U.S. Navy Riles China by Sailing Destroyer Near Taiwan

A U.S. Navy warship sailed through the Taiwan Strait on Tuesday in a now regular exercise that China has decried as "provocative."

The 7th Fleet, headquartered in Japan, said the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Sampson conducted a "routine Taiwan Strait transit" on April 26, sailing "through international waters in accordance with international law."

The operation "demonstrates the United States' commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific," it said. "The United States military flies, sails, and operates anywhere international law allows."

In a statement on Wednesday, Taiwan's Defense Ministry confirmed the American warship's presence, saying the vessel traveled in a northerly direction through the natural barrier separating the democratic island from China. The seas and skies around Taiwan remained "all normal," the bulletin said.

China, which claims sovereignty over Taiwan and opposes Taipei's defense relationship with Washington, characterized the U.S.'s frequent "provocative acts" as attempts to "deliberately undermine peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait," according to a statement attributed to Col. Shi Yi of the Eastern Theater Command, one of five designated theaters under the People's Liberation Army.

The lone U.S. warship wouldn't have threatened the PLA, but Beijing routinely criticizes Washington's public diplomacy—the publication of certain movements to signal America's military presence—as "hyping up" its operations around China. When U.S. maneuvers aren't announced, the PLA rarely protests.

In his statement, Shi said the Chinese military "tracked and warned" the Sampson through its passage. "Theater troops remain on high alert to resolutely defend [China's] national sovereignty and territorial integrity," the officer said.

Ship-tracking data showed the U.S. Navy destroyer sailing on the Taiwan side of the so-called "median line," an unofficial buffer that helped prevent serious hostilities throughout the Cold War. A PLA Navy Type 054A frigate appeared to shadow the American vessel through the strait.

U.S. Navy Destroyer Transits Taiwan Strait
The Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Sampson of the U.S. Navy’s 7th Fleet transits the Taiwan Strait on April 26, 2022. A Chinese military spokesperson accused the U.S. of deliberately trying to destabilize the Taiwan Strait with frequent “provocative acts,” in a statement released on April 27. U.S. Navy

Tuesday's operation in the Taiwan Strait was the fourth to be made public this year under President Joe Biden's administration. USS Dewey and USS Ralph Johnson—both Arleigh Burke-class destroyers with the 7th Fleet—were involved in similar transits between January and March.

The U.S. Navy reported 12 destroyer transits last year, an average of one per month. There were a record 13 such movements in 2020, although other U.S. Coast Guard vessels were also present that year.

The steady increase in U.S. military signaling near Taiwan comes as the Chinese military's rapidly modernizing naval and air force fleets operate around the island with more and more frequency.

Beijing, which has never governed Taiwan, has repeatedly refused to rule out the use of force in its ambition to annex the island in what it terms "unification," although it prefers to do so by peaceful means, its officials say.

Washington maintains a deliberate policy of "strategic ambiguity" on the question of whether American troops would come to the defense of Taiwan in the event of a Chinese invasion. A robust yet unofficial economic, cultural and security relationship underpins bilateral ties, but the U.S. isn't obligated by treaty to intervene.

Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, leading a congressional delegation to Taipei earlier this month, was asked about the likelihood of an active military response from the U.S. "Every option is on the table," he said.

"I hope that the Communist Chinese Party will change its ways. Until that day comes, we must be strong in the face of oppression," Graham said. "To the Communist Chinese Party, we do not seek conflict, but we will fight for our values. Choose wisely."