With US-China trade talks set to resume this week amid what flashing red headlines, Larry Kudlow and Donald Trump's twitter account remind us every day, if not hour, is a sense of "optimism" about an imminent deal, on Sunday the US navy reminded Beijing to stick to the script (one in which Trump supposedly comes off as a negotiating giant), when it two warships through the hotly contested Taiwan Strait as the Pentagon increases the frequency of movement through the strategic waterway despite vocal and often time angry opposition from China.
While the voyage risks further raising tensions with China - at an especially sensitive time for trade negotiations - it will also be viewed by Taiwan as a sign of support from the Trump administration amid growing friction between Taipei and Beijing.
According to Reuters, the two destroyers were the William P. Lawrence and Stethem.
“The ships’ transit through the Taiwan Strait demonstrates the U.S. commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific,” Commander Clay Doss, a spokesman for the U.S. Navy’s Seventh Fleet, said in a statement. The 112-mile-wide Taiwan Strait separates Taiwan from China. Winking at China, Doss also said there were no unsafe or unprofessional interactions with other countries’ vessels during the transit. Beijing may beg to differ.
Despite an alleged convergence of view on trade between Beijing and DC., Taiwan remains one of a growing number of flashpoints in the U.S.-China relationship, which also include a trade war, U.S. sanctions, the future of Huawei and 5G and China’s increasingly muscular military posture in the South China Sea, where the United States also conducts freedom-of-navigation patrols to remind China that the US will never cede implicit control of the world's most important naval area.
Commenting on the transit, Taiwan’s Ministry of Defense said the US ships had sailed north through the strait. “U.S. ships freely passing through the Taiwan Strait is part of the mission of carrying out the Indo-Pacific strategy,” it said in a statement. Taiwan’s armed forces monitored the transit and nothing out of the ordinary happened, the ministry said.
Beijing was far less enthusiastic: China's foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said China had paid close attention to the sailing and had expressed concern to the United States. “The Taiwan issue is the most important and sensitive issue in Sino-U.S. relations,” he told a daily news briefing.
While the United States has no formal ties with Taiwan, it is bound by law to help provide the island with the means to defend itself and is its main source of arms. More importantly, just like Saudi Arabia, Taiwan is one of the biggest clients of US weapons. The Pentagon says Washington has sold Taipei more than $15 billion in weaponry since 2010.
China has been ramping up pressure to assert its sovereignty over the island, which it considers a wayward province of “one China” and sacred Chinese territory.
It said a recent Taiwan Strait passage by a French warship, first reported by Reuters on Wednesday, was illegal. China’s Geng added that China hoped that France could ensure such an incident did not happen again.
As Reuters notes, Beijing’s concerns about Taiwan are likely to factor into Chinese defense spending this year, following a stern New Year’s speech from President Xi Jinping in which he threatened to attack Taiwan should it not accept Chinese rule.
To that end, last month, Beijing unveiled a target of 7.5 percent rise in defense spending for 2019, a slower rate than last year but still outpacing its economic growth target. In response to US moves in the region, China has repeatedly sent military aircraft and ships to circle Taiwan on exercises in the past few years and worked to isolate it internationally, whittling down its few remaining diplomatic allies.