U.S., China Send Navies Into Contested Sea After Taiwan Show of Force

The American and Chinese navies are once again posturing in the South China Sea after Beijing deployed its newest aircraft carrier to the sensitive area, skirting Taiwan and ratcheting up regional tensions as President Donald Trump plays out his final weeks in the White House.

China's Shandong carrier sailed through the Taiwan Strait on Sunday, prompting Taipei to deploy naval and air assets, Reuters reported.

The carrier—commissioned last year—sailed from the Dalian shipyard in northern China accompanied by four other warships and passed south towards the South China Sea.

Taiwan, which has repeatedly warned of intensified Chinese military activity around the island, deployed six warships and eight aircraft to "stand guard" and track the Chinese ships, the island's defense ministry said.

"With the support of the people, the national armed forces have the confidence and ability to guard the homeland, and ensure national security and safeguard regional peace and stability," the ministry said, according to Reuters.

The U.S. responded with a "freedom of navigation" operation in the South China Sea, a busy shipping region home to lucrative natural resources where China's territorial claims overlap with those of several of its neighbors. Beijing has enforced its claims using militarized man-made islands in the sea, angering the U.S. and other nations.

The U.S. regularly conducts naval and aerial freedom of navigation exercises in the South China Sea to protest Beijing's claim. Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam also have competing claims in the region.

The U.S. Navy's 7th Fleet released a statement on Tuesday noting that the USS John S. McCain conducted the operation and "asserted navigational rights and freedoms in the Spratly Islands," one of the disputed archipelagos in the southern part of the South China Sea.

"This freedom of navigation operation...upheld the rights, freedoms, and lawful uses of the sea recognized in international law by challenging restrictions on innocent passage imposed by China, Vietnam and Taiwan," the statement said.

All interactions with foreign military forces were consistent with international norms and did not impact the operation," it added.

"Unlawful and sweeping maritime claims in the South China Sea pose a serious threat to the freedom of the seas, including the freedoms of navigation and overflight, free trade and unimpeded commerce, and freedom of economic opportunity for South China Sea littoral nations."

"U.S. forces operate in the South China Sea on a daily basis, as they have for more than a century. They routinely operate in close coordination with like-minded allies and partners who share our commitment to uphold a free and open international order that promotes security and prosperity."

"All of our operations are designed to be conducted in accordance with international law and demonstrate that the United States will fly, sail, and operate wherever international law allows —regardless of the location of excessive maritime claims and regardless of current events."

Although the statement referred to all claimants, such missions are seen as a public rebuke of Beijing's efforts to establish control of the South China Sea. Four years of tense relations between the Trump administration and China have left ties at what foreign minister Wang Yi last week called "the lowest level since the establishment of diplomatic ties 41 years ago."

Tensions are also rising around Taiwan, which Beijing considers a renegade province. China has always vowed to bring Taipei under its control as part of its "One China" policy, whether by diplomacy or by force. The U.S. has long supported Taiwan with weapons sales, though it does not officially recognize the country.

Beijing is waiting to see what tack President-elect Joe Biden takes when he comes to office next month. Biden—accused by Trump of being soft on China—has vowed to push back on Beijing's human rights and trade abuses, plus its territorial expansionism.

Beijing has urged Biden to cooperate with China and Wang warned last week that conflict between the world's two largest economies would be a "disaster."

US Navy destroyer transits South China Sea
The U.S. destroyer John S. McCain sails through the South China Sea in this image provided on December 22. Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Markus Castaneda/U.S. Navy