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U.S. Sails Warship Through Taiwan Strait as China Watches Sternly

The U.S. Navy sailed a warship through the Taiwan Strait following a recent close call between U.S. and Chinese military planes in the region, reminders of the military tensions that underlie the bilateral relationship.

The USS Chung-Hoon sailed through the waters separating Taiwan and China on Thursday in what the Navy’s 7th Fleet said was a routine transit. It was the first such sailing announced by the Navy in 2023 and follows nine sailings made public last year, according to one private-sector tally. Beijing protested each time.

The U.S. military says it asserts rights to transit international waters and airspace. The 7th Fleet said Thursday’s transit took place “through a corridor in the Strait that is beyond the territorial sea of any coastal State.” 

A spokesman for the People’s Liberation Army’s Eastern Theater Command, Col. Shi Yi, said China’s military dispatched forces to follow and monitor the Chung-Hoon on its journey, according to Xinhua News Agency on Friday. Col. Shi dismissed the activity as “big hype” and assured that “everything is under control,” according to Xinhua. 

The political future of Taiwan stands as the biggest potential flashpoint between Washington and Beijing, and their militaries regularly come into contact in ways that analysts warn are increasingly dangerous.

Beijing claims the democratically run island as its sovereign territory. It conducted major exercises in the Strait following last summer’s visit to the island by former House Speaker

Nancy Pelosi.

Washington says it opposes unilateral efforts to change the status quo or undermine peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait. 

Taiwan is sure to figure highly on the agenda when U.S. Secretary of State

Antony Blinken

visits Beijing in coming weeks to follow up on efforts by President Biden and Chinese leader

Xi Jinping

to steady the bilateral relationship. China will also be watching as Taipei and Washington are scheduled next week to conduct a second round of face-to-face talks over tighter digital and agricultural trade.

The U.S. military presence near China’s shores—like naval Taiwan Strait patrols—particularly angers Beijing. China claims the roughly 100-mile-wide Strait variously as its internal waters, territorial sea, contiguous zone and exclusive economic zone. It has called the U.S. claim of international waters a pretext for “manipulating issues related to Taiwan.” Beijing also rejects U.S. freedom-of-navigation patrols through sections of the South China Sea where China claims sovereignty and has constructed military installations on small atolls.

Naval sailings through the Taiwan Strait are taking on an increasingly outsize symbolism as Beijing has sought to extend its territorial claims, according to

Gregory Poling,

a senior fellow at Washington think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies, who runs its Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative. 

“These have gone from normal activities to being symbolic of U.S. defense of freedom of the seas,” said Mr. Poling. He said such sailings, along with other naval patrols, are part of the broader U.S. public-relations effort to demonstrate its credibility and commitments in the region, and sometimes appear to be made public by the U.S. in response to Chinese protests of the activities.  

Last year’s nine sailings through the Strait compare with a recent high of 15 in 2020, according to a tally kept by Collin Koh Swee Lean at S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University.

The latest sailings follow the release of video late last month by the U.S. military that it said showed a Chinese jet fighter conducting an unsafe maneuver while intercepting an unarmed U.S. Air Force spy plane in international airspace over the South China Sea. The J-11 fighter, operated by a Chinese navy pilot, flew “in front of and within 20 feet of the nose” of the RC-135, forcing the reconnaissance plane to “take evasive maneuvers to avoid a collision,” the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command said. 

China’s military, which released its own video of the air encounter, claimed the U.S. pilot was the one that made the dangerous maneuver and said the flight itself violated its national sovereignty.  

The naval vessel that patrolled the Strait this week, the Chung-Hoon, is an Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer named for a late naval admiral who was part Chinese. In 2019, the Navy said the Chung-Hoon sailed along with another ship around the Spratly island chain in the South China Sea claimed by China and in 2006, when U.S.-China relations were stronger, the destroyer practiced communications with two Chinese naval ships during their goodwill visit to Hawaii.

Write to James T. Areddy at James.Areddy@wsj.com

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