U.S. Says Navy Sails 'Within International Law' Near Taiwan in Face of China's Warnings

The Pentagon is defending its recent operation near Taiwan as compliant with international law in the face of Chinese protests that the U.S. deliberately was aggravating the geopolitically sensitive situation in the disputed waterway.

Senior Colonel Zhang Chunhui, spokesperson for China's People's Liberation Army Eastern Theater Command, said Thursday that warships and warplanes were dispatched Thursday to monitor U.S. Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyer USS Barry as it sailed near the Taiwan Strait, where Zhang accused the Navy of "seriously undermining the peace and stability of the Taiwan Strait."

Zhang said his forces were "always on high alert" and accused the U.S. of "sending the wrong messages" to those in Taiwan who would seek to officially separate the self-ruling island from the mainland that claims it.

But despite soaring tensions between Washington and Beijing in the region, a Pentagon spokesperson downplayed the incident and others like it.

"You see the rhetoric, but in reality, all of our interactions have been within international norms," the spokesperson told Newsweek, "and we've continued on."

Challenging Chinese claims to the Taiwan Strait, the spokesperson said all U.S. operations "were within international waters, within international law."

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The Arleigh-burke class guided missile destroyer USS Barry (DDG 52) conducts underway operations in the East China Sea, October 10. The warship sailed through the Taiwan Strait in a move that the U.S. considers within international law, but China views as a challenge to its claimed sovereignty over Taiwan. Lieutenant Junior Grade Samuel Hardgrove/USS Barry/U.S. Navy

The encounter was just the latest involving the island at the center of the festering feud between the U.S. and China, who have traded barbs over trade, human rights and territorial disputes in the greater Asia-Pacific region. Among these spats, the Pentagon noted last month in its annual Chinese military power report that "China continues to view the Taiwan issue as the most important and sensitive issue between the United States and China."

As China staged military exercises and sent Y-8 anti-submarine warfare aircraft to repeatedly buzz Taiwan's claimed air defense identification zone, President Tsai Ing-wen and other officials of the breakaway province called for the development and acquisition of greater defenses.

"Taiwan will continue to increase investments in its defense commensurate with the security challenges it faces," Andrew Yang, spokesperson of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in New York, told Newsweek earlier this week.

He mentioned the U.S. specifically as a partner to ward off a potential Chinese incursion.

"Taiwan will also seek security cooperation with the United States to build its defense systems that are cost-effective but lethal enough to make any invasions painful."

Newsweek then confirmed through a U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee aide, a congressional aide and a source familiar with the situation that Washington lawmakers received information notifications of the sale of three U.S. weapons systems to Taiwan.

The equipment in question was said to include a Lockheed Martin-developed multiple launch weapon called the M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket System, Boeing-made long-range air-to-surface cruise missiles called SLAM-ER and external sensor pods for F-16 fighter jets.

Responding to the news, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian lashed out Wednesday at growing U.S. ties to Taiwan, with which Washington broke off official relations in favor of Beijing more than four decades ago.

"The United States has seriously violated the one-China principle, and the provisions of the three China-U.S. joint communiqués, especially the August 17 communique," Zhao said, "by selling arms to Taiwan, seriously interfered in China's internal affairs and seriously harmed China's sovereignty and security interests."

He urged the U.S. to halt such sales immediately and warned China had in store a "legitimate and necessary reaction in the light of the development of the situation."

Zhao reiterated his point on Wednesday, telling reporters, "China consistently opposes U.S. arms sales to Taiwan."

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Forces of the People's Liberation Army Eastern Theater Command conduct landing drills in a still from this footage posted October 15. The Eastern Theater Command is the primary force tasked with preparing to potentially reunify Taiwan with the mainland by force. Eastern Theater Command/Chinese People's Liberation Army

And the U.S. has challenged Chinese regional claims elsewhere as well, especially across the South China Sea, where Chinese forces have built island bases and reclaiming land at sea to enforce claims to the region.

The Beijing-based South China Sea Probing Initiative recently told Newsweek that "the situation is escalating, mostly because of power competition and maritime disputes."

The monitor, which regularly tracks U.S. military movements in the region, warned "the risk of China-U.S. conflict is rising."

But the U.S. has remained resolute in projecting its power here. On Thursday, Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan entered the South China Sea for the third time this year.

"Throughout our deployment, we continue our long tradition demonstrating the United States' commitment to the lawful use of the seas and maintaining open access to the international commons," Navy Rear Admiral George Wikoff, commander Ronald Reagan Carrier Strike Group, said in a statement.

"The focus of our operations has always been, and will continue to be, cooperation alongside our Indo-Pacific allies and partners in promoting regional stability," he added.

china, map, territory, disputes, land, sea
A map shows a selected series of China's territorial disputes in the region as of January 1. U.S. Department of Defense