The US Navy could still send an aircraft carrier through the Taiwan Strait in spite of Chinese military technology advances which pose a greater threat to American warships than ever before, the US chief of naval operations has said.
Such an operation would inevitably increase the risk of military conflict between the world's largest superpowers, which are currently locked in an escalating trade war and ongoing disputes over territorial claims in the South China Sea.
Washington sent ships through the strategic waterway, which separates Taiwan from the Chinese mainland, three times last year, but has not dispatched a carrier in more than 10 years.
During that time, China has modernised its forces with missiles specifically designed to strike enemy ships.
“We don’t really see any kind of limitation on whatever type of ship could pass through those waters,” Admiral John Richardson told reporters in Tokyo, Japan, when asked if more advanced Chinese weapons posed too large a risk.
“We see the Taiwan Strait as another [stretch of] international waters, so that’s why we do the transits.”
Aircraft carriers, which are typically equipped with around 80 aircraft and crews of around 5,000 personnel, are key to the US military’s ability to project power globally.
Admiral Richardson, who visited China before travelling to Japan, said he told his Chinese counterparts the US was opposed to any unilateral action by Beijing or Taipei.
He also urged China to stick to internatioanl rules during unplanned naval encounters.
The request came after a Chinese destroyer approached the USS Decatur in October and forced it to change course as it challenged Chinese territorial claims in the contested South China Sea during a freedom of navigation operation (FONOP).
“We have made this very clear that this was an excursion, a departure from the normal adherence to those rules and we would hope that behaviour in the future would be much more consistent,” Admiral Richardson said.
“We should not see each other as a threatening presence in these waters.”
The US Navy continues to send warships through waters in the South China Sea that Beijing considers its territory.
Last week, a US guided-missile destroyer sailed within 12 nautical miles of a Chinese-occupied island in the South China Sea, prompting Beijing to complain it had “gravely infringed upon China’s sovereignty”.
China claims almost all of the strategic waterway, through which around $3trn (£2.3trn) of shipborne trade passes each year. Competing claims have been made by Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei and Taiwan.
It has threatened to further fortify its military installations on artificial islands and reefs amid escalating tensions with the US.
Additional reporting by Reuters