Yet again, the recent passage through the sensitive Taiwan Strait by navies of the United States and Canada in a joint mission have sent ripples of concern in all directions lapping against the shorelines of neighboring countries.
The waterway separates democratic self-ruled Taiwan by only 160 kilometers from China.
China claims Taiwan as its territory and has vowed to take it one day, by force if necessary, and has in recent years ramped up military and political pressure on the island.
Last week, the Chinese aircraft carrier Shandong led two other ships through the Taiwan Strait, in a show of force after Beijing conducted aerial and naval exercises around Taiwan in April.
The US 7th Fleet announced Saturday its destroyer USS Chung-Hoon and the Royal Canadian Navy’s HMCS Montreal were “conducting a routine Taiwan Strait transit on June 3 “through waters where high-seas freedoms of navigation and overflight apply in accordance with international law.”
According to the US Navy, “Chung-Hoon and Montreal’s bilateral transit through the Taiwan Strait demonstrates the commitment of the United States and our allies and partners to a free and open Indo-Pacific.”
While US naval ships frequently sail through the strait, the recent bilateral transit is rare – the last a joint US-Canada passage through the strait occurred was in September 2022.
On Sunday, China’s defense minister defended sailing a warship across the path of an American destroyer and Canadian frigate transiting the Taiwan Strait, telling a gathering of some of the world’s top defense officials in Singapore that such so-called “freedom of navigation” patrols are a provocation to China.
In his first international public address since becoming defense minister in March, Gen. Li Shangfu told the Shangri-La Dialogue that China doesn’t have any problems with “innocent passage” but that “we must prevent attempts that try to use those freedom of navigation (patrols), that innocent passage, to exercise hegemony of navigation.”
The Chinese vessel overtook the American ship and then veered across its bow at a distance of about 140 meters in an “unsafe manner,” according to the US Indo-Pacific Command.
The US added a Chinese J-16 fighter jet late late last month “performed an unnecessarily aggressive maneuver” while intercepting a US Air Force reconnaissance aircraft over the South China Sea, flying directly in front of the plane’s nose.
Those and previous incidents have raised concerns of a possible accident occurring that could lead to an escalation between the two nations at a time when tensions are already high.
The US has noted that since 2021 – well before Li became defense minister – China has declined or failed to respond to more than a dozen requests from the US Defense Department to talk with senior leaders, as well as multiple requests for standing dialogues and working-level engagements.
Li said that “China is open to communications between our two countries and also between our two militaries,” but said, without mentioning the sanctions, exchanges had to be “based on mutual respect.”