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US Navy ships pass through Taiwan Strait amid tensions with China

US Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) (L) talks with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) during a rally with fellow Democrats before voting on H.R. 1, or the People Act, on the East Steps of the US Capitol on March 08, 2019 in Washington, DC. (AFP photo)
The Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Curtis Wilbur (DDG 54) participates in a close quarters maneuvering exercise on February 28, 2018 in the Philippine Sea. (Photo by AFP)

The US Navy has sent two ships through the strategic Taiwan Strait, in a move that is likely to aggravate Washington’s already-high tensions with China, which views the self-ruled island as part of its territory.

According to a US military statement, the naval destroyer USS Curtis Wilbur and the Coast Guard cutter Bertholf sailed through the strait in “a routine transit” on Sunday.

“The ships’ transit through the Taiwan Strait demonstrates the US commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific,” said the statement. “The US will continue to fly, sail and operate anywhere international law allows.”

The US -- like almost all world countries -- recognizes Chinese sovereignty over Taiwan under the “One China” policy, but it has long courted Taipei in an attempt to counter Beijing.

China has not yet reacted to the US Navy’s latest transit through the waterway, but it usually responds with anger to such moves and urges Washington to respect the “One China” policy.

On the contrary, Taipei views such US military measures as a sign of support amid its tensions with mainland China.

The island’s Defense Ministry said it monitored the US ships, which passed through the Taiwan Strait from the southwest and proceeded in a northerly direction. Nothing unusual was observed and there was no cause for alarm, it added.

The developments come as Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen, who is on a tour of diplomatic allies in the Pacific, will stop over in the US state of Hawaii on her way home this week.

Last week, China called on the US not to allow Tsai to stop over in the country, saying it had lodged “stern representations” over the plan.

“We have consistently and resolutely opposed the United States or other countries which have diplomatic relations with China arranging this kind of transit,” said Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang.

The US, however, claimed her stopover would be “private and unofficial.”

Washington has no formal diplomatic relations with Taipei by law, but remains the island’s largest weapons supplier and an international backer of the Tsai government. According to the Pentagon, Washington has sold Taiwan more than $15 billion in weaponry since 2010.

China, which has long suspected that Tsai wants to push for formal independence, regularly warns that Taiwan is the most sensitive issue in its ties with Washington. Other sticking points in Beijing-Washington ties include a trade war as well as China’s territorial claims in the resource-rich South China Sea.

Last year, US President Donald Trump signed legislation, known as the Taiwan Travel Act, into law, which allows high-level Taiwanese officials to enter America “under respectful conditions” to meet with US officials, while American officials from all levels would be allowed to travel to the island to meet their Taiwanese counterparts.

The Tsai government has lost several allies since she took office in 2016. The West African state of Burkina Faso, the Dominican Republic, Sao Tome and Principe, Panama and El Salvador are among those who cut ties with Taipei and established relations with Beijing instead.

Chinese President Xi Jinxing warned earlier this year the use of force would remain an option for Beijing to bring Taiwan back under Chinese control.

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