US sails 2 ships through Taiwan Strait ahead of trade talks in Beijing

The United States sailed two ships through the Taiwan Strait, Sunday, in an operation that comes as top officials from the Trump administration prepare to travel to Beijing for high-level trade talks.

The US Navy destroyer, the USS Curtis Wilbur, and the US Coast Guard cutter, USCGC Bertholf, “conducted a routine Taiwan Strait transit March 24-25 (local time) in accordance with international law,” the Navy’s Seventh fleet said in a statement.

“The ships’ transit through the Taiwan Strait demonstrates the US commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific,” Cdr. Clay Doss, a spokesman for the Navy’s Seventh Fleet told CNN in a statement.

The US also sailed two ships through the strait in February and January.

The Trump administration has sought to make the Taiwan Strait transits more routine, with the operations now taking place on a monthly basis. Prior to July, the transits occurred only about once a year.

The approximately 110-mile-wide strait, which separates the People’s Republic of China and Taiwan, is seen as a potential geopolitical flashpoint should Beijing ever seek to take the island of Taiwan by force.

Beijing continues to lay claim to Taiwan, a self-governed, democratic island that China views as a breakaway province. The two have been separated since the end of a bloody civil war in 1949.

While the strait constitutes international waters, China is thought to be very sensitive about the presence of US military forces there.

In an exclusive interview with CNN last month, Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen said the military threat posed by China was growing “every day” in line with a more assertive foreign policy under its President Xi Jinping.

While the US does not formally recognize Taiwan as an independent country it does maintain close relations with the island, a relationship defined by the Taiwan Relations act which was signed into law by President Jimmy Carter in April of 1979.

The act says that “the United States will make available to Taiwan such defense articles and defense services in such quantity as may be necessary to enable Taiwan to maintain a sufficient self-defense capabilities,” and the US has sold Taiwan a series of arms packages over the years, sales that are strongly protested by Beijing.

Trump administration officials have hinted that additional arms sales to Taiwan could soon take place.

Peter Navarro wrote in an op-ed in the New York Times last week that, “Taiwan may soon buy 108 Abrams tanks” and other officials have said that Taiwan could soon announce plans to purchase F-16 fighter jets.

Observers see both sets of military equipment as likely to anger Beijing.

The transit also comes the day after the White House announced that US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer and Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin would travel to China in an effort to resolve a long running trade dispute.

“Principal-level meetings starting on March 28 to continue negotiations aimed at improving the trade relationship between the United States and China,” White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders said in a statement Saturday.