China is taking aggressive new actions in the Taiwan Strait, escalating Beijing’s routine harassment in the international waterway at a low point in diplomatic relations between Beijing and Washington.
U.S. officials and experts say confrontations between Chinese and American military planes and ships in the region are unavoidable, but the instance of a Chinese warship overtaking a U.S. destroyer earlier this week in the Strait is almost unprecedented.
“In the Taiwan Strait, it certainly is new,” said Bonnie Glaser, managing director of the German Marshall Fund’s Indo-Pacific program.
“Maybe this has been happening in the South China Sea, but in the Taiwan Strait, the Chinese generally shadow U.S. ships, they get on the comms and tell them to leave — but I know of no prior case of that kind of dangerous maneuver.”
In a video of the incident, the Chinese naval ship overtakes the U.S. destroyer and crosses the bow with 150 yards between the ships, according to U.S. Indo-Pacific Command.
Experts say it’s unclear why China decided to carry out such a provocation — whether they were reacting to U.S. support for Taiwan, attempting to distract from domestic troubles, or peacocking during a high-profile defense summit in the region.
“Fundamentally, this is really about power and political signaling,” said Peter Dutton, professor with the Stockton Center for International Law at the U.S. Naval War College.
“The Chinese know the law, they understand the collision regulations, they understand exactly what they’re doing, so it’s unusual in the sense that they are engaging in dangerous behavior in order to send political and power-base signals.”
Tensions between the U.S. and China have flared in recent months — over the U.S. shooting down a Chinese spy balloon and Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif) meeting with Taiwan’s president — and show little sign of improving.
President Biden is pushing for Chinese President Xi Jinping to establish predictable channels of communication that continue to operate even as unexpected crises upend the relationship — such as air and naval confrontations in the disputed South China Sea.
Beijing has responded to some efforts by the U.S. and stonewalled others. CIA Director William Burns traveled to China in May, a U.S. official confirmed to The Hill, and talked about “the importance of maintaining open lines of communication in intelligence channels” with his Chinese counterparts.
But China Defense Minister Li Shangfu rejected outreach by Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin to hold a meeting on the sidelines of the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore last week.
The confrontation between the Chinese naval vessel and the U.S. warship, which was sailing in tandem with a Canadian warship, occurred while Austin and Li were delivering dueling speeches to the conference.
Austin reiterated calls for dialogue to keep confrontations from spiraling into conflict. Li told the audience to “mind your own business.”
“For China we always say … take good care of your own vessels, your fighter jets, take good care of your own territorial airspace and waters. If that is the case, then I do not think there will be future problems,” he said when pressured to answer questions at the conference a day after reports came out of China’s unsafe maneuvers in the Strait.
The U.S. conducts monthly transits through the Taiwan Strait, Glaser said, which makes this confrontation so unusual.
“The two things that were the potential provocations were the timing of the Shangri-La Dialogue and the inclusion of the Canadian ship,” she said.
The seas of the Taiwan Strait stretch about 100 miles wide from China’s east coast and Taiwan’s west coast, with each country claiming control of the 12 nautical miles that extend out from their shores.
China, as part of its claims of sovereignty over Taiwan, also claims control over the territorial waters extending from the island, but this has long been rhetorical, said a former senior intelligence official, who called the June 3 naval confrontation “really surprising,” adding “I actually think it’s unprecedented.”
The official said the Chinese started shifting their language over the past couple of years to more firmly assert sovereignty over both sides of the Taiwan Strait. In 2022, the Chinese Foreign Ministry said it is a “false claim” to call the strait “international waters.”
“They’re kind of splitting a legal or rhetorical hair here,” the former official said.
“They’re not denying that the center of the Taiwan Strait is an international waterway. But they’re saying that it’s an international passage between two sovereign parts of China. … I think what we saw this week might be the first time they’ve tried to actually assert that on the waters with a naval vessel.”