U.S. Must Challenge 'Gorilla' China Over Taiwan Missile Tests: Official

A senior U.S. Navy officer described China as a "gorilla in the room" on Tuesday as he argued for pushback against Chinese military drills that would soon create a new status quo around Taiwan.

Vice Admiral Karl Thomas, who commands the Seventh Fleet, said Beijing threatened busy commercial shipping lanes around Taiwan when it launched ballistic missiles earlier this month, some of which traveled over the democratically governed island, landing in its surrounding waters.

The move was a stated response, which the White House has called an overreaction, to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's recent visit to Taiwan. At least five of the projectiles—Taipei said it detected 11 in total—landed in Japan's exclusive economic zone, drawing protests from the U.S. treaty ally that is also home to tens of thousands of American troops.

U.S. Must Contest China Missile Tests: Official
Smoke trails from projectiles launched by the Chinese military are seen by tourists on Pingtan Island, one of mainland China's closest points to Taiwan, in Fujian province on August 4, 2022. U.S. Navy Vice Admiral Karl Thomas, commander of the U.S. Seventh Fleet, argued the U.S. needed to contest China’s military drills to prevent Beijing from creating a new norm with its actions. HECTOR RETAMAL/AFP via Getty Images

Speaking in Singapore ahead of the Southeast Asia Cooperation and Training naval exercise, commonly known as SEACAT, Thomas said: "It's very important that we contest this type of thing. I know that the gorilla in the room is launching missiles over Taiwan."

"If we just allow that to happen, and we don't contest that, that'll be the next norm," Thomas said, according to reports. "It's irresponsible to launch missiles over Taiwan into international waters, where the shipping lanes, where free shipping, operates."

Left unchecked, China's incremental actions risked creating a new normal that could shift territorial disputes in Beijing's favor, Thomas suggested.

"If you don't challenge it, the problem is that it'll become the norm ... People just accept it," he said. "And then all of a sudden, people can make claims like the entire South China Sea is their territorial sea."

"If you don't challenge it ... all of a sudden it can become just like the islands in the South China Sea have now become military outposts," Thomas said. "They now are full functioning military outposts that have missiles on them, large runways, hangers, radars, listening posts."

U.S. Must Contest China Missile Tests: Official
A Chinese military jet flies over Pingtan island, one of mainland China's closest points to Taiwan, in Fujian province on August 5, 2022. China conducted a week of unprecedented military drills in the sea and airspace around Taiwan following a visit to Taipei by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. HECTOR RETAMAL/AFP via Getty Images

The United States contends that Beijing's excessive maritime claims in the South China Sea, and elsewhere, undermine the principle of freedom of navigation and threaten vital sea lines.

Over 80 percent of the volume of international trade in goods is carried by sea, the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development said in its 2021 year-end report. Within that total, UNCTAD estimates put maritime trade in Asia at about two-thirds, of which one-third passes through the South China Sea.

"Sea lanes are the lifeblood of our economies ... having open sea lanes and having shipping that can operate ... is extremely important to keep the economy running," CNBC quoted Thomas as saying.

The Chinese military re-upped its drills around Taiwan on August 15 in response to a two-day visit to Taipei by Senator Ed Markey and four other U.S. lawmakers. Taiwan's Defense Ministry said it detected 30 Chinese military aircraft around the island on Monday and 17 on Tuesday. On both days, at least five Chinese naval vessels were operating in the surrounding region, it said.

In his closed-door meeting with President Tsai Ing-wen of Taiwan, Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat, said the U.S. had "a moral obligation to do everything we can to prevent an unnecessary conflict." He also commended Taiwan for "demonstrating incredible restraint and discretion during challenging times," according to a press release from Taiwan's Presidential Office.