While Eyes Are On The Middle East, The US Navy Has Been Staring Down China Near Taiwan

(U.S. Army photo by Spc. Perla Alfaro)

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Micaela Burrow Investigative Reporter, Defense
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The Navy has positioned military assets near Taiwan in recent weeks to send a message of support as tensions with China promise to increase, according to multiple reports.

While U.S. Naval assets have been actively shooting down Houthi-launched drones and missiles in the Red Sea at a breakneck pace over the previous month, the Navy’s presence in the western Pacific is increasingly important, experts and U.S. officials said. In March, Navy ships were glued to areas where Chinese military vessels conducted intense drills and stepped up aggression against Taiwanese citizens and territory long viewed as an integral part of China and target for takeover, according to media reports.

“Over the Easter Holiday a significant naval presence was visible near a long standing flashpoint — the South China Sea,” Brent Sadler, a former Navy officer and senior researcher at the Heritage Foundation, said in a social media post on Tuesday. Low-intensity conflict on the seas could increase in the spring, he predicted.

“During this dangerous decade this naval presence in this decisive theater is right,” Sadler said, referring to U.S. naval activity in the region. (RELATED: Navy Requests Nearly $93 Million In Missile Funding As It Rapidly Expends Stocks To Repel Houthi Attacks)

In early March, the U.S. Arleigh-Burke class guided missile class destroyer USS John Finn conducted a “routine south-to-north Taiwan Strait transit” on March 5, the Navy’s 7th Fleet said in a statement.

“There is a corridor of waters through the Taiwan Strait that lies beyond the territorial sea of any coastal state. In that corridor, no state enjoys sovereignty and all nations enjoy high seas freedoms of navigation, overflight, and other internationally lawful uses of the sea related to those freedoms,” 7th Fleet spokesperson Lt. Col. Kristina Wiedemann told the Daily Caller News Foundation.

The U.S. Navy has maintained a close presence to Taiwan with aircraft carriers, destroyers and ships assigned to the Marine Corps’ so-called Amphibious Ready Group, according to recent reports and press releases.

Aircraft carrier the USS Theodore Roosevelt is steaming in the South China Sea with its aircraft and is accompanied by one cruiser, the USS Lake Erie, and three guided-missile destroyers, the USS John S. McCain, the USS Halsey and the USS Daniel Inouye, according to the U.S. Naval Institute News’ fleet tracker.

While transits and drills in the Philippine, South and East China Seas surrounding Taiwan are not unusual, they come amid heightened tensions with China centered around the Kinmen Islands.

“The security environment is the most dangerous I’ve seen in 40 years in uniform,” outgoing commander of Indo-Pacific Command Adm. John Aquilino told Congress on March 20.

“We haven’t faced a threat like this since World War II,” he added.

On March 18, Chinese state-controlled media announced live-fire military drills had “recently” taken place in the Taiwan Straits, a passage separating mainland China from Taiwan and a hotspot of tension between Beijing and its democratic opponents, according to The New York Times. The drills involved elements from the Air Force and Navy operating under the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Eastern Theater Command working jointly with the China Coast Guard (CCG).

A video from the PLA Navy (PLAN) showed swift corvettes conducting simulated air defense operations with main cannons and close-in weapons systems.

“The cross-service exercise under the Eastern Theater Command came at a time when the CCG has been boosting its law enforcement patrols in the waters near Kinmen” — a Taiwan-controlled island on the frontline of separation with China — “after the fatal February 14 boat incident, in addition to the Democratic Progressive Party authorities’ continued ‘Taiwan independence; attempts and collusions with the US, observers said,” the state-owned Global Times said.

While the PLA did not specify the date of the exercises, they likely took place within the previous weeks, according to the Japanese Defense Ministry’s tracker of PLAN assets in the near Pacific.

The Chinese coast guard stepped up patrols around the Kinmen Islands in February, Reuters reported. Coast Guard vessels trespassed into restricted waters near the islands twice in two days and were warned away in March, the Taiwanese coast guard said, warning such behaviors could increase the chances of security incidents.

Beijing’s coast guard, unlike that of the U.S., operates under military control, the NYT reported.

Aquilino said China has not ruled out the use of force to assimilate the independently-governed island of Taiwan with the mainland, ruled by the Chinese Communist Party.

“China would absolutely like to assimilate Taiwan without a war. And that is evident by their increasingly aggressive, coercive campaign against Taiwan, increasingly deploying ships in the vicinity, crossing the center line with their air assets, entering their [air defense identification zone] with their aircraft,” he said.

PLA aerial trespasses of Taiwan’s air defense identification zone (ADIZ) skyrocketed back up to late 2023 levels, data shows.

The largest ADIZ violation of 2024 occurred March 20, according to a tracker compiled by researchers for the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ ChinaPower Project, with 20 aircraft identified in total.

The U.S. Navy has conducted two transits of the Taiwan Strait so far in 2024, Wiedemann confirmed to the DCNF. That follows eight in 2023, nine the year prior and 12 in 2021.

“The U.S. Navy conducts Taiwan Strait transits to demonstrate the United States’ commitment to upholding lawful use of the sea for all nations as a principle,” Wiedemann said, adding that American vessels operate in accordance with internationally-recognized laws on the high seas.

“We oppose any attempt to unilaterally change the status quo and undermine the rules-based international order that undergirds the security, stability and freedom of the Indo-Pacific. No member of the international community should be intimidated or coerced into giving up their rights and freedoms,” Wiedemann said.

U.S. ships and aircraft routinely interact with those belonging to other nations, she said, without getting into specifics about the Roosevelt’s proximity to any PLAN or coast guard assets during the most recent transit of the Taiwan Strait.

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