A US warship has sailed through the Taiwan Strait in a move certain to anger Beijing as the two countries trade barbs over the coronavirus.
The US Pacific Fleet sent a tweet on Thursday confirming the USS McCampbell, a guided missile destroyer, had transited the strait a day earlier. Taiwan’s defense ministry said the vessel was on a “routine mission” through the waterway separating the self-ruling island from the Chinese mainland.
Beijing and Washington have traded barbs over the origin of the coronavirus, with President Donald Trump angering Beijing by calling it the “China virus.” Senior Chinese officials have also spread conspiracy theories about the virus’ origin.
The ship’s passage comes at a time of thus heightened political tensions between the US and China – and after Beijing has repeatedly buzzed Taiwan with military jets and ships despite the global COVID-19 pandemic.
Anger is rising on the self-ruled democratic island that Taiwan has had to scramble its own fighter jets in response to recent Chinese maneuvers, which are designed to show that Beijing’s military might remains unbowed by the health crisis.
The tactic is winning few friends among the Taiwanese.
“As the world grapples with the severity of the Covid-19 pandemic, China’s military maneuvers around Taiwan have continued unabated,” President Tsai Ing-wen said in a tweet late Tuesday accompanied by pictures of her visiting troops.
“Whether it’s national defense or preventing the spread of disease, our armed forces remain as vigilant as ever,” she added.
Beijing has ramped up drills around the island since Tsai was first elected in 2016 because she refuses to acknowledge its concept that Taiwan is part of “one China.”
There has been little let up during the devastating coronavirus outbreak that began in China.
Taipei’s defense ministry said four “targeted” drills have been conducted by China near its borders this year, which it said was “concrete evidence of provocations and threats”.
Taiwan ran an exercise with its own F16 fighter jets on Tuesday in response.
“China continues the drills to show to the world, as well as to assure its people, that it has maintained military strength and defense abilities in the midst of an epidemic,” Lin Ying-yu, a military analyst at National Chung Cheng University, told AFP.
The incursions have sparked outbursts on Taiwanese social media with some posts even calling for Chinese jets to be shot down.
“I firmly support government to contain the outbreak of the China/Wuhan pneumonia and resist the harassment of the communists’ military,” read one message left on Tsai’s Facebook page.
A Chinese military jet briefly crossed the median line separating the two sides in February, less than a month after Tsai was re-elected in a landslide.
The coronavirus has killed more than 3,000 people in China. But despite its close proximity, Taiwan has just 235 cases and two deaths.
The island has been held up as a model for how to respond to the pandemic, even though Beijing ensures it is frozen out of global bodies such as the World Health Organization.
“Taiwan is recognised internationally for its epidemic prevention that shows democratic Taiwan is beating authoritarian China and this is unacceptable for China,” said Wang Ting-yu, a lawmaker in Tsai’s ruling party.
China has lashed out at Taiwan for “using the outbreak to promote independence” because Taipei has signed bilateral agreements with countries, including the US, on epidemic prevention and also sought to join the WHO.
Beijing still claims the island as part of its territory awaiting reunification, by force if necessary, even though the two sides have been ruled separately for more than seven decades.
The Taiwan Strait is a flashpoint waterway for the world’s navies. China views any passage through the strait as a breach of its sovereignty. The US and many other nations say it is an international waterway and Washington regularly carries out so-called “freedom of navigation” operations to press the point.
In January, Tsai was re-elected for a second term with a landslide against an opposition that favoured warmer ties with Beijing.
China sent its first domestically built aircraft carrier, the Shandong, through the Taiwan Strait in December just weeks before the election.
Beijing’s only other carrier, the Liaoning, has passed through the strait several times in recent years.