Beijing downplays importance of US warships in Taiwan Strait

Chinese warplanes swarm over the Taiwan Strait, and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) even fired missiles over Taiwan, a democratically ruled island that the Chinese Communist Party calls its sovereign territory despite never having controlled it.
These Chinese military exercises have established what some analysts and officials feared could become the “new normal” across the strait: a more permanent PLA presence closer to Taiwan.

US officials, meanwhile, have vowed that Washington will stay the course and Chinese bullying tactics will be challenged.

On Sunday, the US Navy sent two missile cruisers across the strait, which China now calls its “inland waters”. The US and other countries consider the strait to be international waters under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

It was the first time in at least four years that the US Navy has sent two cruisers across the strait, said Colleen Koch, a research fellow at the Johnston School of International Studies. S. Rajaratnam in Singapore, who maintains a database of transitions.

“Having two ships instead of the usual one to carry out this mission is certainly a ‘stronger’ signal of protest, not only against Beijing’s recent military exercises around Taiwan after Pelosi’s visit, but also in response to Beijing’s attempt to undermine the legal status of the waterway and longstanding rights to freedom of navigation in this area,” Koch said.

That US warships transited on Sunday came as no surprise. They have made dozens of such flights in recent years, and US officials have said the transits will continue.

What surprised analysts was Beijing’s restrained response.

China’s Eastern Theater Command said it was monitoring the two ships, maintaining high alert and “ready to stop any provocation.”

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

Past transits have evoked a stronger response. After the destroyer USS Benfold passed through the strait in July, Colonel Shi Yi, a spokesman for the PLA’s Eastern Theater Command, called the US “the destroyers of peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait.”

And earlier this month, China’s ambassador to Washington, Qin Gang, urged the US to halt naval transits, saying it was escalating tensions and encouraging “Taiwan separatist forces advocating Taiwan independence.”

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

Koh, an analyst, noted Beijing’s comparatively low-key statements on Sunday.

“Why didn’t the Chinese go further than this, given their previous strong opposition to Washington’s stated intention to continue such transits?” he said, suggesting three possible factors.

First, Beijing may fear an “international backlash,” since any attempt to restrict US Navy navigation through the strait could be seen as a threat to the rights of other countries’ ships to pass through the waterway.

Second, after Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, Beijing suspended key channels of military communication with Washington, which increased 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 indeed cooperating, and China may not want to strain them, Koch said.

“It does not make sense to provoke a further escalation of tension, which could potentially escalate into a clash,” he said.

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

“I think that (Chinese leader Xi Jinping) is going to avoid any action that could improve the chances of Republicans and other hawks in China in the upcoming elections. He doesn’t want the House and Senate to pass laws more strongly supporting Taiwan or restrict Chinese investment and influence in the US,” Schuster said.

Meanwhile, according to him, the use of two cruisers in the last passage through the strait can be seen not so much as a statement, but as a reasonable military planning.

“Given the threats from China and the recent rocket attacks on international waters…it seems reasonable for two warships to pass through these waters together,” Schuster said.

And expect the US Navy to do business as usual, passing through the strait on a regular basis, he said.

“According to international law, these are international waters, so there is no official dispute about its status,” he said. “US Navy Transit makes that statement quietly and efficiently.”

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