The USS Benfold has traversed China-claimed waters for the third time in a week, passing through the Taiwan Strait on Tuesday after China complained about US Navy "illegal" maneuvers near islands under its control in the South China Sea.
Beijing again blasted it as a serious "provocation" demonstrating that the US is a "destroyer of peace and stability" - in repetition of prior condemnations. It follows a more rare July 13 incident wherein the US destroyer entered waters off the Chinese military occupied Paracel Islands, and then last Saturday a sail-by of the Spratly Islands.
The US Navy's 7th Fleet again affirmed "commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific," and that the US destroyer has challenged China's "excessive maritime claims".
A Navy spokesman, Lt. Nicholas Lingo Benfold, said the transit occurred "through a corridor in the strait that is beyond the territorial sea of any coastal state."
China in turn, said its Eastern Theater Command closely monitored the ship's movement, citing "risks" to Chinese national security:
"The frequent provocations and showing-off by the US fully demonstrate that the US is the destroyer of peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait and the creator of security risks in the Taiwan Strait," said Col. Shi Yi, spokesman for the People’s Liberation Army’s Eastern Theater Command.
"The theater troops maintain high alert at all times and will resolutely defend national sovereignty and territorial integrity."
The Navy's interpretation is that it never violated the 12 nautical miles extending from China's coastline; however, Beijing has over the last month begun openly questioning to US officials that the "international waters" designation doesn't apply to the strait (given Chinese claims over the island of Taiwan).
"Chinese officials have made such remarks repeatedly in meetings with US counterparts in recent months," Bloomberg reported in June. The international legal status of the passageway wasn't previously center of debate as it is now:
While China regularly protests US military moves in the Taiwan Strait, the legal status of the waters previously wasn’t a regular talking point in meetings with American officials.
Looming large in the background of all this is House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's reported upcoming trip to Taiwan. Though not "official" yet, Politico and others are citing sources who say the trip will happen in August, after in April she canceled last minute, reportedly over a Covid diagnosis.
Chinese state pundits are saying this alone could be the spark that ignites war...
I definitely don't believe that the Taiwanese military would dare to fire on the mainland’s military aircraft, because otherwise, the PLA would return fire ferociously. Washington and the Taiwan authorities will bear the responsibility of provoking a war in the Taiwan Straits. https://t.co/V1t2hETaMd— Hu Xijin 胡锡进 (@HuXijin_GT) July 20, 2022
Beijing is further demanding that the Biden administration cancel a proposed 5th arms package for Taiwan, announced worth an estimated $108 million, saying it violates the One China principle and risks dangerous escalation.