A US destroyer, USS Benfold, in the Taiwan Strait. Photo: US Navy

The US Navy has been conducting increasingly regular transits of the Taiwan Strait amid growing economic and military acrimony between the United States and China. The Trump administration has sought to make visits to the sensitive waters more routine, with the operations now taking place on a regular basis.

The approximately 180-kilometer-wide strait that separates China and Taiwan is seen as a potential geopolitical flashpoint should Beijing ever seek to take the island of Taiwan by force. The policy of American navy vessels transiting through the strait is intended to demonstrate commitment by the United States to a free and open Indo-Pacific.

Taiwan is one of a growing number of hindrances to Sino-American relations. These include a bitter trade dispute, US sanctions and China’s increasingly muscular military posture in the South China Sea, where the United States also conducts freedom-of-navigation operations that include transits of the Taiwan Strait.

The most recent passage through the strait, which took place on May 22 and was conducted by the guided-missile destroyer USS Preble and the navy oil tanker Walter Diehl, marked the fifth such transit in 2019. Prior to last July, such transits typically occurred only about once a year.

USS Preble (DDG-88) is an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer. The Preble was developed to protect aircraft carriers or other battle groups and carries three types of missiles, two types of torpedoes, a five-inch gun and a high-tech Gatling gun. The Taiwan Strait is only one of many regions the versatile Preble has served over the past year, during which it also sailed near the disputed Scarborough Shoal claimed by China in the South China Sea.

What distinguishes the Preble is its state-of-the-art Aegis combat system. This features the US Navy’s most advanced radar, which can scan in all directions simultaneously and track hundreds of aircraft and missiles from sea level to the stratosphere. In the vessel’s Combat Information Center, computers sift through data and can automatically fire weapons to counter incoming attacks. With its all-steel frame, the destroyer is designed to withstand heavy incoming fire, and its extensive topside armor protects vital combat systems and machinery.

Although the US Indo-Pacific Command currently has more than 2,000 aircraft, 200 ships and submarines, and more than 370,000 personnel at its disposal, this is not enough for the Pentagon, and the US military intends to engage partners from other countries. The Pentagon places particular emphasis on South Korea, Australia and Taiwan. Recent Pentagon shows of force have included the deployment of an aircraft carrier and an amphibious assault ship. Of all its military assets, the navy is the United States’ most visible deterrent.

Despite the drama of the past few months, for the sailors transiting the strait, it has been business as usual. On a searing hot day this May, the Preble conducted a routine transit of the strait in the company of a supply ship, the USNS Walter Diehl. The Preble clipped along at a speed of 32 knots, passing traditional cargo ships, wooden dhows, and oil tankers.

The temperature in the strait was hovering around 32 degrees Celsius, but on the deck, the thermometer hit 38 degrees. Even with the ever-present tension in the strait, the immediate challenge to more than 410 crew members is the heat and humidity. I have never seen a group of people work so hard to make the most of what they had.

Although the US Navy has conducted such freedom of navigation operations all over the world for nearly 40 years, recent forays in the South China Sea and Taiwan Strait have generated unprecedented publicity due to the ongoing friction with China. But for the moment, it remains routine for the crew members of vessels like the USS Preble. Long may it remain so.

Kent Wang

Kent Wang is a research fellow at the Institute for Taiwan-America Studies (ITAS), a conservative Washington-based think-tank focusing on aspects of US-Taiwan relations, and is broadly interested in the United States-Taiwan-China trilateral equation, as well as in East Asian security architecture.

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