US officials, meanwhile, have vowed Washington would stay the course and Chinese bullying tactics would be challenged.
It was the first time in at least four years that the US Navy had sent two cruisers to the strait, said Collin Koh, a researcher at Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, which maintains a transit database.
“Having two ships instead of the usual one to carry out this mission is certainly a ‘bigger’ signal of protest not only against Beijing’s recent military exercises around Taiwan after Pelosi’s visit, but also in response to Beijing’s attempt to overturn the legal status of the waterway and the long-standing freedom of navigation rights in the region,” Koh said.
That the American warships made the transit on Sunday was no surprise. They have made dozens of such trips in recent years, and US officials had said the transits would continue.
What surprised analysts was Beijing’s muted response.
The Chinese army’s Eastern Theater Command said it was monitoring the two ships, maintaining high alert and was “ready to thwart any provocation”.
Even the public tabloid Global Times, known for its often chauvinistic and staunchly nationalistic editorials, said the presence of the two cruisers posed “no real threat to China’s security”.
Earlier this month, China’s Ambassador to Washington, Qin Gang, called on the United States to halt naval transits, saying they are heightening tensions and emboldening “Taiwan separatist forces.”
“If there is a move that undermines China’s territorial integrity and sovereignty, China will react,” Qin told reporters in Washington in response to a question about possible upcoming transits.
Koh, the analyst, noted Beijing’s relatively subdued statements on Sunday.
“Why didn’t the Chinese go above and beyond this given their previous strong opposition to Washington’s stated intention to continue such transits?” he said, offering three possible factors.
First, Beijing may be wary of ‘international backfire’, as any attempt to restrict US Navy navigation through the strait could be seen as a threat to the rights of ships from other countries to use the waterway. navigable.
Second, after Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, Beijing suspended key military communication channels with Washington, increasing the risk of misunderstandings in any interaction between the PLA Navy and the US Navy.
Third, there are other areas in which Washington and Beijing cooperate, and China may not want to strain them, Koh said.
“It doesn’t make sense to cause further heightened tensions that can potentially escalate into confrontation,” he said.
Carl Schuster, former director of operations for the Joint Intelligence Center at US Pacific Command in Hawaii, suggests a fourth possibility.
“I think (Chinese leader Xi Jinping) is going to steer clear of any action that might bolster the chances of Republicans and other Chinese hawks in the next election. He doesn’t want a House and Senate that could enact legislation which more strongly supports Taiwan, or limits Chinese investment and influence in the United States,” Schuster said.
In the meantime, he said, the use of two cruisers in the last transit of the strait might not be seen so much as a statement, but as reasonable military planning.
“Given the threats from China and recent missile strikes in international waters … it seems prudent for two warships to transit these waters together,” Schuster said.
And expect the US Navy to continue business as usual with regular transits of the strait, he said.
“Under international law, these are international waters and so there is no formal dispute over its status,” he said. “U.S. Navy Transit makes this statement quietly and effectively.”
This story has been updated with additional information regarding China’s claims to the Taiwan Strait.