The US Navy’s 7th Fleet on Thursday confirmed that the US Coast Guard cutter Stratton had transited the Taiwan Strait on Tuesday.
The US regularly makes such transits “through waters where high-seas freedoms of navigation [FON] and overflight apply in accordance with international law,” the 7th Fleet said in a statement.
What made the transit especially significant was its timing. On June 3, a Chinese destroyer came within 140m of the USS Chung-Hoon, overtaking it on its port side as it passed through the Taiwan Strait on a mission with the Canadian frigate HMCS Montreal.
When the US protested the unsafe maneuver, Chinese Minister of National Defense Li Shangfu (李尚福) accused the US of a “cold war mentality.” China has also repeatedly refused US requests for military exchanges, such as the Pentagon’s invitation for their defense chiefs to hold talks on the sidelines of the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore. Furthermore, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who met with Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) earlier this week, said that Beijing repeatedly rebuffed US requests to restore military communications.
China seems to be under the impression that its tough stance would intimidate the US and drive it out of the region. However, as Tuesday’s FON exercise showed, the US is not going anywhere. Sending this message to Beijing is important, as it must be made aware that attempts to unilaterally change the rules-based international order will not be tolerated.
The more China pushes, the more other countries will unite and push back. This was demonstrated on Thursday when Italian patrol vessel the ITS Francesco Morosini made a stop at a US naval base in Yokosuka, Japan. Italian news site Le Formiche reported on the visit, calling it a demonstration of Rome’s commitment to the Indo-Pacific region, and its intention to maintain the “status quo” in the Taiwan Strait. Italy has also said it might exit China’s Belt and Road Initiative, with Italian Minister of Foreign Affairs Antonio Tajani on Tuesday saying that the initiative has not been beneficial to his country.
China might be starting to realize what it is up against, as it did not repeat its aggressive action when the Stratton transited the Strait. Downplaying the incident, it only said the US passage was aimed at creating “public hype.”
However, China still seems to be confused about what constitutes its territorial waters, as the Chinese Coast Guard said its shadowing of the US vessel was to “resolutely” safeguard its sovereignty, security, and maritime rights and interests. In no way whatsoever does any vessel’s passage through the international waters of the Taiwan Strait affect China’s sovereignty — which extends only 22km from its shoreline — security or interests. It is purely because of China’s lack of understanding of international norms and agreements when it comes to sovereignty, open seas and international airspace that more countries are joining the US on FON exercises in the Taiwan Strait and in the South China Sea. The more Beijing protests and overreacts to such passages, the greater the frequency with which they will occur.
China should also not confuse the issue with politics. Xi and other officials in Beijing seem to think that countries would avoid passage through international waters or airspace if US-China relations improve, but nothing could be further from the truth. Freedom of navigation through the Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea are of paramount interest to the economic interests and unimpeded movement of many nations, and that will never change or be up for discussion.
Taiwan, the US and all other like-minded nations must continue to demonstrate clearly to China that no attempt to push other countries out of the international space in the region will be tolerated, and any efforts to do so will be met with a resolute and united response that will be detrimental to China’s interests.
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