WASHINGTON — The Pentagon is increasing its visibility in waters claimed by China, relying on what top brass believe is the discipline and training of Chinese forces not to spark an escalation between the two navies.
For the fourth consecutive month, the Navy sent ships through the Taiwan Strait, the waterway separating mainland China run by Beijing and the islands that make up Taiwan.
It is the sixth time since October 2018 that U.S. ships have traversed the strait — a marked increase in activity comparing to sailings over the past decade.
The transit Sunday was by two destroyers, the USS Stethem and USS William P. Lawrence. They were trailed at a distance by Chinese ships, Pentagon officials said Tuesday.
“This routine transit through international waters of the Taiwan Strait demonstrates the U.S. commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific,” a Pentagon spokesperson told TMN on Tuesday. “The U.S. DoD will continue to fly, sail and operate anywhere international law allows.”
Adm. John Richardson, chief of naval operations, said Monday that “China is growing very fast, becoming more and more global, with great ambitions” and that the U.S. had to be wary of China stealing “a march on us in our blind spots.”
Speaking during a day-long Future Security Forum in Washington, Richardson said that the risk of a mistake or mischaracterization in the South China Sea is significant and that “it can go strategic (shooting) very, very fast.”
He said a “code for unplanned encounters at sea” is critical, as is discipline in the ranks among Chinese sailors not to escalate the transits by U.S. vessels.
“We arrange a passing that is going to be predicable and safe,” Richardson said, a statement Beijing disputes.
The Pentagon has sent more Navy ships through waters that China claims as its own — both the Taiwan Strait and around islands and outcrops that China has seized and is militarizing in the South China and East China Seas — to start this year than any time in the past.
It also has increased air sorties in those regions.
Sailing through the Taiwan Strait is not considered a freedom of navigation operation since the waters are not contested or claimed by China or any other nation. However, China considers the strait part of its sphere of influence, since its policy is to eventually meld Taiwan into its control.
The flights and sailings consequently increase tension between Washington and Beijing.
In mid-March, the Pentagon conducted air and sea freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea. It was the third consecutive month for such sea operations, a first.