7th Fleet Ships Transit Taiwan Strait amid Security, Trade Tensions with China

The guided-missile destroyer USS Mustin leads the guided-missile cruiser USS Antietam, the USS Curtis Wilbur and the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force ship JS Fuyuzuki during the MultiSail exercise, March 14, 2018. (SARAH MYERS/U.S. NAVY)
The guided-missile destroyer USS Mustin leads the guided-missile cruiser USS Antietam, the USS Curtis Wilbur and the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force ship JS Fuyuzuki during the MultiSail exercise, March 14, 2018. (SARAH MYERS/U.S. NAVY)

The Navy sailed two Japan-based ships through the Taiwan Strait on Monday amid ongoing tensions over freedom of navigation in the western Pacific and political strains over trade with China.

The cruiser USS Antietam and the destroyer USS Curtis Wilbur each sailed from south to north, CNN reported, along the waterway separating mainland China from Taiwan.

"USS Curtis Wilbur and USS Antietam conducted a routine Taiwan Strait Transit on October 22, in accordance with international law," Cmdr. Nate Christensen, a spokesman for the Hawaii-based U.S. Pacific Fleet, told CNN.

Two U.S. defense officials also told CNN that multiple Chinese warships followed the Yokosuka-based 7th Fleet ships at a safe distance.

China considers Taiwan a province of the mainland and officials have stated over the years that the democratic island's continued self-rule cannot continue indefinitely. Taiwan receives support and defense funding from the United States in line with a 1979 bilateral agreement.

Although the U.S. and most nations consider much of the 110-mile Taiwan Strait to be international waters, transiting there has long been a source of tension for Beijing. In 1996, China conducted a series of missile tests nearby a small Taiwan-controlled island as a show of strength, after Beijing's government accused Taiwan of independence sentiments in the runup to a presidential election on the island.

In response, the U.S. sent two aircraft carrier groups through the Taiwan Strait. Since that time, China has rapidly modernized its naval forces and begun its own carrier program. China has also constructed artificial islands atop submerged reefs in the South China Sea and placed weapons and aircraft on them. Chinese ships have used force and coercion to prevent access to islands in the region claimed by smaller nations, U.S. officials have repeatedly said.

In July, the Navy sent the 7th Fleet destroyers USS Mustin and USS Benfold into the straits for what Pacific Fleet officials described as a "routine transit." The transit was the first since July 2017.

The operations also come as Beijing and Washington spar over billions of dollars in recently announced tariffs. The U.S. has also accused China of engaging in cyberattacks against the U.S. government and businesses.

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