.

“Having two vessels for this mission instead of the usual one is certainly a ‘bigger’ signal of protest not only against Beijing’s recent military drills around Taiwan following Pelosi’s visit, but also in response to Beijing’s attempt to change the legal status of the waterway and the longstanding freedom of navigation rights through the area,” Koh said.

That US warships made the transit on Sunday came as no surprise. They have made dozens of such trips in recent years, and US officials had said the transits would continue.

What surprised analysts was the muted reaction from Beijing.

The Chinese military’s Eastern Theater Command said it monitored the two ships, maintained high alert and was “ready to thwart any provocation.”

Even the state-run Global Times tabloid, known for its often jingoistic and fiercely nationalist editorials, said the presence of the two cruisers posed “no real threat to China’s security.”

Previous transits have elicited a stronger response. After the destroyer USS Benfold passed through the Straits in July, Colonel Shi Yi, spokesman for the PLA’s Eastern Theater Command, described the US as “a destroyer of peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait.”

Earlier this month, Chinese ambassador to Washington Qin Gang called on the US to halt sea transport, saying it would increase tensions and encourage “Taiwan independence separatist forces.”

“If there is any move that damages China’s territorial integrity and sovereignty, China will respond,” Qin told reporters in Washington in response to a question about possible upcoming transits.

Koh, the analyst, noted Beijing’s comparatively tame pronouncements on Sunday.

“Why have the Chinese not gone further, given their previous strong opposition to Washington’s stated intention to continue such transits?” he said, offering three possible factors.

First, Beijing could be wary of an “international backlash,” since any attempt to restrict US Navy navigation through the straits could be seen as a threat to the rights of ships from other nations to navigate the waterway.

Second, Beijing suspended key military communications channels with Washington after Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, increasing the risk of misunderstandings during any interaction between the PLA Navy and the US Navy.

Third, there are other areas where Washington and Beijing are working together and China may not want to burden those, Koh said.

“There is no point in provoking further heightened tensions that could potentially escalate into a clash,” he said.

Carl Schuster, former chief of operations at the US Pacific Command’s Joint Intelligence Center in Hawaii, suggests a fourth possibility.

“I think (Chinese leader Xi Jinping) will avoid any action that might improve the chances of the Republicans and other China-hawks in the upcoming elections. He doesn’t want a House and Senate that could enact legislation that gives more support to Taiwan or restricts Chinese investment and influence in the US,” Schuster said.

In the meantime, he said, the deployment of two cruisers in the recent passage through the straits might not be so much a statement as sound military planning.

“Given the threats from China and the recent rocket fire in international waters … it seems reasonable to let two warships navigate these waters together,” Schuster said.

And expect the US Navy to carry on as usual with regular passages through the straits, he said.

“Under international law, it is international waters and therefore there is no official dispute as to its status,” he said. “The US Navy Transit makes that statement quietly and effectively.”

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